Monday, January 23, 2012

Review: After My Own Heart by Sophia Blackwell

by Sophia Blackwell

Published by Lime House Books

Reviewed by Eric Karl Anderson

Evie Day is a woman in her late twenties who feels like she should be settling down. She has a steady job in public relations and lives with her girlfriend Kate. Independent, proudly queer and slowly making a name for herself as a guitarist/singer she seems settled. Things become unhinged when Evie and Kate accompany their friend to a motivational group that tries to help people find their path in life. The group which is supposed to be inspirational ironically makes Kate break down and later on she admits she’s been having an affair. The couple separate and Evie struggles to overcome her heartbreak and get back on her feet. She meets a beautiful and charismatic burlesque artist and becomes reacquainted with a handsome old friend named Roshan. Desiring both, Evie struggles to figure out who she really wants to be with. Over the course of a difficult year she learns that it’s not necessarily her own misfortunes or sexual confusion which are stopping her from progressing in life the way she wants to. She’s been suppressing feelings of inadequacy largely carried over from childhood and the breakup of her eccentric parents’ marriage. Only when she develops self confidence and security in herself can she begin to build a more stable life.

Sophia Blackwell has written an engaging and meaningful novel that anyone who has ever struggled to find their feet in life will be able to relate to. Set against the backdrop recognizable London scenes, the author writes about the vicissitudes of daily life and the agonizing state of heartache with admirable skill. She excels at depicting small instances of injustice that queer people experience in everyday situations – not necessarily outright homophobia but the niggling assumptions and attitudes of some straight people. A happily married woman Evie meets at a wedding party insists she ought to settle down to be happy. At her job she’s put in the position of promoting a homophobic rapper. Evie is a character who defiantly asserts her opinions as a queer sexually active woman. She states, “People think men are the only ones who can’t resist sex. People are wrong.” This includes a fluid attitude towards sexuality and how labelling one’s sexuality can also be a kind of trap. At one point Evie reflects, “One thing my friends and I all agreed on back then was just how flexible we were about our sexualities, when really we clung to them like life floats.” She trods upon shaky ground with some of her lesbian friends when she begins sleeping with a man. This doesn’t mean she’s not gay. She follows her heart and goes with who she desires. It just takes some time to understand what she really wants. Sophia Blackwell is an established performer and poet who has written an assured debut novel that is a pleasure to read.

Watch an interview with the author here:

After My Own Heart by Sophia Blackwell from Limehouse Books on Vimeo.

Eric Karl Anderson is author of the novel Enough and has published work in various publications such as The Ontario Review, Velvet Mafia, Ganymede Stories One and the anthologies From Boys to Men, Between Men 2 and 50 Gay and Lesbian Books Everyone Must Read.


Friday, March 18, 2011

Review: Hymn by John Barton

John Barton

Published by Brick Books

Reviewed by Gregory Woods

The pithiest thing about the Canadian poet John Barton’s new collection, HYMN, is the pun in its title, suggesting a hymn to him (whom?). The word also always brings ‘hymen’ to my mind—but perhaps, in this case, that is one distraction too far. In an interview on his publisher’s website, Barton says, ‘Hymn puts words to the music of disappointment and aspiration that gay men often feel in the pursuit of—and during the detours they take, consciously and unconsciously, on the way to and away from—love.’ This parenthesis, this detour on detours, is typical of Barton’s work at its best and worst—the individual reader can make this qualitative choice. There are times when it is the length and convolution of his sentences that absorbs one’s attention, rather than the argument itself.

Of course, when I suggest of a poet that he uses too many words, I feel like Joseph II: ‘Too many notes, my dear Mozart!’ And Barton is indeed prolix—but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The Canadians, too, have learned from the greatest bard of their southern neighbours, Walt Whitman, how to encompass an expansive society on an enormous land mass in verse that is both capacious and yet also, somehow, to the point. But the main technical dialectic with which Barton engages is Ezra Pound’s. There is some purpose for any modern, Anglophone poet in countering the rules of Imagism as laid down before the First World War by Pound, or at least in straying from them when the mood strikes. There is no absolute reason why poetry should state things more briefly than prose would. Why should it not luxuriate in the flow of language for its own sake? Barton is clearly aware that, as well as the Chinese and Japanese miniaturists, Pound also admired the profuse verbosity of Chaucer and Browning.

In a poem addressed to ‘Drella’ (Andy Warhol), Barton refers to his characteristic grammatical unit as ‘this kleptomaniac run-on sentence’, suggesting that the point of the thing, like that of Whitman’s lists, is accumulation rather than the ravelling of an involved argument. I am all for complex sentences—there are not enough of them in modern poetry. (A plague of parataxis in Britain has left most of our lyric poets incapable of stringing together a two-clause sentence without fucking up its grammar.) But I do not consistently feel the same confidence in Barton’s control of syntax, when he is digressing, that I do feel when going along with the grammatical arabesques of Marcel Proust or Henry James, when circumlocution and prolixity seem so tightly harnessed to the complexity of the thing being said and the meticulousness of the thought process. Those two great masters of digression never ramble. They never lose their concentration; and as a result, when reading them, neither do I.

Contrary to the publisher’s website—which speaks of the whole of Barton’s book as a ‘journey in search of love through the contemporary homoerotic male body’, adding that ‘Hymn stokes the fires of homoerotic romantic love with its polar extremes of intimacy and solitude’—it is really only in the fourth of the book’s five sections that Barton explicitly dwells on many aspects of contemporary gay life and the ancient variants it seems to echo. His long poem ‘Days of 2004, Days of Cavafy’, about and addressed to Constantine Cavafy, speaks of the great Greek poet’s relationship with the classical world as a kind of mutual or reciprocal invagination: ‘the whole of an ancient world inside you / and you inside it’. Here, for the second time in the book, the lines are so long that the poem is printed at ninety degrees to the convention, so that one has to hold the book sideways, reading one page above the other. This cleverly discomfiting ploy subverts one’s confidence and makes the very act of reading seem strange—‘queer’, if you must. Usually, one only holds a book this way up to look at certain kinds of illustration from a fresh angle.

The poem is broad in its sweep as well as its line. Violating one of the sacred principles of Foucaultian queer theory, it claims connections between the sexual lives of men in different places and different times: ‘men who travel lives not too indifferent / to our own, travelling from Sparta to Thermopylae, from Sussex Drive to Albion Road’—the latter being streets in Ottawa. At first, ‘indifferent’ looks like a malapropism for ‘similar’; but one soon understands that each generation of man-loving men takes an interest in others both past and future, with an associative desire that is wishful and wistful, all the more powerful for the distances it manages to span.

By the end of the poem, it is clear that Barton is looking back to the ancient Greeks, not merely from Cavafy’s modernity, nor even from his own post-modernity, but from some imagined future point, from which even our most cherished technological and verbal innovations (an earlier poem has invoked Cavafy in the abbreviations of text-speak) will seem primitive. When he addresses ‘men of the future looking backwards’ he inevitably echoes our position in relation to Cavafy, or Cavafy’s to Plato, and takes bodily possession of the words such men once addressed, and continue addressing, to posterity.

Barton’s versions of gayness are full of paradoxes, not merely mimicking (as so much modern camp does badly) the wit of Oscar Wilde, but purposely convulsing our chronologies and complacencies by questioning what we take for granted as their logic. The poem ‘Fucking the Minotaur’ threads its way through the labyrinth of a gay bathhouse and the less convoluted maze of the metro journey home, interestingly concluding that the latter is by far the more erotic space. In another poem, Barton’s take on ‘Amnesia’, that condition so perfectly confuted in its own etymology, has gay men going about their business among the heritage sites of modern Athens, not only making (in Browning’s evocative phrase) ‘love among the ruins’ but reviving what entropy had once undone. It is as if the poet were to counter the pessimism of Eliot’s claim, ‘these fragments I have shored against my ruins’, not much less than a century later, with a sentiment of his own: these ruins I have shored against my fragments.

Gregory Woods is Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at Nottingham Trent University. His critical books include Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-eroticism and Modern Poetry (1987) and A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition (1998), both from Yale University Press. His poetry books are published by Carcanet Press. His website is

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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Review: Ganymede Unfinished

Ganymede Unfinished
Bryan Borland (ed)

Published by Sibling Rivalry Press

Reviewed by Gregory Woods

The gay literary and cultural journal Ganymede had only been going since 2008, and had only appeared in seven issues, at a rate of three a year, when its founder and editor, John Stahle, died at the age of sixty. Contributors used to be sent an electronic copy. I do not know how many of the relatively expensive hard copies were printed, but they will soon be collectors’ items.

Ganymede Unfinished is a final, tribute issue, put together by Bryan Borland with some of the materials that might have made up the eighth issue. It is an apt tribute to Stahle, serious and stylish; even if it is, perhaps, less selective than he might have been with some of its weaker material. The creative content gets off to a reassuringly solid start, with fine poems by Jee Leong Koh and Matthew Hittinger. Most of the poets are young, but there are a few names I recognise from a while back: Walter Holland, for instance, whose A Journal of the Plague Years I first read back in 1992.

Stahle was interested in promoting new work—and did so very generously—but he was concerned, also, to connected it with gay literature from the past. This volume continues that tradition, with a brief selection of work by the Victorian poet Digby Mackworth Dolben and a really useful essay by Perry Brass on the gay poetry magazine from the 1970s, Mouth of the Dragon. Brass is highly critical of that magazine’s editor, Andrew Bifrost, in ways that shed a contrastingly felicitous light on Stahle.

There are some negligible items in prose: a hyperbolic and platitudinous review of Larry Kramer’s 1978 novel Faggots, for instance; and a simplistic and narrow essay on the figure of the gay hustler in movies. There is a short story whose dramatic pacing is stalled by cliché and redundancy. (I gave up quantifying the redundancies in these two short clauses: ‘I was puzzled by his perplexing behavior; his reverence and concentration were profound and focused’.) And there is a blithely uncritical interview with Garrett Graham, the founding spirit behind the Free Independent Gay State (FIGS) Party, which aims to purchase a piece of land somewhere and construct a gay nation on it. It is hard to decide which aspect of Graham’s world-view is more delusional, his vision of the past or that of the future. For anyone with a healthily sceptical attitude to the late twentieth century’s crude constructions of sexual identity, his dream of a gay state can only be a laughable nightmare; and yet this interview does nothing to subject it to even the faintest expression of doubt.

A third of the whole, just about a hundred pages, is taken up by a novella, ‘Diary of a Sex Addict, by Scott Hess. I have long been on record as being no great admirer of sex-addiction fiction: it seems to me as boring as the people it concerns. So I shall never subject myself to the experience of re-reading John Rechy’s novel Numbers (1967) or Renaud Camus’ Tricks (1981). By contrast, Hess’s story has the virtue of relative brevity, but, even so, it could do with being trimmed by a third. I did eventually get into the rhythm of it, and one of its characters, whom the narrator calls Swan, is enough of a curiosity to be compelling; but the narrator himself is, like all sex addicts, too much of a cipher to be of much interest, except, perhaps, to his own kind (but even this is moot). To that extent, he is portrayed with some skill.

I do have doubts about some details of Hess’s technique. Do diarists really use the historic present in this way? (‘We have sex that night and I am afraid I stink of the restroom.’) And do they explain their lives like this? (‘Rudy and I met in a sex club in a two level bar way downtown. My friend Joe, who traffics with trannies and porn actors and poets, runs the place...’) But, notwithstanding my broader objections to the single-mindedness of the story’s narrator, there is enough here to suggest that Hess is a writer worth watching.

I was pleased to be a contributor to Ganymede number seven, and was hoping to send more poems to John Stahle. His journal had all the advantages, by way of efficiency, that come from being more or less a one-man band. (My poems were accepted within two days, and I received proofs two days later; whereas I am no longer surprised to have to wait a whole year for the editors some British poetry magazines to make up their minds. I told John he must be the fastest editor in the West, but it may just be that my poems caught him in the right mood just before a deadline.) Sad to say, Ganymede now suffers the main disadvantage of such an outfit, in that it will follow its editor into gay literary history.

Gregory Woods is Professor of Gay and Lesbian Studies at Nottingham Trent University. His critical books include Articulate Flesh: Male Homo-eroticism and Modern Poetry (1987) and A History of Gay Literature: The Male Tradition (1998), both from Yale University Press. His poetry books are published by Carcanet Press. His website is

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Saturday, October 09, 2010

Announcing GFEST 2010: London's gay arts festival

GFEST – Gaywise FESTival, 'London's LGBT and queer cross - art festival for all', has announced an exciting and ambitious 2010 programme. The festival will take place across London in prestigious venues such as V&A and The National Gallery.

GFEST – Gaywise FESTival is the premier LGBT annual cross-arts festival in London - a platform for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and queer artists. It is produced and organised by arts charity Wise Thoughts.

GFEST 2010 runs for two weeks from Monday 8 November 2010 to Sunday 21 November 2010.

The full festival programme can be found on GFEST website:

The festival focuses on three categories covering Short Films, Visual Arts and Performances. Complimenting the programme are a series of talks, debates and parties. The festival is a hugely successful art event where thousands of Londoners enjoy and benefit from the showcase of emerging and established gay talent.

NIRANJAN KAMATKAR, the artistic director of GFEST said, "We are proud to present the LGBT and queer artistic talent including the International artists, filmmakers and performers." He added, "I am confident that GFEST 2010 programme is a thrilling mix of diversity with the widest possible range of life-changing artistic expressions from the LGBT community."

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Saturday, October 02, 2010

Review: Stranger in Town by Cedar Sigo

Stranger in Town
Cedar Sigo

Published by City Lights Press

Reviewed by Colin Herd

‘I have tried above all to bring an allure to poetry.’

The phrase ‘Stranger in Town’ always makes me think of the 1965 record by Del Shannon, a stomping strum-along with an intoxicatingly high-fluting falsetto chorus: I’m not afraid of what he’ll do to MEEE! Until now, that is. From this day forth, ‘Stranger in Town’ will be indelibly associated in my mind with Cedar Sigo’s new book of poems, from City Lights, just as captivating as the Del record, and a lot more rock and roll.

Sigo’s collection is the fourth to be published under the City Lights Spotlights imprint, a series that has been so choice thus far, publishing superb volumes by Norma Cole, Anselm Berrigan and Andrew Joron, that it promises to be as inspired, exciting and innovative as the famous Pocket Poets series was fifty years ago from the same press. Incidentally, the fourth Pocket Poet was ‘Howl’. But it’s not the Beats that Stranger in Town recalls, so much as the great poets of the San Francisco Renaissance, John Wieners in particular, but Jack Spicer, Stephen Jonas and George Stanley too. The connection makes itself felt in a number of ways: the investment in and thoughtful commitment to fresh and thrillingly inventive lyric poetry, the engagement with visual art, the strong sense of community, and, of course, San Francisco itself, its veiled, hilly cityscape a perfect analogy for the soft, lyric textual mist, a mist that only ever allows partial clarity, through which, in the title poem, Sigo’s lyric makes its downhill track:

‘I enjoy reading signs
through the fog-


Then that evening
and all of
Fox Plaza was the same white
A permanent
on my blue bike

I raise my hood
I think there are other lost men
in surrounding blocks
alike in their thinking’

I love this poem’s balance between edgy, piecemeal, collaged line-breaks- that ‘HOTEL HUNTINGTON’, literally like a stuck-on sign- and the sense of a continuously unfolding and emergent narrative. Continuously emergent because always glimpsed arriving, never quite arrived, something’s always hidden and held back, a quality dramatized in the poem ‘Showboat’:

‘I thought you were coming toward me
a few blocks earlier
down Hyde St. It was a man weak
and crushed beneath this gray wig
for women. I can’t believe that
it’s really you.’

And later in the same poem: ‘None of this/concerns the poem as pure entrance’, where the double meaning of ‘entrance’, as in ‘spell-bound’ calls to mind the Berkeley workshops Spicer ran in 1957, entitled ‘Poetry as Magic’. As does another wonderful poem, ‘$$$Expensive Magic$$$’:

‘the questions fall
around allure. Poems floated
from the hearth
out the mouth. I am wound up, bored
we are only strangers on our way’

Cedar Sigo

In the short poem-essay ‘The Sun’, he sets out, frankly, charmingly, and extremely thoughtfully, his poetics:

‘Poetry can be a difficult field to enter into, as I find people sometimes think of it as old fashioned. It is this assumption that drives me to try & keep current. I do not just want to interest academics. Skaters are more dear to my heart.’

But every poem in the book articulates this poetics of magic. Sigo’s poetry is magical, glamorous and exciting. It has a great deal of, to use his word, ‘allure’. The prose poem ‘My Drawings’ describes obsessively drawing genies in ballpoint pen: ‘There was never a man or woman holding the lamp. It was more being able to get the smoke turning into the genie’. That’s what Cedar Sigo does in these poems, again, again and, gloriously, again.

Colin Herd is a poet based in Edinburgh whose work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in 3:AM, Dogmatika, Gutter, Shampoo, Velvet Mafia and Mirage #4/Period(ical).

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Review: The King of Carnaby Street: the Life of John Stephen

The King of Carnaby Street: the Life of John Stephen
Jeremy Reed

Published by Haus Publishing

Reviewed by Richard Canning

John Stephen’s name may have faded from general consciousness today just as clearly as it was unknown when the 18-year-old, near penniless Glaswegian arrived in London in 1952. But, as this first book about the man who singlehandedly reinvented Carnaby Street and, arguably, more than any other, defined the Mod look, reveals, Stephen deserves to be better remembered.

One reason why his profile may have disappeared since his suicide in 1969 is that Stephen of necessity kept certain parts of his life far from the public eye (‘please don’t mention my name, mention my clients’ was a typical comment). Happy to be photographed in one of his endless Carnaby Street fashion emporiums, or with a Mod girl contrivedly on his arm at a P.R. event, Stephen secretly lived in a secure gay relationship with Bill Franks in a luxurious flat in Jermyn Street. In the 1960s, of course, lots of things were hip and new and fashionable. But homosexual acts were still illegal, and being known as gay was a career cul de sac like no other.

Stephen’s first job was in Covent Garden’s Moss Bros., where he was able to learn the virtues of old-fashioned tailoring. To survive in the city, he took a second job, as a coffee bar waiter. Much of the fifties can be described as a long, challenging apprenticeship, but Stephen’s positivity, good looks and determination saw him through to owning a succession of lines of men’s and women’s leisurewear which would grace the entire decade he can be said to have defined – and which neatly, and chronologically, defined his own career success.

Stephen first moved into tiny premises on the then neglected Carnaby Street in 1956. His extravagant, tightly-cut designs for men had much in common at the time with the gear paraded in the windows of nearby sex stores frequented by gay men. But Stephen saw the opportunity for the sort of crossover success which, one feels on reading this book, may simply never have happened without him. Prominent public figures such as Sean Connery, George Melly and even Pablo Picasso might be seen dressed in Stephen’s threads. From 1960, both Billy Fury and Cliff Richard were regular customers. More occasional clients included the Yardbirds, the Kinks and the Rolling Stones. Professional scouser and “comedian” Jimmy Tarbuck, astonishingly, modelled for Stephen.

The only peer in terms of commercial acumen and association with the 60s zeitgeist was Mary Quant, whose name became as associated with her territory (Chelsea) as strongly as Stephen’s with his. Yet when young girls gathered on the TV set of groundbreaking music show Ready Steady Go (from 1963), they invariably aped presenter Cathy Kirby in dressing in Stephen’s outfits more commonly than Quant’s.

In many respects, the arc of Stephen’s life will strike anyone who knows the life story of Joe Meek, 50s/60s music producer and subject of the play and movie Telstar as depressingly familiar. (Meek himself, and his blond rocker boy “find” Heinz were both customers). He experienced sudden success, fame and wealth, only for it to lead him in endless, often self-destructive pursuits of unavailable boys, chemicals and (ever more frequently) in drink. Theirs is something of the myth of Narcissus here, too: Stephen himself was of very handsome appearance – as striking as the pop stars he dressed. But he was very short and, in fact, physically rather frail. By the age of 30, indeed, he was one of the very few who could comfortably get into the Mod trousers he designed, with their 26 inch waists and drainpipe legs. Jackets tended to be made with chests running from 34 to 38 only.

It’s a fascinating story, told in detail and with a boisterous enthusiasm. There are some wonderful vignettes, too – such as the image of Marc Bolan, wearing full make up and working as a Soho rentboy, scouring the bins around Carnaby Street for clothing cast-offs. But by 1965, with Stephen’s empire at its peak, and Georgie Fame opening his eighth store on the same street, the end was already in sight. Though Stephen would try hard to accommodate the aesthetic values and predilections of the first wave of hippies – and can even be said to be responsible for the adoption of paisley and striped kaftans by the new breed – he could see that a more fundamental shift away from the styles associated with him, and the Mod look in general. (Although the ‘glam’ look of the mid-70s has something borrowed from Stephen’s innovations, it acted, often, against the fundamentals of epicene body shapes and types; full-on hippie culture, meanwhile, grew ever more layered and bulky, in clothing terms – which would have been anathema to Stephen, had he witnessed it).

He dressed the Bee Gee Barry Gibb in 1968, the year in which Gibb was crowned Best Dressed Man (great photograph!). However, by then, Stephen not only had little left to achieve. His commercial stock was also challenged from the myriad flatterers and thieves, who would imitate Stephen designs, running up versions in cheaper cloth, on sale within days of Stephen unveiling his new collection. Reed interprets the late sixties as marking a progressive, pronounced sense of defeat in the Scotsman who had achieved so much: ‘The sixties were breaking up around him like the electronic sequences of red and blue Piccadilly neon.’

Like Stephen, Reed is a natural dandy, bon viveur and show-off, and the identification with his subject on occasion brings rewards. He seems to have been privy to much of Stephen’s life through conversations with his partner, Bill Franks, who is thanked here, but not exactly credited. In fact, there do not appear to many other sources – a pity, since many figures here of the period surely could have been persuaded to speak, and might have produced a more rounded character psychologically.

And Reed’s prose style won’t be to everyone’s taste; and there is so much repetition and indirection here that I began to long I had taken one of the many pills which got Stephen through a 16-hour day, and which Reed himself may perhaps have ingested, in order to come up with sentences such as: ‘Change was in the air, no matter how tentative, rather like a carjacker nicking the cellulose gloss of a polished wing before slashing it.’ Huh? This sentence is more of a car crash (something else with which Stephen was familiar). At 264 pages, The King of Carnaby Street feels, if anything, inappropriately bloated for its subject, and there are many moments of simply terrible infelicitous style. Take these two sentences:

In the face of anarchic turbulence beginning to infiltrate sixties culture, as the break-up of its earlier holistic grouping of fashion, music and a revisioned youthful ideology founded on the look of its identity, and liberated hedonism as its incentive to party, Stephen restructured the suit on a superb Mod line that deconstructed formal wear into a casual elegance that defined the basic principles of modernism, and as such could have been designed for the wardrobe of a Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg Avengers shoot. A Stephen first that was based on classic Mod principles of incisively clean and precisely detailed styling, his leisure knitted suits, coming at a time when confected decoration predominated as the fashion signifier, was a lost opportunity for Mods to regain an endemic fashion ascendancy and additionally to reinvent the ubiquitous role the suit played in society.

I know what Reed means, more or less, but the inelegance of the prose acts sharply against the precepts for which Stephen should be known: simplicity, directness, sharpness.

He was fully aware of his own talents, making his death at the young age of 35 all the more tragic… although the fact that he lived a literal half-lifespan has a certain apposite orderliness. (Stephen had first taken an overdose at the age of 30). He could, on occasion, parrot others’ high estimate of himself. He took to referring to his emporium thus: ‘Carnaby St is my creation. In a way I feel about it how Michelangelo felt about the beautiful statues he had created.’ Michelangelo Buonarotti, who was abnormally uninterested in clothing, his own hygiene or “look”, instead poured his aesthetic instincts into works of art which endure. Today, fashion continues, like all popular cultures, to rob relentlessly and ungenerously from its own trailblazers. Thus, while it isn’t fair to say that John Stephen does not have a legacy, it is certainly true that he is too rarely associated with what he individually made happen in late 50s and 60s London. John Stephen brought to life the idea of the savvy, fashionable teen rocker, and then the Mod, and kickstarted the cult of youth and adolescence which has taken hold of British culture now for fifty years.

Richard Canning. Canning’s most recent book is a biography of E M Forster (Hesperus Press).

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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Review: Frostbitten by Mark Walton

Mark Walton

Published by Epic Rites Press

Reviewed by Colin Herd

The first chapbook from epic rites press in their ‘Workers in Blood’ series, Frostbitten is the debut collection from 2008 London Slam! Championship-winner Mark Walton. It’s a great title. It perfectly captures the numb but raw sensation that many of these poems leave you nursing. But whereas frostbite effects the body-parts farthest from the heart, the extremities, the twenty-two poems that make up Frostbitten are mainly bruised love poems, written in an intimate and highly personal first person voice, often addressing an unnamed and varying ‘you’. The language is shorn, plain-spoken and no-holds-barred. Walton’s poems deal with clubbing, dating, sex, break-ups and in some of the most emotionally powerful poems, the threat of HIV.

As you might expect from the first collection of a Slam! champion, the poems in Frostbitten rely heavily on rhythm and sound-patterning. There’s always a danger that these effects do not work as effectively as text in a book. But when it works, it really works. The following example from ‘For a Friend’ reminds me a little of T.S. Eliot; the seedily sibilant half-rhymes of ‘kisses’, ‘recessed’ and ‘darkness’ almost seem like they could be off-cuts from the first stanza of Alfred Prufrock.

for stolen kisses
in recessed darkness.

You rubber clad,
dangerous looking.
A friendship seeded in furtive
sucksuckfumbled moments.

The ‘furtive’, ‘seeded’ & ‘fumbling’ sound plausibly like Eliot too, but it’d have to be an Eliot that had been rubbing up against Joyce like a bear against a tree to come up with that delicious sounding portmanteau, ‘sucksuckfumbled’. Another excellent moment is at the start of the poem Home, which was one of the highlights of the collection for me:

From a distance
you appear opaque,
like a jumbled
and chaotic cityscape.

Functions, styles, vernaculars,
crawling over one another.
Competing for attention.

Hard surfaces reflecting.

The inversion of the rhyme of ‘opaque’ and ‘cityscape’ is ingenious and beautiful, like a confusing, skewed reflection. But Walton can be equally effective when rhyming more conventionally, such as this beguiling tercet from ‘The Maze’, which features a double rhyme- ‘scattered’, ‘shattered’ and ‘mind’, ‘kind’:

My memories of meeting you
are kind of scattered.
My mind shattered by pills.

At times, though, Walton’s use of rhyme and repetition, which I can imagine working very well in performance, doesn’t translate so successfully to the page. Examples such as the one that follows from a poem about coping with HIV feel heavy-footed to me, a relentless punchy rhythm on the word ‘new’ that seems to overplay and undermine the genuinely touching, frightening final couplet.

I have new tricks,
and new hopes.

I have a new pulse,
and new fears.

I have new rhythms,
and new rhymes.

I have new freedoms,
and new deadlines.

I have both the shortest
And the longest of times.

In spite of these instances of awkwardness, the greatest and most welcome strength of Walton’s collection is its honesty and his willingness to take his poems to all aspects of his relationships and complex desires.

Come the night
let me learn
your nocturnal pathways,
and if I should dive into you,
let me emerge
bloodied and juice stained.

Walton writes inventive and daring performance-lyrics about contemporary gay life, and, frankly, that’s rare. I look forward to a second collection. A percentage of profits from Frostbitten are being donated to the Terrence Higgins Trust.

Colin Herd is a poet based in Edinburgh whose work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in 3:AM, Dogmatika, Gutter, Shampoo, Velvet Mafia and Mirage #4/Period(ical).

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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The Green Carnation Prize Longlist 2010 Announced

The Green Carnation Prize is a new UK award given to works of fiction or memoir by gay men. The judges have debated long and hard to come up with the following longlist:

Generation A by Douglas Coupland (Windmill Books)
Bryant and May Off the Rails by Christopher Fowler (Doubleday)
Paperboy by Christopher Fowler (Doubleday)
In A Strange Room by Damon Galgut (Atlantic Books)
God Says No by James Hannaham (McSweeney’s)
London Triptych by Jonathan Kemp (Myriad Editions)
Mary Ann in Autumn by Armistead Maupin (Doubleday)
Children of the Sun by Max Schaefer (Granta)
Man’s World by Rupert Smith (Arcadia Books)
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas (Tuskar Rock Press)
City Boy by Edmund White (Bloomsbury)

The shortlist will be announced on November 1st and the winner on December 1st.

I'm pleased to see books on this list which I've read and admired this year especially God Says No by James Hannaham (which was also shortlisted for the Gay Debut Fiction category I helped judge in this year's Lambda Awards). This is an exceptionally original book about an amiable closeted overweight man struggling to come out and survive a pray-away-the-gay ministry where he tries to convert to heterosexuality to save his marriage.

Damon Galgut's new novel In A Strange Room is a strange book indeed. I finished reading it last week and I'm still puzzling what to make of it. Recording three journeys which the central character "Damon" takes in foreign countries this is a mediation on identity and belonging of the kind which is often experienced when traveling in totally unfamiliar environments. What's most unusual about this book is the form of narration where the author frequently moves back and forth between the first and third person when describing Damon's journeys. It suggests a dual relationship the self in the present has with the self of the past, memory and experience intertwining in a way that is both maddening and mystifying.

Click on the titles above for a past review of Man's World and interview with Edmund White about City Boy.

Eric Karl Anderson

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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Women on the Move: Three New Films Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

directed by Sarah Turner
The Headless Woman
directed by Lucrecia Martel
Villa Amalia
directed by Benoit Jacquot

Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

In Lesbian Visibility, film theorist Amy Villarejo suggests that maybe out-there L-Word style representation isn’t the equality it’s cracked up to be. Instead, she suggests, lesbians can change the objectifying visual field by being craftily invisible, unavailable to voyeuristic eyes. It sounds counter-intuitive and like a return to the days of Queen Victoria’s ignorance, but Villarejo’s not suggesting that films like The Kids Are All Right should be banished because they basically turn lesbians into straight couples in order to make them visible in mainstream media (except for that bit where Jules has sex with a guy, hmmm, oh wait, that’s another article). What she’s interested in is non-mainstream films by lesbian filmmakers that don’t contain the obligatory – what to call it: snuggle shot? – but still allude to a queer, female sensibility.

For some reason, several of these films involve trains (Ulrike Ottinger’s Johanna of Arc of Mongolia and Yvonne Rainer’s Journey to Berlin/1971 spring to mind), and three recent films suggest that being on the move (not just on trains: think Thelma and Louise!) might just be a way of making lesbians visible without, yknow, the purple silky panties approach that Channel 4 took to advertising the L-Word. Sarah Turner’s Perestroika, released on September 1 by the ICA, is closest to the fabulous feminist experiments of Ottinger and Rainer, mixing video from the 1980s with digital film and stills from 2007 to tell the interconnected story of two journeys that Turner made on the Trans-Siberian Express.

Unlike the fabulously camp journey Delphine Seyrig experiences in Johanna of Arc, Turner’s journeys are fascinating but hot and uncomfortable: and the journey in 2007 is emotionally wrenching because Sîan Thomas, the friend who took her to Russia in 1987, died in 1992, and this is Turner’s first return. As she repeats the journey, she is haunted by memories of her friend (some of which she videoed) and by memories of pre-perestroika Soviet Russia.

The film itself is haunted by various apparitions, including Turner herself, only visible as a reflection in the night-darkened windows. The voice-over narrator speaks as the filmmaker we glimpse in the window, but this ‘Sarah Turner’ suffers retrograde amnesia, a fictional lens Turner introduced to look at memory and loss. The film ends at Lake Baikal, the site of a slow ecological catastrophe, where it appears that flames are rising from the freezing waves. Through the hallucinatory intensity of the train journeys, this image makes terrible, perfect sense.

So, you’re wondering, where’s the lesbian in all of this? The narrator speaks repeatedly to or of ‘you,’ addressing someone who is travelling with her, who is just visible in a repeated sequence in which Turner stumbles to the restaurant car. Most of the voices (but not all) in the film are female, and there is an underlying sense in which it is a beautiful, unconventional love story between Turner and her loved-and-lost friend Sîan. Turner appears only one unreflected: in a photograph shot by Thomas in which she is filming with her video camera. When we see the footage of Thomas taking the photograph, it has an aliveness that – with the faces blocked by cameras – is heartbreakingly inaccessible. Intense currents swirl around and through relationships between women, to the hypnagogic rhythm of the train that connects us with both dream and desire.

Equally dreamy/nightmarish in its evocation of female subjectivity is Lucrecia Martel’s brilliantly opaque film The Headless Woman. Out now on DVD from New Wave films, The Headless Woman continues Martel’s exploration of her home province in Argentina, Tucumán, which was brutally suppressed during the junta. Motivations are often mysterious, characters are afflicted with lassitude then suddenly ravenous with desire, dialogue is elliptical: her films seem like they are being made as if under political censorship, full of oblique but loaded references, and a vertiginous sense of threat.
At the centre of this unstable world, where nothing is what it seems, is a dentist called Veronica whose Christian name seems to certify the truth of what she witnesses. The problem is that Veronica, driving along an empty road, doesn’t see what it is she may have hit. Even the graze on her head that testifies to the accident is erased when her husband makes her hospital attendance disappear after it transpires she might have killed a young indigenous boy whose body is found in a drain after torrential rains. Veronica is caught between polite society – her husband, lover, friends, sister – who want her to remain untroubled by inequality and her role in it, and the possibility of rebellion, embodied in her favourite niece, Candita.

Candita is played by Inés Efron, the lead from XXY, and her role in that film is just under her skin here, not least when she swims languidly across the new pool while the adults lounge around. But her queerness is also part of the narrative: much to her mother’s disapproval, she has a girlfriend, a campesina who is the fastest-moving and most directed person in the film, riding alongside Candita’s mother’s car on her motorbike, and guiding Veronica through the rural community where the boy’s family lives. Candita, seeing Veronica’s sympathy with her rebellion, attempts to seduce her with a ferocious kiss: Veronica refuses her, and from that moment, she turns back to her old life, refusing the possibility of movement (across class boundaries, as well as literal freedom of movement) that Candita both seeks and holds out.

Ann Hidden, in Benoit Jacquot’s Villa Amalia, makes the choice that Veronica can’t – but her choice is guilt-free, and this new French film (on DVD from Peccadillo Pictures) is a lighter-hearted affair. Although it deals in death, divorce, disappeared dads and other life-changers, it does so with inimitable French style. Everything in the film looks glorious, and it looks all the more glorious as Ann leaves her stultifying life of apparent love and success in Paris to disappear in Italy (note to fashion editors: in doing so, she leaves behind this season’s camel, chignon and white shirt look to adopt a Mediterranean wardrobe of non-maxi flowered dresses and short hair, making clear that minimalism is for people with empty lives). While the character of Ann takes a tranche of Under the Sand, adds a soupçon of The Page Turner and jusqu’un peu of Catherine Deneuve in Les voleurs, Isabelle Huppert makes the somewhat hackneyed role of the fortysomething Parisienne restlessly rediscovering her erotic and artistic life her own by train, mountain and boat. She doesn’t fly because she doesn’t want to be traced via her passport – but that seems secondary to the need to show a woman, alone, on the move, changing direction.

Of course, the film’s distributed by Peccadillo so it comes with certain expectations – and fulfils them, but quietly. Ann’s childhood best friend Georges tells her he’s gay with a shrug, and later gets beaten up while cruising on the island of Ischia, where Ann has retreated. Ann leaves behind her cheating lover Thomas and doesn’t so much come out as come alive: literally, when she is rescued from the sea by – typically! – gorgeous Giulia, out for the day on her friend Carlo’s boat. She and Giulia form an instant attraction of silent glances, and – typically! – shack up after their first night together.

Don’t expect hot sex, though: everything in this film is as hidden as Ann’s (not-so-subtle) stage name (her absconded father is Jewish: she has presumably changed her name to hide that legacy and to hide from him). Huppert’s strong face and awkward-graceful motion convey the sense of Ann’s turbulent and dramatic interior world, expressed through her piano compositions but not language – and, when she returns to Ischia at the end, perhaps a peace in being so far from metropolitan culture, hidden in her new love.

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at

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Saturday, August 21, 2010

Theatre Review: Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens at the Shaw Theatre

Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens
by Bill Russell and Janet Hood

Shaw Theatre, London, 10-28 August 2010
directed by John-Jackson Almond
musical director Michael Roulston

Reviewed by Richard Canning

This revival of the song cycle by Bill Russell and Janet Hood (which first ran at the Kings Head Theatre, Islington in 1992, but received its world premiere in 1989) must come as a surprising choice – if only because nowadays we know all too well that trying to promote any work of art concerned with the AIDS epidemic is beyond a Sisyphean adventure. The Shaw Theatre is to be applauded, then, for having the conviction to go ahead, setting aside commercial considerations and tackling what is very much a less-heard and seen subject today.

One of the four original singers reprises her role: Miquel Brown – mother of Sinitta, but also fondly remembered by gay men for 1980s Hi-Energy classics such as So Many Men, So Little Time - once again sings as Angela. She is joined by Jonathan Hellyer (playing Brian), a.k.a. the Dame Edna Experience, making his London theatre debut, Leon Lopez (as Doug), and Anna Mateo (as Judith). Hellyer does a great job of his “own” chief song, And the Rain Keeps Falling Down, but is a more subdued stage presence than anyone who has seen him doing cabaret at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern would suspect. Lopez and Mateo in particular are very strong vocally, as well as demonstrating a stage presence which, inevitably, not all of the thirty cast members playing the smaller roles can match (though Titti La Camp as a drag queen is a definite exception).

The aim of the piece – a combination of songs and monologues - is to pay tribute to all those lost to the AIDS epidemic, by virtue of retelling the life stories (and, inevitably, in part, death stories) of thirty people who succumb to it. Each participant is thus given a few minutes on stage to tell it from his or her point of view. The actors then remain on stage, witnessing the other contributions and continuing to inhabit their roles.

The first thing to concede is that the cumulative effect of hearing so many diverse tales of loss, prejudice, deceit and ill fortune is as moving now as it was 17 years ago. That does not prevent me from feeling, however, that the status and purpose of the piece today is not fully clear. Russell has written new monologues for this revival, a good number of which take us, logically enough, to the non-Western terrains with which we now associate the most devastating human experiences of the syndrome. Some are very effective, even taking advantage of moments of winning humour – as when a South African woman begins her monologue with the words: ‘The only thing worse than a man is a politician.’ The conceptual difficulty, however, is, of course, that the original production of Elegies was conceived at a time when the lack of effective treatments for HIV/AIDS had left those turning HIV-positive with few expectations other than their short- or medium-term demise. The drug treatments which would act therapeutically to minimize HIV’s destructive effect upon immune systems rolled out unevenly, but from the USA in 1996, and across Europe in the following years.

The new monologues in Elegies articulated on stage successfully move on the production’s accommodation of the epidemiological reality today, but by introducing the subject of drug treatments, and their uneven presence in different global contexts, it makes the “unadjusted” tales here – those penned in 1993, which inevitably make no reference to drug treatments - feel historical. Thus, the thirty characters listen to, and respond to, a huge variety of reminiscences, but the audience becomes aware that these couldn’t, or didn’t, inhabit the same chronological context.

It’s a small quibble, certainly, since theatre can, and should, be able to remake the world, showing it to us anew. Still, it made me aware of another reservation I felt: that the integrity of each story, with one following the other, interrupted after each block of four or five by the next song, did not help make the evening feel fundamentally dramatic. Conflict and argument have, naturally, played a central role in many or most AIDS dramas, from early candidates such as Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and William Hoffmann’s As Is (both 1985), through to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (1992) and British dramatist Jonathan Harvey’s two epidemic-related works, Hushabye Mountain (1999) and the recent Canary (almost a pastiche of Kushner). In the case of Elegies, however, the evening’s raisons d’etre – to celebrate the diversity of lives lost; to counteract shame, prejudice and secrecy; to offer the broadest range of perspectives on the syndrome – are all worthwhile.

But there is an inevitable simplicity of message, in consequence. It might be summed up as “positivity.” Certainly it is threatened, just for one moment, by the case of the muscle-boy addicted to Crystal Meth, who admits to knowingly exposing numerous online partners to HIV. (A very topical moment, this, given the ongoing trial in Germany of a pop singer with AIDS who is alleged to have failed to communicate her HIV-status to sexual partners). But before and after him, the subtext of the evening seems to involve undifferentiated celebration – as in one of the song titles, Heroes all Around. There’s nothing implicitly wrong with this. It’s just that it can feel like the audience is witnessing a self-help group, rather than being inducted into the uncertainties and complexities which theatrical narrative can offer.

The monologues themselves – rendered in verse - are somewhat uneven, though the best have the same lyrical directness and honesty as the dramatic poems in Thom Gunn’s extraordinary collection, The Man with Night Sweats. A shopaholic girl was especially winning, summarizing her post-diagnosis take on life thus: ‘If spending makes you feel alive, die before the bills arrive!’ The songs, meanwhile, are delivered with enthusiasm and accomplishment. The best can certainly hold a candle to those found in West End musicals embracing much more conservative storylines. The only really wrong note is struck by the unaccountable decision to have the production wrap up with a few lines (only) of Miquel Brown singing the disco anthem So Many Men, So Little Time as the entire cast leaves the stage. Certainly, it’s a vintage tune, invoking a particular time period and gay subculture very strongly. But its lyric – written with explicit appeal for sexually busy gay men in the early 1980s – threatens to complicate, even overshadow the clear steer towards plurality and diversity in the preceding two hours, as well as, rather bafflingly, to take the audience back to a specific and historical moment at the show’s close; a time, perhaps, before which any of these losses would have taken place.

Still, this is a committed (and huge!) cast, performing for free, and The Terrence Higgins Trust is benefitting from every ticket sale. There’s plenty to think about here, and many moments to savour.

Richard Canning. Canning’s edition of AIDS fiction, Vital Signs (2008), is available from Da Capo Press.

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