Andrew Neilson reviews Outside The All Stars by Jonathan Asser (Arc, £6.95), What Was That? by Tim Turnbull (Donut Press, £5) and Buffalo Bills by John Stammers (Donut Press, £5)
The performance poetry circuit, which I have found myself frequenting from time to time, is a more complicated scene than outsiders might imagine, with many factions and genres-within-genres. If you despair at the sometimes moribund world of British ‘page’ poetry, then the undoubted energy of verse in performance can provide a rude shock to the system. Black poetry in Britain has long been found its strength in performance (see the Next Generation promotion, where the only black person on the list was Patience Agbabi), but there is also a kind of ‘white’ scene which had its genesis in the post-punk 1980s and is thriving in the upstairs rooms of pubs across London and elsewhere. Two of the poets under review here, Jonathan Asser and Tim Turnbull, made their first strides in that very scene and are now making the move from stage to page. That these efforts are largely successful bode well for further cross-pollination in the future.
Jonathan Asser’s debut collection, Outside The All Stars, concerns itself with largely cinematic narratives that strut along on a pentameter beat, with an eye for low-life urban detail which encapsulates everything from condoms found in a back alley “like blobs of icing” to “chicken-flavoured cardboard / jamming storm drains”. He has a distinctive voice that manages somehow to be both laconic and lugubrious within the course of one poem. There is a relish to the surreal comic edge of tales such as Celebrity Status where Donna Summer is spotted in a kebab shop or Duty Free where, in five four-line stanzas, Asser expertly assays a complicated scenario involving a single mother and her newly acquired friend:
…Nadine has no idea
Del has come from Cuba, via Utrecht,
Sao Paulo, Bergen and the Virgin Islands;
hasn’t clocked the kilograms of coke taped
to each thigh, despite having her hand
shoved down his jeans for half the flight.
For all the invention he displays, Outside The All Stars could have done with far more stylistic variety, as the poems are rather too homogenous in tone and form to really excite the reader. Asser’s work in the Prison Service does inspire a clutch of sparer poems, and there are some interesting ventures into more confessional territory such as New Boy or Be My Guest. These latter pieces help leaven the impersonal tone of the book, even while using the same techniques of narrative and observation themselves, and hopefully this is the seam that Jonathan Asser will mine in his next collection.
What Was That? by Tim Turnbull is a beautifully produced pamphlet published by the Donut Press which has also issued poems from Outside The All Stars in a separate publication. Turnbull, like Asser, cut his teeth on the performance circuit in North London, but his work has evolved considerably over the years. Originally from Yorkshire and taught by Sean O’Brien, Turnbull balances the comic and lyrical along his deftly rhymed verse with great verve. Landcrab is a serious and loving homage to the vintage Austin 1800, but readers will remember most the deadpan ending:
But now these automotive curate’s eggs
won’t even feature in nostalgic art.
Loaded blokes don’t rate them up near sex,
Jeremy Clarkson can or will not love them,
soccer stars and models are above them
and Jay Kay from Jamiraquoi collects
Ferraris, but, in truth, the better part
of that young man ran down his mother’s leg.
Other highlights include the title poem, The Golden Boys, Succubus and - perhaps the only good poem I’ve read on the subject - 9/11. By eschewing the grand statement and focussing on how he learnt of the terrorist attacks while in a butcher’s shop, Turnbull succeeds in conjuring up the sensation we all felt when it became clear what was happening in New York.
Any review of What Was That? couldn’t fail to mention Not The Whitsun Weddings where Turnbull produces a note-perfect imitation of Larkin’s original masterpiece. Here, however, the travelling poet is absorbed by the stag and hen parties on their way up to Edinburgh, and their steady dissolution along the Great North Eastern Line is rendered with hilarious detail. Writing light verse with real gravity, a full collection from Turnbull will be something to look forward to.
Finally, Donut Press have also produced Buffalo Bills by John Stammers - blurbist for Jonathan Asser’s Outside The All Stars and a name familiar to long-running readers of Magma. While waiting for the second volume from the 2001 winner of the Forward Prize for Best First Collection, we have this amusing selection of very unusual poems to savour. Stammers has effectively invented an entire genre of short lyric by imitating the famous “Buffalo Bill’s/defunct” by e.e. cummings, a species of elegy that also brings to mind the work of Private Eye’s resident bard E.J. Thribb and his “So, farewell then” poems. As Michael Donaghy writes in the foreword, it is a template that might be rendered:
Or, to quote the opening poem in full:
hanging like fresh linguini,
who made the trains run to time
and befriended an ambitious little guy called Hitler.
there’s an argument against buddying up with
a runt no-one else would ever care to sup with
and what I want to know is
don’t it make the blood run to your head
being tied up by your big toe,
Cue 23 more famous dead people, from Helen of Troy to Johnny Cash, and you get the idea.
Stammers demonstrates the dextrous wit for which he is justly known throughout. My own favourites included the ode to Ulrike Meinhof - “Prince Kopotkin! / That’s what I call a woman!” - and the nicely ominous turn to the poem on Joseph Stalin:
And this is what I want to know:
were you sorry to see the end of Uncle Joe
when he finally ran out of breath,
Hopefully a handful of these Buffalo Bills will make into the next full collection as a short sequence but in the meantime, pick up the whole tab courtesy of Donut Press.