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The Weird And Wonderful World of Peter Knaggs

A great review of Peter Knaggs’ “You’re so vain (you probably think this book is about you)” by Dick Ockleton in Dream Catcher Magazine. 

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It’s not every day you come across a poem with the title “Scunthorpe Police Swoop on Lunatic Bean Fetish Man”, but by the time you reach page 72 of Peter Knaggs’ “You’re so vain” collection, it doesn’t seem anything out of the ordinary. “Normal for Knaggs”, you might say.

You know you are in for something different from the off. The arresting cover – a face formed from a pair of scissors, a comb and a button, should seem harmless enough, but there is something unnervingly fierce about it and the significance of those bloody (literally) scissors comes back to haunt you.
Page by page, Knaggs has the ability to surprise, intrigue, amuse, sadden and shock in equal measure and it makes for an oddly addictive collection. You really do want to know what happens next. The accessible style of these pithy, cleverly crafted pieces keeps you turning the pages.
Knaggs’ gritty, witty poems take you on a journey through a world populated by meticulously observed and totally believable ordinary people, just trying to get by on a day to day basis. You are introduced to their shortcomings, their labours, their hopes, their dreams and their frequent disappointments. They just keep at it, ever more inventive in their efforts to keep their heads above water by whatever means, be it working in unrewarding jobs, lawbreaking, fighting, practical-joking, conning. And, now and again, the odd murder is dropped into the mix – quite literally in the case of an adulterous trapeze artist. Those scissors also make a couple of appearances, broken and sinister.
They are a motley bunch, Bobby, Billy, Ox, Banana Dave, Arnie, Stiggy and the rest. You join their lunch breaks and eavesdrop on their conversations. The author’s acutely-observed scenarios and quirky fine detail (“White bread impressed with grey fingertips like dabs down the nick”) put you right there with the characters. You could perhaps warm to some of these lads, but you definitely wouldn’t want to meet Gasher on a dark night.
But the hapless, ever-optimistic Crusoe is the star of the show. He appears as a steady thread running through the book. There is more to Crusoe than meets the eye. Stuck in an unhappy marriage, too scared of his wife’s brothers to get out, he “sometimes wants God to give him his receipt so he can take his whole life back and get a refund”. Even his own mouse traps attack him. Crusoe has firm opinions on what does not constitute modern art, and is meticulous about cleaning his van. He is on a relentless (so far unsuccessful) quest for self-improvement, but has also been known to “moon” in Macdonald’s. His frequent appearances and obviously sympathetic treatment might lead you to the conclusion that he is the narrator’s best mate.
Recurring themes of poverty, law-breaking and tediously stupid, incompetent bosses, are lightened by moments of joy and release. There is a character who goes up on the roof in all weathers to escape – “it’s the quietness, the otherness, the being above”. There are “boisterous shirts” which apparently make the wearers irresistible to the opposite sex – or is that just the beer talking? Even the relentless bashing of inept managers is punctuated by a couple of moments of (almost) sympathy for their situation. The ongoing fight between the “Devil” and “God”, or the pitying parallel drawn between a boss and an old library book that nobody wants to borrow.
But now and again you are brought down to earth with a bump. The gnawing poignancy of a woman who dies, alone, with “two losing lottery tickets in her purse”, or the helplessness and horror of a football stadium tragedy.
And then there are moments of pure whimsy – a relationship with a mermaid, or a “Clockwork Orange” style over-luxurious use of language to describe the gluttonous “Badger the Cadger”. You can almost hear the slobbering.
This collection is a pick and mix of real lives. It takes you through the highs and lows and it makes you stop and think. Never boring, it crackles with originality. The wry wit keeps going right through to the end, with the final poem’s take on being hard up – directions given to an imaginary bargain hunter on how to navigate by a succession of “Pound shops” to reach the ultimate goal – a shop that sells everything for 10p – Paradise!
All in all, a refreshing read.

