The Lyric is in Another Castle: Poetry and Video Games

Intro: Huge thanks to a number of people I’ve bored to death by talking about writing this without actually writing the blessed thing. Particularly in the past while though, big shout outs to Harry Giles, Ron Villanueva and Heather Parry for kicking some of the bigger ideas around, and deep gratitude to Muireann Crowley for insightful close reading and structural editing. A reader’s note: this is a bit of a long’un, and it’s divided into three sections. Take them as you will. Video games and poetry. Here goes.

*

Sidekick Books published the first volume of their Coin Opera anthologies back in 2009, and more recently I’ve noticed poets increasingly keen to introduce the worlds or experiences of playing games into their work: in Grun-tu-molani Vidyan Ravinthiran uses the buggy surrealism of Fallout 3 as a metaphor; Harry Giles has created a text-based video game, Raik; R.A. Villanueva has cited Mario’s design as a major influence on his artistic practice in Reliquaria; Will Harris uses Halo 2 as an arena for self-reflection in Ten: Poets of the New Generation; another Complete Works fellow, the twice Ted Hughes Prize-nominated Jay Bernard, notes how the falling platforms in the Mario games helped shape The Red and Yellow Nothing, specifically in terms of breaking down hierarchies of register, the ‘high’ poem and ‘low’ game.

But poets have been referencing and taking inspiration from other genres since day dot, and that doesn’t make a poem into a film or a painting. So, let’s quickly take a look from a reverse angle, at the ways video games have drawn on poetry. Here’s the first scene from Kentucky Route Zero (2013), the video is an hour long, but you only need to watch a minute or so, from 6m20s onward:

The game draws the player into its dreamy, surreal atmosphere by having the player compose, from a multiple-choice sequence, a haiku. There’s no fail-state; any combination you choose is legitimate and, as far as advancing the game is concerned, successful. The game isn’t ‘beaten’, just experienced; there’s no high score metric, only what the player invests in terms of thought and energy. The game uses poetry as a mechanic (layman’s terms: a way the player interacts with the game) to allow the player to enter the game’s headspace, to assert that there is no right or wrong way to play and that maintaining a state of interpretative alertness is what the game values most.

Here’s the first thing the player sees in Night in the Woods (2017); again, I’m focusing on the first minute:

Like Kentucky, the player is asked to fill in the blanks in a weird and allusive intro (much of which the game elaborates on in the main storyline), with short lines of left-aligned text with line-breaks, and, right at the end, and honest-to-god full rhyme. The game wants to establish an atmosphere of loss, unease and the occult, and chooses the slippery non-linearity of short-form poetry to do the work. Poetry recurs throughout the game: a major character is Selmers the poet, an important scene is a poetry reading in a library, a few portentous figures speak in riddles and rhymes. Night in the Woods is, in part, a coming of age story in a far more kitchen-sink-realistic setting than Kentucky, but it recognises the capacity of poetry to alter how the reader/player encounters language. The first scenes in both these games are, partly, invitations to the player to engage in a way that games rarely do, with emotional sensitivity and a generative, curious approach to meaning-making.

But games have been referencing and taking inspiration from other genres since day dot, etc. So, let’s take a look at a very well-known piece of level design, the first stage of the first Super Mario Bros game, developed by Shigeru Miyamoto and the team at Nintendo. Here it is in action:

How does this relate to poetry? Isn’t the same attention to detail and design present in fiction? It sure is, particularly in short/flash fiction, but what makes poetry and short prose different is their relatively urgent need to establish their terms of engagement. Where a novel can spend a relatively long time acclimatising the reader, for shorter artistic forms like a poem (even a book of poems, which can generally be easily read in one sitting) or a single Mario level, economy of expression is vital. auntie pixelante has written an extremely meticulous piece of analysis on how this level works. It’s worth reading in full, but the key question pixelante poses is:

How does the game teach the player what they need to know to play the game, just by playing the game?

pixelante goes on to explain how the positioning of Mario – the player’s in-game avatar, the game’s lyric self – relative to the world around him invites exploration and a gradual encounter with the inhabitants and obstacles of the game world. pixelante describes the sensation as “To the right, hold on tight” – Super Mario Bros was released in 1985, and to this day a huge majority of 2d platforming games hold “the goal is to your right” as a foundational principle. It’s tempting to pun on Mario’s movement across the screen and the rightward movement of words across a page, but this only works for languages that run left-to-right. The important takeaway is that the game equips the player with the necessary skills to beat the game’s challenges immediately before the player requires them.

