This feature is accompanied with images by Francesco Cuttitta, who is currently undertaking a photography placement exploring contemporary art and performance in Manchester.
When a poetry evening attracts as varied an audience as this, aged from twenty-odd to fifty-something, and with latecomers crowding in at the back, you know something interesting is going on. The Other Room is free, and held in the marvellous wood-panelled, high-ceilinged performance space at the Castle Hotel on Oldham Street, Manchester, so its location is ideal. But the surprise lies in the number of poets who have so far taken part, and the health of the stylistic field it specialises in, which is defined as “experimental”.
Established in 2008 by James Davies, Tom Jenks and Scott Thurston, the Other Room publishes its own anthology and maintains a detailed website where you can see and hear videos of most of its 51 performances and readings. Once upon a time, its epithet, experimental, might have frightened people off. Perhaps contemporary audiences are more open to strangeness, or perhaps strangeness has engulfed reality to the extent that audiences respond more readily to its centrality in certain contemporary fields of artistic expression. While the work performed at The Other Room does not fit the definition of poetry still preserved and preferred in the literary pages of most British newspapers, and on television or radio arts programmes, it comes to life in the performance space, and engages with those witnessing it. On the November night I visited, two related poets with Canadian/British backgrounds paved the way for a younger northwest voice, and all three adopted a different approach to the performative aspects of poetry.
Karen Mac Cormack opened, with readings from some of her published collections including Marine Snow, At Issue, Against White and Tail Light, before moving on to “new unpublished things”. One remark she quoted about innovation stuck with me: “Without it, tradition would reign supreme.” This was true especially of her poem ‘What’s At the End of Everything?’, a piece that sounded rather like a science fiction story, full of data, times, cryptograms, and Fed-Ex codes, describing “how a new passport travelled from one country to another”. Another poem, ‘TY PING’, from which Mac Cormack read one extract, is written in the form of “script continuo”, where all the words run together; it felt like breaking into a stream of energy, only to be cut off from it again when she stopped.
Toronto-based, Sheffield-born Steve McCaffrey is an ex-member of the sound poetry group the Four Horsemen. He reads sitting down behind a table because of “general wear and tear, and because I wanted to look like a newsreader”, which works well when reading a poem like ‘Names from the Phone Directory, Buffalo’, consisting of actual names listed according to themes like birds, or the chromatic spectrum. ‘Three Poems Deliberately Spelt Wrong’ brought further laughs as did ‘An Incredibly Edible Poem With British and American Content’, which featured “popsicles-testicles, something to suck on”, not likely to be featured on this season’s Masterchef. An Example of a ‘Pataphysical Poem (based on Alfred Jarry’s concept, the “science of imaginary solutions”) included “lines one to three, on loan to the Museum of Modern Art” and various other lendings. I also liked ‘Perverse’, in particular the line “Monotheism always implicates the poly-vocal”. By the time he reached ‘Oedipus Meets The Abstract Machine’, McCaffrey was in true TV presenter mode when delivering the words “Smells like a huckleberry Nissan up your nose”.
Final guest for the evening was Claire Potter, who devised and programmed the recent four-city series of events, Shady Dealings With Language, addressing the theoretical and practical relationships between art writing and performance. She also edits Soanyway, a website collecting words, images and sounds that tell stories. She herself is a natural storyteller, and an amusing one. But her work exists partly in the world of contemporary performance art, as she demonstrated with the piece she proceeded to deliver with the warning, “I’m working from the floor,” which was literally true. Her written piece was typed (using a manual typewriter) on sheets of shiny card, and, as she showed us, the type was totally redacted with a black marker pen. By kneeling down and leaning forward on the floor, microphone in one hand, she read the words on the card by their typed indentations, reflected by the lighting, on the surface of the blacked-out card. The poem was long, involved drilling a lock, selling futons, and a pizza delivery franchise, but also revealed huge levels of violence, threat and pressure in ordinary situations. The resulting stop-start recital was completely true to the original text, but falteringly so; once or twice Claire commented on the difficulty of the task she had given herself, and allowed in laughter, even though the original text contained, personal, fraught observations such as: “When I get like this, I make an image of myself getting like this… and you have to ask yourself, is she really getting like this?” This process of adding an interruptive difficulty disrupted the predictability of reciting a pre-written text that could have become like a script, and introduced a new spontaneity and immediacy to the performance. The other difficult element for the poet was the increasing physical discomfort Claire found herself in, in that position, as she read through every line on every page, squinting into the reflected light, and this mirrored the discomfort of some the situations described in the poem. But the sheer physical effort made for an intense, visceral and at times hilarious event.
Images top to bottom:
Claire Potter, Steve McCaffrey, Karen Mac Cormack