Dick Ockleton

 

Subscribe to Dream Catcher here: http://www.dreamcatchermagazine.co.uk

TALKING DOORSTEPS – BLOG ENTRY #4

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Wrecking Ball Press have teamed up with The Roundhouse and the BBC in a global project that will see Hull performance poet Joe Hakim travel to Trinidad & Tobago. Talking Doorsteps is for spoken word artists aged 16-25yrs and offers an accessible and interactive physical and digital community to share and platform work centered on the theme of HOME. Starting from next week, Joe will be observing and participating in workshops with young Caribbean poets before returning home and working with young Hull poets, then bringing the two artistic communities together for a performance in September as part of the “Contains Strong Language” Poetry Festival, which will be programmed by the BBC and Wrecking Ball Press. Joe will be writing daily blog entries so we can follow his progress. Here’s the fourth instalment:

 

At this point I have to give a couple of shout-outs to some great people.

Marcia Guerrera at the Cafe Mariposa is amazing. Not only does she cook for us, clean up after us and serenade us at breakfast, but she is also a font of local knowledge. She’s able to point at a bird and tell you what species it is. She can give you a quick rundown about local history, give you practical advice about what to do and where to go to get whatever you may need, and she’s just a wonderful human being who welcomed us with open arms.

I’d also like to thank Ariana. Not only is she participating in the workshops and working full-time, but she’s also made time to ferry us about as well. Plus, her Dad gave me a lesson in how to dance. She’s a truly beautiful person, and she has a truly beautiful family.

So today, Monday (I think it’s Monday… yeah Monday … turns out jet-lag makes you as confused about the days of the week as Christmas) marked our first trip into a Trinidad school. This was something that I was particularly nervous about. Late last year, my friends and partners in crime LIFE invited me to tag along and perform with them on a few dates on the UK leg of their European tour. But the nerves I experienced getting ready to go on stage at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire paled in comparison to what I felt as we rolled up to the gates of the San Fernando Secondary School. Luckily, I was with Debris, whose professionalism and experience in these situations worked wonders as a calming influence. Debris Stevenson exudes and transmits energy and has that rare ability to influence an environment just by being present within it. When someone has travelled to and performed in 23 different countries, you just know that they have something special to give and that they’re prepared for every eventuality.

I don’t know exactly why I find performing in front of kids so nerve-wracking. I think it has to do with the fact that I credit kids and young people with having extraordinarily well-tuned bullshit detectors. You can’t blag it, because they’ll sniff out insincerity the same way a pig sniffs out a truffle.

Jean Claude, our man in Trinidad, the 2 Cents guru, and the guy who set up our school appearances, led us into the hallway. We were set to perform in front of the school’s spoken word club (yeah, a spoken word club – how amazing is that?) so we took to the stage. As I said earlier, Debris has worked in situations similar to this all over the world, so I watched her intently. One of the big concerns that I had with this trip was how my work, and more importantly my accent, would carry over to an international audience. Beyond slowing down my delivery a little, I was really worried about the audience just not getting it. I mean, people from other parts of the UK sometimes struggle to fathom out the Hull accent – how the hell would a group of kids from Trinidad manage? Debris assured me that the secret to successfully communicating to an international audience isn’t actually that big a secret; just be honest, tell them who are you are, what you’re about and where you’re coming from, both geographically and in terms of your work.

I decided that the best approach was to confront the accent anxiety head-on. And I’m so glad that I did. Hearing a group of Trinidad school kids repeat: “Er ner, there’s sner on the rerd,” as a means of acclimatising to my accent is one of the highlights – if not the highlight – of my spoken word career. It was beautiful. And once again, I had this wave of emotion hit me. I’m a horribly repressed working-class bloke from Yorkshire – just what the hell was Trinidad doing to me?

After the school performance was over we headed back to Cafe Mariposa for the second workshop session with the 2 Cents group. Today’s session was focusing on editing techniques. The workshop was designed as both a means to give the participants a set of tools to carry into their practise beyond the workshops, but also as an exercise to get them working on the poems that Pip would be filming as part of the Talking Doorsteps project. Speaking to the participants, I got the impression that they were all particularly looking forward to this phase of the process, so there was a real buzz in the air.

Debris started the session by placing different prompts on all the tables. The prompts were focused on different aspects of the editing process, things like: What are the specifics of what you’re trying to say? How are you using verbs? How do the nouns affect the poem? What are you trying to communicate to the audience?

We drifted around the room in loose groups, discussing the prompts with each other before reconvening in a circle. We did an exercise where we moved to different parts of the room depending on how we felt about the editing process. One side of the room was “extremely dislike”, the other side “really like”. And then we did the same again, but this time addressing how we felt about others doing it, and then again about how we felt about editing other people’s work. We were then set the task of coming up with three things that we wanted to achieve/communicate with our poems.