This, I think, is a decent entry point to discuss how design priorities in poetry and video games overlap. Super Mario Bros doesn’t tell the player explicitly “you are Mario” or “you decide Mario’s movements within the limitations imposed by the developers”, but the player’s experience of other games, combined with the developers’ contextual design, make it an easy step. Poetry’s relationship with its own in-game avatars is somewhat more complex, to say the least, but the assumption “you are inhabiting/witnessing the poet’s point of view”, or “in the act of moving your eye across the page you are responsible for the poem’s progression” is fairly commonplace. The interpretive limitations imposed or suggested by the poet are usually much harder to articulate; partly, perhaps, because some of the conventions of lyric poetry’s dramatization of the self are so common as to be invisible. More on that later.

How many poets have you been? How many strangers’ emotional states have you embodied? How often, though, did the poet explicitly tell you, “hey, time to be me for a second, hope you like weird, inscrutable feelings”? The assumption that the speaking ‘I’ will a) correspond to the human whose name is on the front cover, much as Mario’s is on his; b) remain uncomplicatedly within the reader-player’s comprehension throughout; and c) demand some degree of empathic communion is as commonplace as a two-dimensional avatar advancing to the right. There are exceptions, beautiful ones, but contemporary poetry in these islands tends to abide by these autobiographical conventions unless clearly indicated otherwise. Work in persona, or fictional poetry tends to be formally marked, like the speakers from classical myth of Alice Oswald’s ‘Tithonus’, or Sandeep Parmar’s Eidolon, for example.

The most Mario poet I can think of from the past few decades (which I say with all love and respect) is Seamus Heaney. Here’s the first two stanzas of St Kevin and the Blackbird:

And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.

‘And then’ sets the poem in motion. The saint’s posture and location are established in logical order: Kevin appears, then his cell, then the episode’s obstruction. Though I hesitate to draw too neat a comparison, Miyamoto’s design of the first Mario level parallels Heaney’s in its presentations of protagonist, setting, antagonist. In other words, the blackbird as it ‘settles down to nest’ is the poem’s goomba. Also worth noting how Heaney builds the poem’s tension, by comparing a human arm to a beam in a building. It’s a natural progression, given that the only elements in the poem thus far are a human and his building, but the word ‘stiff’ is the poem’s first dissonance: Kevin’s arm is not masonry, he is in pain, and it will only get worse.

This is fairly elementary stuff, (which makes it useful for my purposes, if unrepresentative of Heaney’s oeuvre) but it’s worth noting how the nursery-school tone is already working to prepare the reader for what’s to come. The language is insistently ordinary and the syntax on-rushing and linear. Each clause adds to our ability to inhabit the scene without subtracting from anything that went before. The poet wants the reader to keep moving right: there’s no pressing need to go back up the page, or back along the line.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.

Kevin’s interiority and a huge spiritual concept are breezed over. Heaney probably doesn’t want the reader to linger on the implications of being ‘linked / Into the network of eternal life’, not yet at least, and it’s significant that it is contained by the poem’s first subordinate clause, a grammatically optional extra. That the clause sits between such unassuming words as ‘and’ and ‘is’ makes the sentence feel like it’s itching to get on with things. Likewise, the consequence of the blackbird’s nesting is almost parodically plain: Kevin must hold out his hand for weeks, no questions asked. The alternative is so unthinkable the poem doesn’t allow the reader a pause to consider it until the end of both the stanza and the drama’s conclusion; the reader cannot rest until Kevin does.

This is the end of the first half of the poem; twelve lines, only three sentences. Heaney has built a little obstacle course for the reader, in such simplistic language, imagery and syntax that it’s nearly invisible. But there’s an asterisk below these lines, a whole second half of the poem:

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.

If the first half of the poem has the reader going ‘to the right, hold on tight’, the second allows the platform to fall from under us: if the first half of the poem felt like a tutorial, that’s because it was, and here’s the test proper. The first line undoes everything in terms of drama and presents a whole new set of challenges, but ones the reader has been prepared for. The throwaway note about eternal life, the description of Kevin’s arms as ‘stiff’, the real sacrifice his ostensibly simple decisions imply are all laid out, one by one, more difficult versions of the questions a careful reader will have begun to consider already: the poem demands nothing the reader hasn’t been primed to encounter. Where Mario jumps to a flagpole with a congratulatory jingle, Heaney rewards the reader with what feels like a truer, deeper insight into the poem’s subject. The triple-repetition of ‘forgotten’ and the chiasmatic ‘on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name’ are a musical full stop, a syntactic flourish to impress a sense completion upon the reader. (I hear ‘in the name of the father, the name of the son, and the name of the holy spirit,’ in the rhythm of those last lines.) That conclusion wouldn’t feel half as satisfying, however, without the poem’s meticulous outfitting of the reader with the tools necessary to handle the poem’s final lines, to make that final victorious leap.

