Richard Price, Painted, spoken
Reviewed by Fiona Wilson
For Your Information: Getting the News from Painted, spoken
‘A is digitized ink, arrival’s initial’
--David Kinloch, ‘Abba’ (Painted, spoken #2)
Plain and unfussed, Painted, spoken arrives in my New York mailbox, the virtual simulacrum of the A5 envelope that encloses it. Inside are eighteen poems; two photo montages; one erotic coupon; and a series of two line comments on new books, music, etcetera. No glossy cover. No adverts for poetry prizes or festivals. No notes on contributors (this time anyway). No editorial. Just the work itself.
How to describe this aesthetic of sometimes warm, sometimes bracing, anonymity?
Recently, I’ve become fascinated by the ‘unofficial’ in poetry: the world of chapbooks and so-called little magazines, ezines and websites, the dense and tricky undergrowth of writing from which ‘proper’ books of poetry are culled and organised. Off-the-grid publishing, it seems to me, is where the crucial activity of cultural work begins.
Painted, spoken emerges from this milieu. Edited since 2001 by poet and critic Richard Price, the journal is issued once or twice a year in a deliberately tiny print run of 100 copies (digitised issues can be viewed online poetrymagazines.org.uk). There is no subscribers’ list; instead, copies are distributed ‘almost for free’, in exchange for a stamped addressed envelope. While most go to a familiar circle of readers, others float off, like the famed coco-de-mer of the Moluccas, into the wide, blue yonder. Price does not accept submissions, preferring to assemble content in contingent fashion from poets he already knows or has come into contact with: ‘I meet new people and poems will arise from that’.
Clearly, this is an unconventional set-up; in its style and in its mode of circulation Painted, spoken verges on a newsletter for poets. But Price is no amateur when it comes to editing. In 1989, with W.N. Herbert, he started Gairfish, a publication that later produced as, an off-shoot, the small press Vennel; from 1991, with Robert Crawford and David Kinloch, he edited the international literary journal Verse; still later, with Raymond Friel, he edited London publication Southfields. All of these ventures offered important outlets for Scottish poets of the Informationist stamp (of which, more shortly) and favoured, what Crawford playfully terms, a Scottish ‘cosmopolitabackofbeyondism’. Of Gairfish, for example, Price writes that the journal was intended to function as ‘a lively meeting place of views, styles, and biases for the discussion and showcasing of ideas and literature—Scottish in the main, but by no means exclusively so. It was hoped that through such “conversation” information and creative work could be shared’. Verse, in its original form, was, of course, rightly celebrated as a journal dedicated to international writing seen from a distinctly Scottish angle.
Meanwhile, throughout the 1990s, Price’s own poetry was being published in a series of chapbooks, principally Akros and Diehard (Sense and a Minor Fever (1993), Tube Shelter Perspective (1993), Marks and Sparks (1995), and Hand Held (1997); Perfume and Petrol Fumes (1999) and Frosted, Melted (2002)). Experiments with other media issued in sound recordings, translations, an anthology, a novel, several critical essays, a series of artist’s books, and the development of a website (hydrohotel.net) on which the interested reader can find links to all of these activities. Price’s first book, the much-praised Lucky Day, appeared from Carcanet in 2005 and a second, Greenfields is forthcoming in July 2007. Finally, as Head of the Modern British Collections at the British Library, Price has curated exhibitions on poetry (including the recent show on Migrant, Gael Turnbull’s and Michael Shayer’s small but influential poetry magazine of the late 1950s).
Given his extensive familiarity with poetry publishing, Price’s turn, with Painted, spoken, towards markedly lo-fi methods of production and distribution may seem surprising. