– Reviewed by Andrew F Giles –
I want to talk about the genealogy of #Untitled One: Neu! Reekie!. The cover is grey and plain, saying very little about what’s inside. There is poetry inside, but why Neu! Reekie!? Is it neu? Auld Reekie is a nickname for Edinburgh, Scots for old smoky, but the art showcase Neu! Reekie! takes its name and intellectual provenance from Scottish countercultural poet and critic Paul Reekie (1962 – 2010). Reekie’s tiny oeuvre (of which two poems appear in this anthology) is most famous for the use of his poem ‘When Caesar’s Mushroom is in Season’ at the beginning of Irvine Welsh’s novel The Acid House (1994). Reekie is conversant with the history of poetic form: sometimes he argues with it, sometimes he laughs at it; he treats it affectionately or gives it short shrift; his work expands beyond ‘high’ and ‘low’ art by taking both in and releasing them, lovingly, in a jumble of voices.
There are also countercultural implications to Reekie’s work. In the intellectual movements of the 1960s and 70s, Scotland produced two figureheads: antipsychiatrist R. D. Laing, and the founder of Project Sigma, Alexander Trocchi. In July 1964, Laing and Trocchi met alongside other counterculturalists at Braziers Park in Oxfordshire, an event that descended into chaos, not least because of Trocchi’s drug use. It is this counterculture that Paul Reekie spoke of to Kevin Williamson, founder of magazine – and later publishing house – Rebel Inc. Trocchi appeared in the second issue of the magazine, alongside Irvine Welsh.
In light of this, Neu! Reekie! has some family to live up to, and neither Reekie nor Neu! Reekie!, like Laing and Trocchi before them, conceal their interest in unsettling the establishment. Neu! Reekie! have built a phenomenal reputation, showcasing innumerable fine poets, film-makers and musicians. At the sold-out #UntitledOne launch, Young Fathers and Andrew Weatherall performed alongside poets, and this summer with FOUND they will be touring some small and beautiful places in the Borders, Lowlands, Highlands and Islands for their ‘Anything But the City’ Tour. This kind of ambitious multifaceted programming is typical of Neu! Reekie!, with an atmosphere at once electric and intimate. UK Poetry and performance is in a healthy state, but there are few convenors who can attract such a monumental crowd of punters. In that spirit, their first book collection presents us with a good, sometimes great, collection of poets writing at the moment, along with a downloadable playlist of Neu! Reekie!’s roster of bands.
#UntitledOne has a fine sense of occasion, of vision, and of politics. Scottish maker Liz Lochhead, Douglas Dunn, Irvine Welsh, William Letford, Kevin Williamson, Clare Pollard, Helen Ivory, Michael Pedersen, Kirsty Logan and Jenni Fagan all appear. Dunn seems far removed from the rock-and-roll aesthetic of NR!: he ‘love[s] this remote expertise, far | From the concerns of so-called friends | Interested in ‘gigs’, applause, and fees.’ (‘Transport in Madagascar’). However, the sensual, floral botanics of Dunn’s work is just the kind of canonical stuff that NR! desire in their broad but well-defined cultural vision. It is Scottish at heart, international by choice, and Dunn holds his position firmly within this genealogy.
The effervescent, generous celebration of cultural identity that not only Dunn and Lochhead, but Reekie, Welsh, and others inject into this collection is its most exciting quality. Newer writers like Letford, Fagan and Logan also shine. It is reductive to view this as a ‘national’ event – the collection’s intellectual heft works at a much more human level, as Neu! Reekie! try to rupture the authoritative divide inherent in tradition: this is the school of critical thought they inherit. In an environment in which poetry functions on a canonical basis, settling into cyclical patterns of pamphlets, collections, and readings (‘gigs’, applause, and fees), Neu! Reekie!’s coherent, immediate countercultural voice understands movement, fiesta, changeability, anxiety, gender identity, discomfort, anger, madness, violence; it is anti-establishment and anti-status quo, which (not really that paradoxically) means the work is humanist and anti-authoritarian. They are the people’s perverts, to steal from John Waters. More than this, though, the collection celebrates the word in all its forms and with all its sensuality. Its credentials are riven with the kind of poetic rigour that many collections lack; these credentials put reader and audience on equal footing, with a deeply political sense of artistry. By mining a Scottish intellectual past, Neu! Reekie! spearheads a comprehensively radical movement. As Reekie writes in his poem ‘One Day of Lions’:
He says I wonder if it would work on the page | I say it sits on the page, it stands | On the page. It does fuckin aerobics | On the page.