Few poets are as teacherly as Heaney, and few games as intricately designed as the Mario series, but I think the basic idea is sound. Shigeru Miyamoto designed Mario to be beaten, or at least beatable. The joy in the game is that its challenges appear difficult, and sometimes genuinely are, but an unambiguous win state can be achieved by internalising the game’s rules and conventions. Heaney is a more complex artist than I’m presenting him here, but I do think that his poems are often laid out with a relatively clear goal in mind, and a relatively clear means of reaching it. I think that’s one of the key reasons Heaney’s work was (and is) so popular; like Miyamoto, he baked into his ludic spaces the tools the reader needed for successful interpretation. His poems often push towards some formal or thematic closure; pay attention to how his metaphors are constructed, how the poem moves, and reach the castle at the end, the rhetorical dopamine hit of a linguistic puzzle completed.

 

*

 

A second note: something video games do better than almost any other genre is embodiment, allowing a player to manoeuvre a body through a three-dimensional environment. Many of the most popular titles in gaming involve some kind of enactment of power-fantasy: with a few inputs you might climb a building, kill an enemy half a mile away,  or be an indestructible goat. For the purposes of this essay, I’m more interested in games that refuse or subvert these expectations of power.

In the beautiful, odd and addictive Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor (2016), the player-character is the eponymous cleaner, an unnamed Alaensee girlbeast. Earlier in the essay I talked a bit about how Mario carefully teaches the player the game’s rules with the intention of guiding them to victory; Diaries does not. The player is dumped unceremoniously into the janitor’s (literally) cursed life and must figure out everything from sleeping to eating to avoiding cops by trial and error, working toward a victory state that may never come. Unlike Mario, there is no castle at the end, and the fireworks are for everyone but you. Here’s the trailer:

The game tells you that you feel sick, you feel hungry, you are exhausted: you buy medicine, you eat, you sleep. So far, so human. After two in-game days, however, a new command appears: your body feels weird and itchy, you need to gendershift, and leaves you to it, as the screen starts to wobble and in-game text glitches beyond legibility. Managing her gender is just one more tick on the janitor’s embodied to-do list, something she has dealt with long before you started piloting her through her day, a fact so banal the game didn’t even think to mention it. There is something like an ‘ending’ to the game, but unlike Mario, life goes on as normal afterwards; there is still trash to pick up, and you’re the one who’s going to do it.

There are points of reference in the janitor’s experiences I understand: the feeling of being overwhelmed, confused and dog-tired chimes with the game’s thoughts about, and my own experience of, wage labour. But there are many things that are alien, both literally and metaphorically, and the game waits patiently, if uncompromisingly, for the player to work their way across that initial gap of understanding. The feelings of satisfaction to be had in Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor are not the buzz of overcoming a set-piece challenge like a skilful jump, but in finding a way to survive, long-term, in a hostile environment; the game isn’t going to let you turn your rags to riches, but you can make a life here, if you are patient and attentive to the world. The game is difficult, but not punishingly so; you might flail around for a while, but it’s a colourful, bright, upbeat place to flail around in, and you’ll almost certainly get there eventually. There are at least a couple of ways of looking at this kind of design. It may be a critique of big-budget games that spell out the means of success to the player, or rely on the player’s familiarity with generic conventions, and in doing so detract from the fun of achieving that success. Possibly, it is about establishing a relationship with the player on much more flexible terms, a relationship based on trust, that the player is an intelligent being who can process something more complex than direct commands.

The first poem of Emily Berry’s Stranger, Baby (2017) is ‘Sign of the Anchor’. Here’s the first line:

I stood at the dangerous shore.

Already this is a bit weird. The tense is odd: this action was completed in the past. The heavy adjective ‘dangerous’ feels ungainly, leading, even as the sentence itself is decisively self-contained.

Sleeves rolled up to my shoulders.
My fringe lifted in the wind in a long salute and I pushed it back.
Live your wish, Live your wish, said the sea.
I wanted to be like the shells on the beach, rubbed smooth and cracked open.

