Peter Savieri reviews Going Down Swinging 20

14 April 2003

cover of going down swinging issue 20Going Down Swinging 20, edited by Adam Ford et al.
2002

Most people can barely speak, let alone write. So it follows that mastery of the written and spoken word is a rare qualification. This does not, however, prevent an international swamp of hacks from turning contemporary culture into a poorly realised historical theme park of rehashed, diluted, ripped-off high points from an overly romanticised 20th century.

Now that I’ve made my dramatic entrance, allow me to disrobe. Going Down Swinging (the book) is mostly clear water and complex organisms. Anna Daly is there with ‘My Friends, The Cat and the Sky’, creating their own isolated internal dialogue, its meaning growing naturally in the mind like a surrogate memory. And so is Miles Vertigan, offering his abrasive act of intuition or projection—certainly imagination. And there is Lorin Ford’s gorgeous sestina-esque invention.

There are a few muddier spots.

Susan Patterson’s ‘Love’s Uncharted Land’ is one example: sentimental and beleaguered by clich?¬©. A semi-parasitic approach lends it a borrowed classicism, wearing its words pretentiously, and ultimately wearing them out. Pretence need not cancel out beauty (there are some beautiful turns of phrase here), but the ear of the poet could be more intuitive and the cadence more natural, so that the formula is less naggingly apparent.

By contrast, ‘Cold Collation’ by Prasenjit Maiti eliminates the novelty factor of over-laboured stanzas by writing beautiful, rhythmic imagery in prose, freeing us from the usual writerly expectation to be considered clever, and just letting the reader read. And while there might be an academic term in limited usage for what David Winwood does with his Hans, academic terms mostly contain too much meaning for their own benefit, and for now ‘seat-wettingly good’ will suffice. Concepts of operatic drama, so often pap in the hands of amateurs, unfold beautifully in the hands of Andrea Sherwood (‘The Deal’), contrasting Edward Burger’s inventive ‘The Yell’, which employs a more traditional teaching approach, to enchanting (though perhaps unfinished) effect. Natasha Cho investigates her ‘Unsolved Mysteries’ with a most excellent clumsiness.

In a self-referential twist, Martin Bennett’s ‘Lament for a Maker’ petulantly sums up the anxiety of the eternal submissive when, disheartened by his struggles to arrive on the writing scene, he turns the pen on himself. Oh, the irony if this is his tainted triumph… I wonder if his other work’s any good? No such despair for Andrew Morgan, whose ‘Confidences’ expertly involves the reader in a delicate confrontation with taboo.

Writing should set its sights on expressing difficulties, setting clever traps of logic, and sharing great confidences. Never easy to grasp for reader or writer, its content ought in some way to engage with great revelations. Otherwise, is it really about anything? I’m not saying all material should be problematic in the traditionally negative sense—rapture contains its own struggles as do subtle contempt or contentment. Just that no subject should be presumed to be too well within the writer’s grasp. It is the precariousness of expression that keeps the reader hanging on. The nobility of writing is in the attempt to reach meanings that are beyond its grasp and to refine its crudely encoded language to evoke resonances outside words. It is one of our torches in the dark, which is the tension of the blank page. Writers with barely a match, obsessed with their own delusions of virtuosity, try to tell us about the whole room, the whole world… babbling idiots, presuming to comprehend what only the greatest can hope to apprehend. Maybe that’s why I turn more and more to the image, out of respect for the permutations of meaning.

GDS is conducting an experiment that involves welcoming sequential art into its literary biosphere. Hoping to avoid contamination, yet simultaneously to promote germination of this much-maligned form. The fluent adaptation of an Andrew Marvell poem by Nicki Greenberg and the biting kitsch of the Pox girls’ Foreigners sit well as illustration in these all-word environs. There also blooms a poetically fragmented, trademarked nostalgia from gregory mackay, and all the eloquence of Jo Waite’s unrequited love sonnet is contained in the pictures… would a rose in any other medium smell as sweet?

Now, I should qualify my treatment of GDS in CD form as follows: I personally find most spoken word unendurable. And while I acknowledge this is partly a result of my untested desire for pop superstardom, I sincerely believe it is also because most spoken word is unendurable… I cannot endure it. It will not endure. Through the alchemical process of song-writing, the most inane lyric can be elevated by music to woo in a fashion its written form would never suggest, and great words through even just good music can acquire the very power of devastation. At its worst, spoken word has taken the most pretentious failings of bad song-writing and performance, and made them into a sub-genre of bad poetry. A sort of extended and mercilessly miked pick-up line for pseudo-Beats tired of beating off alone. At its best, however, it can become what all good performance can become, an engagement with the amplified soul. From a fairly pointless (and smug) tribute to AA Milne’s Alexander Beetle to the irritating (though short) recently deflowered ramblings of Rachel Robbins; from Richard Watts’ cliche-riddled ‘Where Does Love Go?’ to Danna Stevenson’s irony free ‘Angst’, there is much here to support my unfortunate prejudice against the form. Richard, at least, is capable of far better work.

While some of these choices seem a little soft-headed, others make me quite happy to have these ear things on the sides of my lovely head. Charlotte McCabe’s credibly ragged desperation in ‘Fuck Tape’ and Sean M Whelan’s recurring obsessions in the beautiful ‘Lionheart’; Gaby Bila-Gunther’s gauntlet, ‘How To Improve A Woman’ and Jeff Payton’s subconscious time-travelling in ‘What Would Andy Say’ all tickled my tiniest bones in ways I cannot deny. Others that may have been interesting on paper frankly angered me with their sanctimonious delivery, their pathetic dependency on that hand-me-down, cleverer than thou, let-my-lilting-phrases-guide-you spoken word accent. But ‘Brooklyn Is Home’ is nicely written if you can ignore Eddie Patterson’s vigorous wanking, and Clare McKay is not nearly as important as she thinks she sounds. Still, as a result your pleasure is doubled when a performer puts their own voice on the line with authentic candour, even in the face of the unsettling power the Aussie accent possesses to make a work of admirable sophistication sound like a hidden track on a Wiggles record. Paul Mitchell’s ‘Stereotypical Suburban Man Does Strange Thing’ is an eerie crisis by the clothes-line, and the larrikin grin in Justin Treyvaud’s ‘jud and dave are working the public bar’ turns oration an appealing shade of human. The reliable Lisa Greenaway weighs in with ‘Khandallah’, with intentional levity provided by Crazy Elf’s ‘Samurai’, and in the end, some residue from its more pompous tracks is thankfully relieved when the disc ends with Tuffy the Great White Spruiker’s facetious little ‘Penguin’.

There is a lot of fine writing saved from the swamp in this multimedia flotation device (quote me, quote me now) and despite the gravitational suck of that muddy bottom, more complex signs of life struggle to evolve… going down swinging.

 
Peter Savieri designed the covers for Going Down Swinging issues 18, 19 and 20 (pictured above).

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