After this wrapped up, Debris began to discuss redundancies in poetry. She handed around copies of a Simon Armitage poem, which had been re-edited to include superfluous words, and in groups we had to remove all the words we found redundant, in some cases changing the words entirely.

We then moved on to lineation/realisation. Debris handed round another poem, “Michiko Dead” by Jack Gilbert. This time, the exercise was to look at and discuss the line-breaks in the poem; the visual effect on the page itself, how it affected the reading of it. Immediately following this, she handed round the same poem, this time re-edited into a different structure, with a different set of line-breaks. We discussed what effect changing the structure had: did you read it differently? What were the line-breaks telling us? Were they informing the rhythm of it? Were they little epiphanies that the narrator was experiencing as he moved through the poem? Did they make the meaning of the poem covert or explicit?

It took me a moment to realise what was going on, but when I did, it hit me like a slap in the face. The Trinidad poetry scene is very much a spoken word scene. In fact, at the beginning of the process, one of the participants declared: “I don’t write poetry, I record it.” But here they were, sat round in a circle, discussing form, structure and traditional poetic techniques. If you had said to me at the start of the session we’d have a group of slam poets from Trinidad discussing Simon Armitage poems, I’d have called you a nutter. But there we were. It is the single most effective method for teaching “page” poetry to “stage” poets that I’ve ever seen. I was absolutely dumbstruck.

After the session finished, we were set the task of further refining our poems for the next session and then we all had dinner together. It was great, and for some reason, they all really enjoyed my crap jokes, which did wonders for my frankly fragile ego.

After everyone had left, Debo, Pip and I watched one of the neighbourhood cats grapple with something in the garden. We were about to go investigate, when Marcia informed us that it might be a snake. Marcia helpfully added that Trinidad was home to no less than four different species of venomous snake. It was at this point that a clearly distressed Debo uttered one of the best statements of the trip so far: “Wait, you’re telling me there’s poisonous snakes around here?”

Shortly before retiring, Pip and I went for a little walk. As we made our way around the bloc, we noticed that the cute little stray dogs that seem to be everywhere in Trinidad were forming into packs and following us, growling at first, then barking as they gained confidence. We both started to freak out a little, worried that our stroll was about to turn into a sinister Stephen King story. I could almost see the headlines: “Talking Doorstep project ends in tragedy after savage dog mauling.’” Luckily, it turned out to be a case of bark being worse than bite, and we made it back to Mariposa safely.

Incidentally, my new collection, “Fido was a Psycho’ will be available from Wrecking Ball Press later this year.

Sisters In Spitfires – A Free Poetry & Film Event

 

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Alison Hill & Ian Duhig.  

 Saturday 20 August , 7.30pm

Artlink Community Arts Centre Princes Avenue

Hull

HU5 3QP

TS Eliot Prize nominated poet Alison Hill will read from Sisters in Spitfires (Indigo Dreams, October 2015), her latest collection celebrating the women who flew with the Air Transport Auxiliary during the Second World War.

‘This collection is a real labour of love – a celebration of the unsung heroines of the civilian organisation the ATA … Alison Hill has been meticulous in her research and as a result the women come vividly to life, all of them larger than life characters.’ 

Pippa Little, The Lake

Alison will be joined by Ian Duhig. Ian has won the National Poetry Competition twice, and also the Forward Prize for Best Poem. His collection, The Lammas Hireling, was the Poetry Book Society’s Choice for Summer 2003, and was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and Forward Prize for Best Collection.

We will screen Laura Mulvey’s 1980 film AMY! – an evocative and mesmerising film that enquires into what it means to be a heroine.

‘The film is not so much about Amy the woman as about the power of representations to fix the meaning of events. Amy becomes a legend that can be consumed and her action loses its subversive potential.’

Jane Clarke, Spare Rib.

HOW TO BE A BOMB – LAUNCH NIGHT!

Andy Fletcher will be reading from his collection “How To Be A Bomb” and in conversation with Russ Litten on Wednesday 10th February as part of the Head In A Book series of evenings at Hull Central Lending Library. 

Free event! Starts 7:30pm. 

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