This feels something like mock-heroism, bathos: rolling one’s sleeves speaks of defiance, but rolling them up to one’s shoulders is, in terms of meaningful gestures, somewhere between illegible and comic. Likewise, the speaker’s untameable fringe saluting the sea is hard to parse, particularly as the speaker seems to immediately repress it. The degree of irony present in the sea’s wishy-washy speech or the speaker’s desire to be like sea-shells changes every time I meet it.

It feels like the sea’s words have prompted the speaker’s wish to be ‘rubbed smooth and cracked open’; though they are possibly heard only in the speaker’s mind, the poem’s magical realism means there’s no reason why it shouldn’t have literally expressed itself, though in that case the sea is a deeply unhelpful character. The act of being rubbed smooth and cracked open, meanwhile, speaks of a long process of erosion, of being worn down to a literal breaking point. The somewhat comic lines that preceded it make it easy to breeze over this distressingly explicit wish for self-destruction, however drawn-out and unspectacular.

And I held my arms out, tipped my head back, pictured my protective symbols.
I opened my eyes and saw the sign of the anchor burning.
I had to go.

If the previous line didn’t alert the reader that something untoward is afoot, now it’s clear the poem has shifted into something occult and uncanny. The flatness of the speaker’s tone, which earlier in the poem contributed to the archness of their self-presentation, does not modulate as they describe what seems like a supernatural or magical rite. What was affecting in its restraint is now unsettling in its absence of concern. The poem’s title appears, in flames in the sky: to the speaker, the meaning of the sign is obvious; to the reader, the import of ‘the sign of the anchor’, either in its natural state or in combustion, either does not matter or cannot be directly accessed.

I shouted some words but they were lost when the waves crashed.
And ash rained from the sky.
I was far out, in wet denim, and the shore was a jolt when I looked back.

Suddenly the scene is apocalyptic. The vagueness of ‘shout[ing] some words’ feels like a lost cause when pitted against the force of the sea, while the ash raining from the sky – from the burning anchor? is it an active, physical presence? – sounds almost biblical, a holy plague. The speaker is lost and alone in the middle of a catastrophe, in wet denim.

This last detail is casual, but says so much about what this poem is trying to do, I think. It’s such a humdrum thing to mention when the world is almost literally on fire, and in doing so alters the tone of the poem immensely. It calls back to the speaker’s sleeves and fringe in the opening lines, their relatively petty discomforts; bringing them back here, at the poem’s climax, is such a deflation of sea and fire and ash as to be a potent statement in itself. The speaker is still in danger, the distance from shore and safety is still the poem’s final consideration, but the merely unpleasant discomfort of wet denim is of at least comparable urgency. The poem has almost come full circle, giving full voice to a state of catastrophic hopelessness but maintaining a grip on the mundane; it leaves the reader poised between the two.

My first encounter with ‘Sign of the Anchor’ was something much closer to mere confusion: the above is a reading informed by a close engagement with the rest of the book. What most closely connects Berry’s approach here and the design behind Diaries is in their willingness to place the reader or player in a state of productive uncertainty, over a fair proportion of the book or game’s duration. Where Mario and Heaney present their tools and related obstacles in such close proximity it’s impossible to miss the context in which they are best employed, Diaries and Stranger, Baby first provide a potentially confusing environment, and place their faith in the reader to adapt their strategies accordingly. That the title of the first poem in Stranger, Baby – its level 1-1 – refers to an inscrutable element within the poem (an anchor weighs one down? holds one steady? a ward? a warning?) prepares the reader for a book that resists easy summation, whose difficulty harmonises with its emotional complexity.

 

*

 

A recent trend in single-poet collections – to my knowledge, at least – is the incorporation of relatively straightforward prose sections into the main body of the poetry book. Nuar Alsadir’s Fourth Person Singular (2017), Sophie Collins’ Who is Mary Sue? (2018), and Inua Ellams’ #Afterhours (2017), for example, all prominently feature critical or narrative prose. These sections make space for the poet to step out from behind the lyric curtain, to communicate in a register much closer to direct speech. The game of lyric interpretation, of the reader’s triangulation of meaning, is temporarily suspended.

As is the relationship between poet and reader: this kind of suspension could not adequately be performed by a poet like Heaney, who – for better or worse – figures the poet-reader relationship in similar terms to teacher-pupil, master-apprentice. However kindly and nurturing Heaney’s work often is, it is predicated on a power differential that is either absent or more fluid in Berry’s work (and that of many of her peers). For Heaney to step down from the lectern would necessitate an abdication of authority or control, which, for Alsadir, Collins and Ellams, seems less of a concern. While they have no fewer ideas to communicate and explore than Heaney, and certainly no less ambition to render them poetically, the means by which these ideas are communicated – plainly, conversationally, without the messy and vatic apparatus of lyricism – allows the reader to become something more like a collaborator, a co-conspirator. Here’s Alsadir in Fourth Person Singular:

‘Only to this you [a figure that allows the poet to speak into a “social imaginary”] can one speak as (I), in the fourth person singular. You are that indefinite stranger. Can you hear me? I’m writing from elsewhere. This book is for you (whoever you are).’

Ellams in #Afterhours:

‘I chose #Afterhours as a title because it summoned three aspects of the project: 1/ In poetry, the tradition of subtitling a poem informed by another poet with the word ‘After’ and the author’s name. 2/ Turning 30 and approaching the ‘noonlight’ of my years, frames my youth as ‘early hours’, and the subsequent years as after those hours. 3/ For writers, the stereotype of ‘burning the midnight oil’ – working late after the standard hours of work.’

Collins in Who Is Mary Sue?:

‘I note that, in literary fiction, when a female writer’s female protagonist is considered up to scratch, she is often taken to be a thinly disguised version of the author’s non-idealised self.’

For these poets, appearing out from behind the lyric mask (arguably into a lit-crit mask, which is at least a less cryptic mask) and speaking plainly about their artistic goals is no great loss of stature. It’s wonderful to see #Afterhours recognised in the Ted Hughes Prize shortlist; I do wonder, however, whether Ellams’ decision to include exploratory essays and memoirs alongside and in dialogue with his poems counted against him during the rest of prize season, challenging as they do the reader’s preconceptions about what a poetry book looks like, and what it contains. (It’s worth that the Ted Hughes Prize has a history of recognising formally unconventional projects.) Are such prosaic interludes a distant cousin of videogaming’s ‘casual’ modes, which take lengths to make games playable and enjoyable to everyone and not just the initiated, time- and resource-abundant few?

Broken fourth walls are somewhat harder to categorise in games, and it’s also rare that the game is the work of a single developer. A noteworthy exception on both counts is The Beginner’s Guide (2015). Here, real-life developer Davey Wreden voiced an in-game character named Davey Wreden who had stolen a series of short games made by a friend and arranged them as his own game with his own critical commentary, which he named The Beginner’s Guide. This briefly but embarrassingly short-circuited a critical community ill-equipped for drawing nuanced distinctions between game creators and their creations.

An altogether less metatextually fraught example is Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy (2017). Foddy is the developer and narrator of the game, and perhaps it’s no coincidence that, in a game so preoccupied with failure, loss and perseverance, that the player’s continual, massive failures are consoled by Foddy reading lines of poetry, by Blake, Dickinson, Rossetti, Gibran and many others:

(Yes, that is a man in a cauldron using a sledgehammer for locomotion. In a lovely twist, his name is Diogenes, the philosopher whose truth-seeking lantern Heaney takes as his symbol in his 1987 collection The Haw Lantern. A coincidence, sure, but a fun one.)

Schadenfreude is definitely in play here, but poetry also seems to have paved a way for the developer to speak seriously and plainly to the player, just as the game speaks to them mechanically. You make a mistake and fall, losing minutes or hours of progress with no choice but keeping going or giving up; Foddy persuades you to try again, with poetic wisdom:

“She smiled in defeat,
With unconquerable eyes.”
– Atticus

The two modes of communication work in harmony, serving the player at least the appearance of equal footing with the artist whose work is the site of collaboration, however frictive the collaboration might be. Throughout the game, Foddy intervenes to apologise for the game’s difficulty, comment on the disposability of much of digital culture, reassure the player that rest is necessary and important; he is a determinedly nurturing presence in a game he has designed to be punishing. In the final sections, Foddy narrates how, to get this far, the player must share certain priorities around artistic failure, and about the paradox inherent in how failure, sadness and frustration is something the reader-player avoids in life, but seeks out in art.

 

*

 

I hope you can excuse a lack of a definitive conclusion here; I’m sticking to the roots of the word ‘essay’ – to weigh something up or test something out – and I think trying to tie a neat conclusive bow around these ideas might ask too much of them. Maybe it’s that approaches to critical reading that overlook poetry’s potential as a space for play miss a lot of what makes art worth experiencing, or that the poet-reader relationship is not necessarily instructional or confrontational.  If nothing else, I hope they’ve given you a new way of thinking your way into poetry (and video games!), and I certainly hope you’ve enjoyed it.

Thanks for playing.

 

Works Cited:

Poetry

Kirstin Irving and Jon Stone (eds.) – Coin Opera & Coin Opera 2: Fulminare’s Revenge

Vidyan Ravinthiran – Grun-tu-molani

Harry Giles – Raik

R.A. Villanueva – Reliquaria

Karen McCarthy Woolf (ed.) – Ten: Poets of the New Generation

Jay Bernard – The Red and Yellow Nothing

Alice Oswald – Falling Awake

Sandeep Parmar – Eidolon

Seamus Heaney – The Haw Lantern, The Spirit Level

Emily Berry – Stranger, Baby

Nuar Alsadir – Fourth Person Singular

Sophie Collins – Who is Mary Sue?

Inua Ellams – #Afterhours

 

Games

Cardboard Computer – Kentucky Route Zero

Infinite Fall – Night in the Woods

Nintendo – Super Mario Bros

auntie pixelante – To the Right, Hold on Tight

Coffee Stain Publishing – Goat Simulator

tinyBuild GAMES – Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor

Everything Unlimited Ltd. – The Beginner’s Guide

Bennett Foddy – Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy

Advertisements

Inua Ellams – Afterhours

Disclosure: I think I met Inua at a reading in Edinburgh three/four years ago. Have chatted a few times on Twitter. I’m mentioned in this book! One of the diary entries mentions Sean O’Brien’s review of Happiness and my response to it. The book explores, among a great many other things, the experience of a family moving from Nigeria to Ireland, then England, and the effects of structural racism they suffered. I don’t have personal experience of any of this. Thanks, as ever, to Muireann Crowley for removing glaring generalisations and structural editing.

“The work of being an artist is intimately linked with the work of personal development” – Lebo Mashile, South African poet.

Review: #Afterhours is a project Inua Ellams designed and enacted over the course of a year as writer in residence at the National Poetry Library in the Southbank Centre. It involved selecting poems by British and Irish poets published from each of the first eighteen years of Ellams’ life, and resetting them (Ellams’ terminology) to accommodate his own experiences. The poems – both the originals and Ellams’ resettings – and explanatory diary entries are included in the book of the same name, published by Nine Arches. It comes with an introduction in which Ellams explains:

‘I hoped the project would show the ways poetry transcends time, borders, history, culture, race and empire, to illustrate cultural differences and similarities.’

It’s a utopian prospect, and, for all my reservations about poetry transcending anything (too often the word is used as a free pass for privileged poets to dismiss the effects of that privilege), an encouraging one; Ellams’ sincerity and his determination to prove his belief in the essential goodness of people is rather contagious. By organising this project as a conversation – ostensibly between himself and other artists, but between himself and the reader as a matter of course – each piece comes with space for decompression, for turning over the implications of what’s been and what’s to come, particularly around poems that touch on matters of death or emotional harm. #Afterhours takes both the wellbeing and the understanding of the reader as a matter of central importance, let literary kudos fall where it may, a radical gesture in a scene that still equates self-protective emotional insensitivity, irony or literary ‘seriousness’ with a mastery of craft. Note that care is not spoon-feeding; at key junctures Ellams leaves certain things unwritten, or, in the case of the four intricate and starkly beautiful sketches that appear in lieu of prose introductions, everything. The goal seems less to infringe upon the potential for creative responses to creative work, but to provide a middle ground between poet and reader, specifically a reader unfamiliar with the cultural realities Ellams inhabits.

The first poem is ‘No Return #After Iain Crichton Smith’. Crichton Smith’s original is about his childhood home on Lewis; it’s a wry, downbeat, often cynical poem about a place ‘indifferent to the rumours and the stories’ that no longer fit the island of the poet’s memory. Lewis is ‘stony, persistent’ after its stories, dances and music ‘have gone away to another country’. Most importantly for Ellams’ poem, perhaps, it mourns the loss of storytellers, a long tradition of creative historians, a literary genre in which #Afterhours absolutely takes its place. It’s no surprise then, that Ellams’ ‘No Return’ reserves so much space and some of its best lines for ‘The griots, the wise ones’: ‘These stories decorate your bloodline like antiques’. Ellams’ poem is a celebration of what endures as much as Crichton Smith’s is an elegy for what does not; both poets recognise, however, their personal estrangement from their originary cultures. The piece is a fine introduction to the project at large, a poem that holds at once the persistence of the poet’s roots and the pain of the poet’s uprooting, the creative possibilities, or responsibilities, of both.

The diary entry to ‘An English Dream #After Douglas Dunn’, discusses ‘sonder’, the vertigo one feels when considering the billions of subjectivities that exist alongside our own. The poem concerns a phone conversation the poet had with a friend, relating all that had passed since his departure from high school in Ireland. Dunn’s original, with its narrator running through a strange forest in a full tweed suit, seems to give Ellams permission to loosen his own narrative reins, to invite some imaginative chaos. The friend, Jack, gives the poet an overload of data, causing a kind of hyperstimulated dissociation:

‘Then I was fighting for my crumbling world and watching
in multiplying fractures the bubble of it burst, the cracks
leading one way, holes down the other and myself peering
from inside its falling walls’

The most impressive poems in #Afterhours, I think, come when this kind of imaginative messiness is given space to combine with Ellams’ flair with more linear narratives. ‘Fury’ and ‘Photograph: Ram Sacrificing’, for example, both establish a defined and comprehensible space for the reader to inhabit, while allowing the poems’ emotional states to become briefly ungoverned, or ungovernable, ‘Here are four men, their knives, a rope, / a gutter with sludge slow-moving through its gut’. These states would not work half as well, of course, without the carefully measured, relaxed rhythms far more common throughout the book; the times when this pattern is broken, as when a literally unreadable sketch replaces a prose introduction, are some of the most surprising and powerful moments in the collection.

Perhaps this is a philosophical tension in Ellams’ work as much as an aesthetic one. In a late diary entry he talks about his faith, how his conception of religion as ‘a belief in a vague order to things, and that I will find that order if I look for it; a path will always emerge’. This is explicitly connected to his creative work: ‘I think poetry is impossible without faith. […] faith that meaning will be made, that a vague reason and order will rise from the impulse to write’. There’s a kind of punning going on between the two processes, between spirituality and aesthetics; his formulation of reading a poem, ‘allow[ing] the poem to enter us’, is very similar to the spiritual phenomenon of kenosis, the emptying of self in order to admit divine presence. Given all this, it’s possible that the poems I personally find most engaging are those which manifest a kind of formal disarray, a poetic crisis that pressurises or counterbalances the faith Ellams clearly finds such an empowering, nourishing force. ‘Fury’ imagines the violent dismemberment of cruel and vicious people, is the poem in which a belief in the orderly path is most obviously denied, with its uncharacteristically short, aggressive lines, its lack of explanation. It is a moment in which the subconscious takes over, ‘all the glass- / and-grass-weaved // weaponry I failed / to let taste blood’. Maybe it’s the permission granted to a diversity of responses to injustice (peace, dialogue, violent dismemberment) that makes it chime so harmoniously. Maybe it’s an uncharitable response to a book so full of grace and patience to draw attention to its one moment of (purely imaginative) retribution.

The book’s warmth is most powerfully embodied in ‘Steven’s Lungs #After Pascale Petit’. The poem, written for a friend who committed suicide, has the air of a plotless lucid dream – another departure from the #Afterwords norm – but which makes perfect sense when the source of meaning in the poem is located not in narrative progression but the mood suggested by the movements of Petit’s original, ‘My Father’s Lungs’. Here, Petit notes almost without affect that ‘I’m no longer interested / in whether he loves me or not’, leaving the reader to consider what the poem is otherwise asking of itself. In presenting her father’s body as a neutral, almost inanimate object in which the poet’s subjectivity is undeniably present, however, the poem seems to frame it as an aesthetic alternative space, one marked by ‘an octave of pure silver’, ‘a swirl of starlight’ the poet ‘can fly through, into his chest’. The poem’s closing lines, which speak of ‘my next task: / I am gathering lungmoss for my pillow, / making a bed in his body’ suggest the beginning of something recuperative, domestic, peaceful. Ellams’ version is initially more interested in the real character of the poem’s title, who ‘held my gaze / in fits of soaring laughter’. In a book so focused on sharing stories, this poem draws determinedly back from the explicit, the vocabulary of radio taking the place of direct speech: ‘transmitters / growing in his ribcage’, ‘I’m piercing his white noise’. It’s a piece that recognises a final unknowability, Petit’s line ‘I’m no longer interested…’ ghosting the whole scene, and tries to find peace in that in-between state, both for the speaker and his lost friend. Few male poets achieve this kind of delicacy (perhaps Michael Longley, another poet of anti-masculinist love and metamorphosis), the capacity to present oneself as small and vulnerable and intimate, the quiet work of healing. ‘Steven’s Lungs’ is a poem worth celebrating.

