Maria Sledmere reviews Try To Be Better (Prototype, 2019), a new anthology of poetry and art edited by Sam Buchan-Watts and Lavinia Singer, and inspired by the work of W. S. Graham.
> ‘Graham’s relationship to his “drawings” is curious’, Natalie Ferris notes in her essay ‘Water Water Wish You Well’. Ideas of the luminous, wishful and ‘curious’ underpin Prototype Press’ new anthology of works for and in response to W. S. Graham. Try To Be Better is advertised as ‘a multi-disciplinary engagement with the idiosyncratic creative practice of W. S. Graham, foregrounding experiment and process’. There were many events and publications in 2018, marking Graham’s centenary year, but something about this project stands out. The question of how to innovatively engage with another writer’s practice is complicated: for Boiler House Press’ recent anthology for Denise Riley, it was a question of The World Speaking Back…: an open commemoration and reciprocal gifting, an object designed to constantly generate, speak, respond. With Try To Be Better, a compendium of visual materials, poems and nonfiction, the relationship between contributors and Graham’s work might be something more like watercolours seeping through the long-durée of a remarkable oeuvre. Following the editors’ archival work on W. S. Graham, it forms a processual archive of where Graham’s work has led us and might yet lead on. To read it is to eavesdrop, deliciously, on the free associative musings of others.
> Inclined to the notion of draft, sketch and experiment, the anthology asks of us a different mode of reading, one which deals in instinct, play and free-floating spirit. Printed on joyously yellow pages, in full colour with separate encasing booklet, it’s the kind of text you would slide out for a spare minute, something to dip into in flashes. And yet its curation is also exact and lovely. Yellow pages implies index, directory, a place of cross-reference. The kind of intersections and ‘emplacements’ found in Try To Be Better are transient anchorings of voice in language, language in voice, place in time: ‘And almost I am back again’, as Graham writes in his poem ‘Loch Thom’. As its title implies a kind of iterative act towards hope, Try To Be Better demands of its readers many acts of return and yet evolving pleasure. You sense a little magic between the lines, like a notebook always on the brink of being finished, folded over and over, creasing, its pages thickening with ink. Delicious to read; a kind of menu display of materials in full. You can read it in a non-linear, indexical way. You don’t quite know where you might end up. The first time I read it, waiting at the station, I looked up and saw one of its contributors, the poet Callie Gardner, sitting in the window of a passing train. You sense that the anthology was set up for making sparks of connection and coincidence. I had to look twice, as though I’d encountered a glitch — but it really was Callie in the carriage. I alighted the train, even if I got my routes mixed up later.
> The ethos and structure of Try To Be Better is set out in the editors’ introduction: ‘The changeable and tactile design, together with unconventional indexing, aims to reflect a conception of the notebook as a device with a life of its own, prompting further experimentation and collaboration’. Contributors were given prompts, phrases and quotations gleaned from Graham’s notebooks, whose ranging veers between the elliptical and specific. Many of the prompts question the nature of address, the relationship between text and world, the ‘scene’ of writing: ‘I am only practising how to speak and to speak myself out of myself’, ‘I speak out of a hole in my leg’, ‘taking a line for a walk’. An accompanying index of prompts allows you to follow the walk as you will, crossing back and cutting diagonally. I think of the starts, jumps and fits of conversations between poets and artists, teeming with references, diversions and flights of thought. It makes sense to suggest, as the editors do, that Try To Be Better might even serve as ‘a workshop’ in itself. The list of contributor biographies at the back is reflective of this: the anthology bears works from painters, poets, critics, editors, sculptors, a practicing psychoanalyst, graphic designer, essayists, illustrators and book-makers.
> I like to imagine the book somehow summoned Callie, that day in late August, or was it July, when I took it for a walk. And it summoned many other voices, the more I read on, thickening in chorus and bleeding between hues of voice and form and song. ‘Try To Be Better’, apparently Graham’s ‘catchphrase to friends’, makes me think of sheets of paper thickening. Attempts not scrunched and tossed in the trash but layered upon. A strengthening palimpsest of endless experiment, drafts accumulated, failures written over enduringly. And we keep adding watercolour along the edge, letting the colours melt close to the centre, which glows a sweet, yolklike yellow. And we encounter a failure of presence in favour of motional attempt, the work of poetic kinaesthetics: ‘in the water speech acts flail’ (Daisy Lafarge, ‘Notes Toward an Erotics of Wading’). Maybe the page is more like a mesh. It has been erred on so long, catching accidents and planktonic notions! ‘The passage through language, for Graham’, Ferris writes, ‘was like moving through netting. This was a sinuous drawing in space that enacted what his poems explored, an act of disassembly to perceive the glimmer between the gaps’. It’s this glimmer the anthology so beautifully pursues. These are not poems directly to or for the poet himself; Try To Be Better is not a work of collective elegy or commemoration so much as a dynamic workbook for thinking through Graham’s ideas in ongoing response and practice. It is full of slippages, overlaps and resoundings, in tune to Peter Riley’s claim of Graham’s work that ‘[m]ultiple mixed metaphors proliferate until there is no ground whatsoever under the reader’.
