Friday, 23 February 2024 10:46

We're back, baby! Rebel Admin and other poetry @ Centrala, Birmingham

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We're back, baby! Rebel Admin and other poetry @ Centrala, Birmingham

Culture Matters was back at Centrala in Digbeth on the 9th February 2024, to celebrate the launch of Al Hutchins' stonking cerebral masterwork, Rebel Admin (Culture Matters, 2023), to revel in the wealth and diversity of working-class literary talent in the West Midlands, and to raise money for MAP and the urgent humanitarian crisis in occupied Gaza.

The Rebel Reading marked our second visit to Centrala, the first being the launch of our (massive) anthology of radical writing about poverty, The Cry of the Poor, in January 2022. It felt good to be back in Digbeth, a place with a long and layered industrial heritage, and with profound links to various working-class diaspora communities. It felt good to be back at Centrala, itself founded to foster inclusion and well-being for Central and Eastern European migrant communities, and using culture and the arts to promote respect, cohesion, exchange and understanding. Suffice to say, we love their ethos and their mission. We also love the human face of that mission, which is always professional, accommodating and comfortable, for performers and audience alike.

And there was a dog. A truly adorable wee dog.

It was an even greater pleasure to welcome back to the space various Culture Matters contributors past, present, and (hopefully) future, including a number of those with work featured in The Cry of the Poor. These readers came to lend their support for Rebel Admin, and to whet the assembled appetite for what was to come. It was a beautiful expression of writerly solidarity, but what struck me the most about those short performances was that none of them felt cursory or forgettable; each writer gave a unique reading with its own strong vocal identity and style, expressing different but related thematic concerns surrounding inequality, social justice, interior landscapes and embodied experience.

The Cry of the Poor cover resized

Our first scheduled performer, Richard Arkwright, was unable to be with us due to illness, so I gamely attempted to do his poem, Stallion, justice. This was a poem in which the central conceit is richly and  rhythmically realised, with a restless cantering line and many surprising images and turns of phrase. While the horse figures for various often volatile aspects of the speaker's psyche, what I thought was particularly impressive was how the sheer physicality of the animal came across in the work. It was a joy to read out loud, and a great opener for the evening ahead.

Our second reader was Sarah Barrington, who joined the bill later in the day, but nonetheless gave a memorable and consummate performance. Sarah's piece was a performative character poem in the voice of Henry Miller's younger sister Lauretta, a figure largely erased from history or treated as a biographical footnote in the story of her more famous older brother. When she appears at all, Lauretta is often cursorily and vaguely described as “mentally impaired”. Barrington's poem resuscitates and channels this figure with uncanny facility. Lauretta's speech is plain-spoken, but absolutely precise. Through this poetic persona Barrington interrogates the casual erasure of women by men from literary cannons, intellectual life, and from hierarchies of importance and meaning.

James O'Brien was our third reader for the evening, this time from his the up-coming collection The Lucky Last at the Terminal of the Dead. These poems are characterised by incisive syntax that generates its own urgent rhythm; they are frighteningly exact in their portrayal of human devastation, and language itself is often riven and forced into strange, sharp conjunctions. The result is that the entanglement of social and linguistic systems are exposed together. These are intelligent, uneasy poems that demand your attention.

Duncan Jones was our fourth reader, sharing poetry that occupies some similar thematic territory to that of James O'Brien, but that is marked by a rich lyric sensibility that works in pleasing and arresting contrast to  those darker preoccupations. These poems excel in moments of intense focus; in acute observation of minute detail. They are also full humour, delivered with seeming-ease and openness. They leave a reflective mood in their wake.

Alisha Kadir read next, and brought poems with a strong musical and performative dimension. I have seen Alisha Kadir perform a few times now and I am always impressed by her charismatic and engaging delivery. More than this, her poems have grown and grown in their development of an idiosyncratic voice, full of sonic riffs, word-play, and verbal dexterity. These poems feel like a celebration of language in the midst of political despair.

Our seventh reader was Victoria Nimmo, representing prose writing with an excerpt from a story of unusual clarity and precision. What impresses me about this piece is its ability to construct an entire human relationship through sparing dialogue and spot-on description. This is writing that is full of empathy for our fallibilities and failings; that holds us all to account without judging or moralising. A beautiful, understated and disarming reading.

Our final reader for the first half of the evening was Bobby Parker, whose work has always struck me as a great companion to Al's, abounding in haunted and haunting images, and tales of off-kilter alienation. These poems are populated by grotesqueries; a poetry collection directed by David Lynch by way of Kidderminster. What is both compelling and unsettling about these poems is how familiar these strange scenes and characters are to us. There is indeed a strain of bleak (sometimes heartbreakingly beautiful) absurdity to working-class life. These poems reminded us of that.

Time for Rebel Admin!

After a brief interval it was time to welcome Al to the stage. We'd decided beforehand that he would read the entirety of Rebel Admin, the book being a kind of powerhouse rhapsodic performance; a work – amongst other things - of surrealist lament for a loved and unlovely experience of urban working-class life. I like to think of these poems as a psycho-geographical bus journey through a parallel West Midlands, characterized by splintery or whip-quick verbal parries, and populated by unwholesome though compelling gargoyles and grotesques. It's a hallucinatory rollick through the derangement of the senses, and the audience were there for it!

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Al Hutchins, a howling faggot-and-pea-fuelled visionary. Great shirt, Al! Photo: Steve Watts

In his other life, Al is frontman for the rhythm, holler and tune-mongering thing, The Courtesy Group, a band that has been lauded by the likes of John Peel, Stuart Maconie and John Cooper Clarke. Once described by Stewart Lee as a “howling faggot-and-pea-fuelled visionary” Al's writing owes much to this wildly riffing musical sensibility, both in its on-page presence, its eccentric line, and its propulsive, pulsing rhythm-driven delivery.

For those as yet unfamiliar with the magisterial Courtesy Group, I'd describe their sound as an omnivorous post-punk hybrid somewhere between The Cardiacs and the Fall, via Samuel Beckett and the Theatre of the Absurd. Here's a link to one my favourite tracks. I hope you're as delightfully bewildered as I was.

I'd suggest that the thread of continuity between Rebel Admin and The Courtesy Group is Al's intuitive grasp of how words and phrases fit together, combined with his steely determination to unmake and remake those words and phrases in a variety of inventive and violent ways. This unmaking is used to achieve a range of expressive effects, from the disorienting, through the frightening, to the hilarious. And back again. But these are not idle experiments or pretentious over-intellectualised games; these manoeuvres are underpinned by an understanding that language is not a neutral instrument, that speech is never an apolitical act. Rebel Admin sees Al chuck a spanner in the language systems that pre-exist and govern every aspect of our lives. And this spanner chucking takes place with maniac gusto.

The performance at Centrala was an unnerving and enthralling experience, with Al embodying the poems' kinetic energy by pacing, prowling and striding around the space. As different characters emerged – each with their own tics of accent and grammar – it was a little like watching a spirit medium. Delivery oscillated between the absolutely deadpan and the big, vaudeville-style expression. It's a testament to Al's power as a performer that he could sustain a long reading and keep it so relentlessly fresh and surprising. That's very different to being on stage with a band. Even as a solo artist, the music carries some of that weight, gives you somewhere to hide. With poetry, you have only the words to rely on; you are much more vulnerable and exposed. Al used this vulnerability to great advantage, creating moments of powerful stillness within the performance, as when he read the elegy 'Helicopter', opening up an unexpected space of pause, reflection, tenderness and solidarity.

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Photo: Fran Lock

If you couldn't tell, I think Rebel Admin is a special collection of poems. I would say that, of course, although I am not the only one. It does the heart good to think the book is slowly, quietly gaining traction. Jim Crace recently described the book as 'fascinating. And unique', suggesting that 'meaning is a very slow reveal. In fact, I'm tempted to think that the strength of the poems – or is that lyrics? – is their “freedom from meaning”. [...] sort of speaking in tongues and in a state of unfettered, troubled phrenzy. These are caverns measureless to man, rather than stately pleasure domes. All of which feels accurate. I would add that “freedom from meaning” isn't an absence of meaning, rather it signals a revolt from the sanctioned habits of literary meaning-making, and the several political tyrannies that underpin them. These poems' special gift in fact is that they relish the fugitive and escapist potentials of poetry, while simultaneously using the poems to expose the traps and snares of language.

They're also just bloody good fun.

Speaking of fun: what's next for Culture Matters' Travelling Circus? Hopefully more regional events to celebrate our recent and forthcoming releases. Stay tuned for events connected to the other collections in our pamphlet series: The Haunting: Deleted Scenes, by Kevin Patrick McCann, and Machine / Language by Martin Hayes. With more to come this year. We'll also be hosting events for A Brief and Biased History of Love by Alan Humm, and other Culture Matters titles. Stay tuned for that!

Our event at Centrala was a huge success. We raised £150 for Medical Aid for Palestinians, a charity we continue to support through sales of our latest release, Testament / Sajél, by Farid Bitar. 50 % of proceeds from the sale of this resonant book will go to MAP. We are happy to give, but as many of our readers know, this is not a drop in the ocean for us. We publish books on the thinnest of possible shoestrings and most of the work we undertake – writing, reviewing, editing, promoting, etc. – is done on an entirely voluntary basis. Which brings me to...

If you would like to see more Culture Matters books, events and workshops, whether that's online, locally, nationally, or internationally, then we urgently need donations. If you can give, then that would be greatly appreciated. Even better, buy some books, show the poets some love! But if you can't, please consider sharing the link to our donation page via your own social media. Or maybe you'd like to review a book, help build our audience? However you can, please support our commitment to the cultural struggle for a fairer society, and to a celebration of working-class talent, by making a donation here. And  Rebel Admin can be purchased here!

And you can watch Al's inspired reading here.....

Read 370 times Last modified on Friday, 23 February 2024 14:43
Fran Lock

Fran Lock Ph.D. is a writer, activist, and the author of seven poetry collections and numerous chapbooks. She is an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.