The process of converting an original poem into a new, autonomous artefact is fascinating. As much as Ellams adapts the blueprints of poetic predecessors – it’s significant, I think, that this first poem’s elders are both familial and creative – his work is just as explicitly to find the most suitably Ellamsian poets in the existing canon. The old poems are transformed in the light of the new ones, and an aspect of #Afterhours’ work is arguing that Ellams deserves, indeed demonstrates that he already has, as much a stake in the existing canon as any white British or Irish poet. It seems significant that of all his poet exemplars, only one is of Black, Asian or minority ethnicity, Moniza Alvi, however much this is simply a reflection of the demographics of poets published in these islands from 1984 to 2002. On a recent Lunar Poetry Podcast, Rachel Long, Sunayana Bhargava and Tania Nwachukwu discuss how canonically central poets go unmarked, are simply ‘poets’, as distinct from, for example, ‘women poets’ and/or ‘black poets’. Nwachukwu argues:

‘It’s very important to have our own canon, but I also feel like it shouldn’t just be a canon for us. I feel our writers, black writers, deserve to be read by everyone else and if that means fighting for it to be part of the mainstream canon, then it definitely should be.’

Ellams seems to be enacting the same idea from a reverse angle. #Afterhours argues – almost entirely subtextually, simply by going about its business – that the British and Irish canon is not the sole property and inheritance of white poets, that the poetic mainstream can be made welcoming to every poet, should one have the will to do so. #Afterhours is built around the argument that Andrew Motion’s, Jo Shapcott’s or Robert Crawford’s poetry, for example, is no more or less defined by their physically, culturally and historically located identities than Ellams’ own; the difference is in the greater value assigned to centralised identities over marginalised ones. Perhaps this is distracting, however, from the book’s desire to be first and foremost a book of poems; as Ellams notes, ‘this isn’t the place for political historical discourse […] This is about poetry.’

I’m currently writing a thesis on Louis MacNeice and Northern Irish poetry, so I’ve been thinking about what poetic influence means in practice. To cut a long story short, it’s messy and weird. Considering influence in pragmatic, case-by-case terms suggested that the currency of literature is most often instinctive and impulsive, sensitive to the incidental, local context of the poem as much as the historical context in which the book finds itself. The most convincing theories of influence acknowledge empowerment on horizontal as well as vertical axes, peers as well as mentors, the fact that art is almost never made in heroic, father-killing solitude (as in the out of date Anxiety of Influence model), or even acting as trustee of our personal literary brand. Cross-generational conversation does not necessarily have to be a top-down, one-way experience either: as Ellams notes in his first introduction, his students’ interpretations of poems often cast new light on his own. The name on the front cover is only the first among many, and it’s heartening to see viable, communitarian models of authorship gaining mainstream publication. A book is no less valuable for being the work of many hands. In his own words: ‘I wanted […] to show, in utter transparency, that I was not the sole creator of the work I produced’; Ellams says this specifically about the poets whose work he resets, but it is just as true for the cast of daily, physically present members of a creative community who populate the spaces between his poems.

In recent years, Claudia Rankine, Vahni Capildeo and, this year, Nuar Alsadir, have opened up new possibilities regarding prose writing and the visual presentation of poetry. These books demonstrate how writing that looks like prose – is poetry such a small thing to be erased by typography? – may have the character and quality of poetry (precise composition, ambiguous or plural meaning, verbal music etc), and contextualise or amplify work more visibly authenticatable as poetry. #Afterhours is a fascinating project, not least in a time in which first collections feel increasingly, unhealthily pivotal to new poets’ careers. The gesture #Afterhours makes, putting communication with the reader first, downplaying the poet’s own authority and authorship, is hugely generous, open-minded, open-hearted, and I simply didn’t know how much I wanted a book like this until I read it.

Further Reading: Lunar Poetry Podcast 100: Octavia Collective, featuring Rachel Long, Sunayana Bhargava and Tania Nwachukwu. Full transcript.

Review by Billie McTernan in Brittle Paper.

Interview with Ellams on Barber Shop Chronicles, by What’s On Stage.

PS: If you enjoyed this and would like to help me keep doing it, please have a look at my Patreon. You can pledge as little as $1/month, every pledge is massively helpful. Thanks for reading.