-Reviewed by John McGhee -
The Canadian experimental poet Christian Bök, in his ‘fantasy about the badass-ness of poetry’ The Extremophile, likens poetry to an indestructible bacterium: ‘It feeds on asbestos… It grows in lagoons of boiling asphalt… It can withstand temperatures of 323 degrees Kelvin, hot enough to melt rubidium… It is invincible. It is unkillable.’
I’m with Bök. Let’s have poetry that is indestructible, brilliant, and bold.
The excellent launch issue of ILK, an online journal edited by Caroline Crew and Chris Emslie, has just the right kind of boldness. In its best moments, there is inventive imagery and language and structural playfulness. The tone is one of convivial brashness. In the main, the poems are punchy, and the poets’ concerns are urgent, personal and contemporary.
Much of what is lively and mysterious in ILK is generated using relaxed, unadorned language. Amy Herschleb provides the disgustingly memorable ‘birds hidden in the grass like meat Easter Eggs’ (‘The Title of This Poem is Secret’). In ‘Ukulele’, Rob Macdonald turns a minor mental leap into a mellow reflection on childish innocence. Read this and you’ll want to believe again that ‘the world is sugarcane and good and goes on forever in every direction.’
There is variety in approach and structure. One poem is a recipe: Deirdre Knowles’ ‘Rabbit’, where the reader is commanded to ‘unsheath your finest knife / and cut your best hand in two’ and ‘re-entrail a pheasant’. Knowles also has a story told algebraically, ‘Total’: ‘I am a B not an A nor a C. / You are a D and wish you were an S.’ Canadian Amanda Earl pours us two flavours of ghazal (‘Anti-Ghazal’ and ‘Bastard Ghazal’). Both are furtive and inebriating. David Raymond’s ‘Poetry Assemblies and Theories Var*’ is a story as a numbered list, elaborated using footnotes containing offbeat definitions. The longest piece is from Mathias Svalina and Julia Cohen, the unsettling extended prose poem, ‘Two Sisters’. In fact, prose fragments are favoured and variations involving rhyme are not represented at all. Maybe I missed it but I couldn’t find a single rhyme, unless I count Dearman McKay rhyming ‘tongue’ with ‘tongue’ in the eerie ‘Lingua/Zunge‘.
The choice of subject matter and how it is described also shows a boldness but one that does not descend into gratuitous nastiness or shock for its own sake. Michael Koh’s intriguing ‘I Take Pictures’ paints a grisly war scene in short fragments, a staccato massacre. The cheerless narrator of Molly Prentiss’s ‘I Can Be Found Right Here’ appears ‘squatting over a toilet seat and peeing on my leg’ and opines ‘fuck everyone… fuck super hero shows. fuck cutting and pasting my life into 140 characters.’ On a lighter note—but one just as splendidly vulgar—Deirdre Knowles clears up the vexed question of whether a penis or a vagina makes a better musical instrument. It’s the penis, apparently.
At ILK, the day is today and the time is now. It is poetry being devised on laptops and read aloud from smartphones. Celebrities, computer games and websites are name-checked. A plea: just once, wouldn’t it be great to read a poetic reference to a website other than Wikipedia, Twitter, Craigslist or Google? What about a poem about B3ta or Pathetic Motorways, just for a change?
With Netflix launching this month in the UK, surely it is timely for me to recommend Madison Langston’s ‘Asking Someone What To Watch On Netflix Is A Form Of Flirting‘, which concludes with the glitzy ‘I have never masturbated / to the Wikipedia entry for Carmen Electra / but I have masturbated / to the idea of it.’ Favourite title of the issue goes to either M.G. Martin and his nervy tale ‘The Band is Playing CTRL + ALT + DELETE, Again’ or Wendy Xu’s account of morning ennui, ‘The Future Doesn’t Care About Your Breakfast‘.
ILK’s website design is snappy and functional (although for Luddites like me, a PDF option or other print- ready version would be great). I see US and Canadian poets are well-represented in the debut ILK and, casting forward to future issues, I am interested to see how the geographic mix of contributors develops. I’m sure there are plenty of UK poets who will be able to match the boldness of those appearing this time. Why can’t poetry be badass? Subtlety is overrated. As Bök’s Extremophile suggests, poetry ‘breathes iron… needs no oxygen to live… It awaits your experiments.’