> There are resonant flavours of Graham’s work, of course, throughout the anthology. The way a painted scene reveals the process of painting the scene: ‘The snow is everywhere and even a painter / would only see white in it, but I want to use the perfect word’ (Aisha Farr, ‘The Perfect Word’). As though there were a keystone colour or word to unlock the rest, but we learn it is only in the dance, the layering, the texture, the increment of a motional moment: ‘On quiet cloth I see, / Scrawled like first of angel’s script’ (Graham, ‘By Law of Exile’). There is something of an emphasis on ‘craft’, on the visual, sonic and tactile, that runs through all these works. A voice has a vibration, a summoning of or against silence, the performative ‘Wheesht wheest’ that starts and ends Will Harris’ ‘Moon Poem’: ‘This feeling though — the lull I like, / the hum of your valved voice’.
> The move between presence and absence in poetry is another recurring theme, set out in Natalie Pollard’s essay ‘Hide and Seeking with W.S.G.’. Pollar moves between close readings of Graham’s poetry and the work of child psychologist D. W. Winnicott to explore the ‘linguistic games’ that Graham employs to think through ‘adult and childhood fears about being discovered and exposed’. There is a tension between intimacy and distance, past and present, touch and evasion held in Graham’s work that gives rise to Pollard’s assertion that ‘[f]or Graham, a rehearsal is not so much a warm-up activity as the act itself’. This emphasis on performance, draft, the unfinished motion towards is found elsewhere in Try To Be Better. I think of the sections of leg-as-object in Paloma Proudfoot’s series of sculptures, the colours weeping into each other like sedimentary traces of muscle, the body as molten geology. The poem as ‘touch’ and ‘collapse’ of ‘experiential syntax’, a ‘moment’ ‘shucked’ (Nuar Alsadir, ‘Idea — Subject — Love and Myself? What?’). Bobby Dowler’s ‘Painting-Object_03(C0I-I6)’ is an abstract representation of block colour’s material excoriation within black lines that do not always meet. It works with that Graham-like pull to excess in a sigh, a brush lain down, a rolling river. In Ben Sanderson’s ‘Love Apples’, there is more like the tendrilling watercolour motions of the flesh in its gestural, tactile poetics of time: kisses of fruit and sand and sky.
> Such tactile poetics (borrowing this phrase from Sarah Jackson) feel elsewhere extra fleshy. In Tom Betteridge’s ‘Please Don’t Leave Me Away From You Like This’, there is a shucking and flaking of meaning. Parenthesis mark the anatomical conditions for speech, images of ‘blood’ and ‘suture’ implying that the ‘course’ of expression involves a wound, a ‘linty’ trace, a bodily fade: ‘(in live movement and structure the quiet / wound resembles the human larynx)’. What seems self-contained about Betteridge’s poem in fact forms cell-like, fractal association with many other concerns within the collection: the idea of ‘writing / out of a hole in my leg’; the idea of writing as suture, accident, lacing or fold; the idea of writing without mastery, writing as a ‘having died away’ from the object of longing. Speech as a muted potential. It is so easy to misread ‘wound’ for ‘world’, and in so doing to rethink what we mean by ‘quiet’, which is not so much the absence of content in poetry as the pink noise that suffuses and interferes with it.
> Pink noise being the sparkling conditions for poetry as disruptor of reception, perception and comprehension. Peter Riley summarises Graham’s work as ‘a challenge to transmission’, where often ‘sound and vision seem to rule over everything else the poem might bear’. ‘I’m up here / eyes closed’, Lesley Harrison writes in ‘Waiting for the Ferry, Rousay’, an open-field poem formed by self-erasure of the prose-poetic paragraph presented opposite: a process bearing within itself the work of the trace, the stitch, the thread, the bleed into clarity or ‘mist’. In the blank space of Harrison’s poem, we find a walk or a moving plume of breeze and meaning, the act of choosing to abandon or keep, conceal or state. Riley again: ‘the condition of writing, or writing poetry, is itself the total embodiment of this paradoxical theatre of action and suspension’ — the here, the before, the fugitive time between. It is the work of ‘exchange’ that Riley deems the ‘worth’ of Graham’s constructed spaces, those points of meaning’s refusal which ‘cast the poem out into the world’. Try To Be Better happily clutches the yellow highlighter and captures those points of exchange as its swirling raison d’être. Reading, I find myself drawing internal lines and loops, much like the concrete poetics of Lucy Mercer’s ‘Nightdial’.
> What does it mean to think about writing from a ‘hole’ that is not necessarily the mouth, the origin of speech as an act of interpersonal immediacy? To think about writing as the semiotic play between blurs and lines? What other ‘streams’ might we begin to conceptualise in relation to poetry? ‘I / I am / I am practising / I am practising myself’, unfolds Nick Thurston’s ‘How To Speak Myself Out of Myself’. I think of Jane Goldman’s poems, the recurrent, reflexively-disclosing echo of the ‘i-i’. The iterative act of self-reveal as something deferred and material, standing facing the sea to say ‘Here I am’, the horizon of yourself expanding and receding. To speak is a spatial affair:
I know about unkempt places Flying toward me when I am getting ready To pull myself together and plot the place To speak from.
(Graham, ‘Language Ah Now You Have Me’)
What is this knowledge of the wild and myriad that flies towards the subject preparing to speak? An epistemology of mess and tendency, of threads being pulled and lines being drawn: the spatial work of a weave and plot. It is not about the speech, the content, so much as the conditions for speaking, the place spoken from which is freed from person to something more like a texture and geometry of surface. I could write about the declarative strokes of Marianne Røthe Arnesen’s ‘Skelp’ and ‘Pane’, their holding of thickly gooey ochres and cerulean blues against scratchier blacks, peaches and greens. The figurative is replaced by the affective structuring of intensity and gesture, emotive hues held against pale skin tones, the warm and cool in play. I could write about the use of diacritics and experimental punctuation throughout the collection, most notably in Astrid Alben and Zigmunds Lapsa’s ‘Dead Little Rabit’ sequence, where slashes, brackets and asterisks abound, pushing beyond language into the terrain of ‘signal’. A terrain of trauma (‘Like the voice of a loved one who has died / that speaks to us in inaudible consonants’) and wandering beyond human expression, with ‘bioluminescent tendrils bloom[ing]’. I think of Dorothea Lasky’s practice of what Robert Dewhurst calls ‘wild lyric impersonation’, and see hints of it all over this text, shimmering and blinking with ‘insect noises’, colours, interruptions, mirror writing (Oliver Griffin’s ‘This Is The Moment’), conjunctives, glitches. Although Lasky’s veering, deadpan brilliance might seem oddkin to Graham’s more measured, though no-less disclocating, elliptical and often ‘onwards-rushing’, as Peter Riley describes, the affinity lies in that commitment to performance, openness and the smouldering, transformative holding of moments between pain and relief: ‘ingrained / pasts, scarred-cream hazards’ (Denise Riley, ‘A Thing in a Room’).
> I could write and write about Try To Be Better and still there would be so much to write about. I keep looking for metaphors to try to describe it: even the humble work of review plugs us into this ethics of the ‘try’, its self-regenerative aesthetics. Try To Be Better: in its slim rejoinder to the traditional Yellow Pages, there’s the sense that one might traverse these pages over and over in endless unfinishing and potential transmission. To ‘complete’ the reading would miss the point. What we need is something more like a swim or a bleed or stream, a brushing back and forth, a stitch [in time]: a reading within the ‘gash of language’ (Daisy Lafarge, ‘Notes Toward an Erotics of Wading’). Oliver Griffin’s ‘This Is The Moment…’ shows nine photographs of wristwatches worn by ‘my personal friendship circle’: ‘A collection of horology’. Perhaps we might read this work as mise en abyme for the poetry, essays and art of Try To Be Better: a holding of simultaneous interpretations whose moments of encounter lag and defer, push us here and there, click and collect but somehow also flash at once. A horology of Graham’s work, which itself bears the study and measurement of time. Creative response as temporal gesture, a leap, flip or fold backwards and into the future — an existential drama of writing as movement and immersion itself, which leads us, ideally, as the collection does in its final line, ‘right into Hope Street’ (Thomas A. Clark, ‘To W. S. Graham’).
Try To Be Better is out now and available to purchase here, from Prototype Press.
Text: Maria Sledmere