Nicholas Johnson’s foil: defining poetry 1985-2000
edited by Nicholas Johnson. Buckfastleigh: Etruscan, 2000. 393 pp.

by Frances Presley


This is a collection of poetry and prose texts by thirty-three British-based writers , who first made their work public between 1985 and 2000. Eleven of them are women,* which is an improvement on some other recent British innovative poetry anthologies, but still disappointing. As a poetic project, foil, according to Johnson, “represents changes in expectation of—and within—language; idioms up for grabs.” Such changes emerge through writing that is “[p]unned, sampled or appropriated, serpentine and spatial, hysteric or vitriolic: this poetry pays keen attention to sound and has a driving pulse rhythm.” As we might expect from an anthology of this size, the editor’s description holds only partially true.

        For Johnson foil contains “a generation of writers, performers, activists, mavericks and shadowy presences—many not previously anthologized…The 20th century’s last invisible generation.” Again there are exceptions to this generalisation, such as John Kinsella and Tracy Ryan. It is nevertheless true that many have only had pamphlets published. Johnson emphasises how these younger British poets, writing outside the mainstream, are inadequately published and undistributed. Accordingly, he draws attention to “the event” that could be said to constitute poetic performance. However, not all the poets here would define themselves through performance.

        Sometimes it seems easier to think of this large anthology in terms of provenance, the centres of culture that Johnson has drawn on.  In England these include Dartington College of Arts and Cambridge. Perhaps not quite so romantically outside the “the standardised English education system” as Johnson would have us believe!

        Although I read foil with interest and mostly pleasure, my focus in this review is on the women poets that Johnson includes. His choice here, as we might expect, tends to reflect his general preferences within the anthology. Most of the women poets Johnson showcases are linguistically innovative, to use a phrase that he will not have the anthology be defined by. One exception is the volume’s first female contributor, Meg Bateman. Here we have simultaneous versions of her poems in Gaelic and English. Living on the Isle of Skye, she learned Gaelic as a non-native speaker. Bateman is one of various poets that Johnson includes who use other languages in their writing. However, there is a great difference between using other languages in fairly traditional form, as Bateman does, and the distortion and incorporation of other languages which we find in poets such as Caroline Bergvall and Brigid McLeer, or even Tracy Ryan. McLeer, who was born in Ireland, incorporates Gaelic into her complex collage, “Collapsing here, version 2.3: home ‘go foil.’” I think it is hard to find experimental poets actually living north of Hadrian’s Wall and this view seems to be reinforced by Johnson’s other choice of woman poet living in Scotland, Alison Flett. Writing in Scots dialect, she celebrates rather than disrupts the spoken language. Her use of the popular monologue no doubt works very well in performance. An example is “Whit Lassyz Ur Inty” (or, what lassies are into), which revolves around the “shite” of the dancing toy ballerina of childhood. How odd to have this followed by Drew Milne and lines such as “beyond purely verstehenden explication”! Their poetics could not be further apart.

        In both Bateman and Flett’s case Johnson seems to have been drawn to them because they demonstrate his interests beyond the experimental. In Flett’s case it is evidently the performance.  In Bateman’s case it is her “questioning of utilization of landscape”—as a strong rural theme runs through this anthology. Reflecting his own writing, Johnson is strongly drawn to work which combines the experimental and the pastoral. There is evidently a tension here between the modern and the world we have almost lost or never existed. 

        The women poets who express this tension in new and interesting ways include Helen Macdonald, Jenny Chalmers and Harriet Tarlo. Macdonald, who has worked in falcon conservation and research programmes is interested in the tension between the lyric voice and specialist vocabularies which fracture the sense. She takes these vocabularies from science and biology “orienting the reader into a field populated by different versions of the self and its relation to the natural world.” For example, the poem “Dale” begins: “The storm runs forth on several seas whose manner is/ the hard edge of a clamber down gneiss with a split thumb.” Chalmers work is, I think, more lyrical than Macdonald’s, though still challenging. She is more concerned with the language of passion interwoven with the language of landscape: “the language/ riots then expires or goes/ wandering across these hollows/ searching for the border.”

        Harriet Tarlo also writes “outside”: “writing outside is being on the outside of what you cannot understand…writing outside is also being in it, being aware of where it is...the inter-linking carry on your back the history of the sublime, beautiful and close-your-eyes-to-all-the-rest aspect of know and use your own desire in language, desire in landscape…to know that place does not come free.”  The visual presentation of Tarlo’s poetry is also significant, and shared with some of the other poets in foil. Johnson comments on it in the introduction when he refers to the “text as environment, matched by the book,” and some of these poets have produced books which are visual objects. In this anthology only McLeer’s work includes graphics, and I missed the visual component in the extract from Tertia Longmire’s work, since she is an important artist as well as poet. In Tarlo’s writing, to return to the natural metaphor, the poem moves like waves across the page. Elsewhere the effect of large font size words is breathtaking. It draws attention to the excitement of the words, “building” them, as the natural patterns are built up.

        If I have found myself focusing especially on these experimental women writers of the natural world, I think it is because this is also Nicholas Johnson’s preferred locus, and somehow these poets are best represented.

*The poets are Meg Bateman, Tracy Ryan, Caroline Bergvall, Brigid McLeer, Alison Flett, Danielle Hope, Helen Macdonald, Jenny Chalmers, Harriet Tarlo, Tertia Longmire, and Karlien van den Beukel.

Bio: Frances Presley lives and works in London. She has collaborated with the artist Irma Irsara on a multi media performance about women's clothing and the fashion trade, Automatic Cross Stich (The Other Press, 2000). She also took part in an email collaboration with the poet Elizabeth James: Neither The One Nor The Other (Form Books, London, 1999; CD version also available). She has written about British women experimental poets. Other publications include: The Sex of Art (North and South, London 1988); Hula Hoop (The Other Press, London, 1993); Linocut (Oasis, London 1997); and Private Writings (Maquette, Sheepwash 1998).




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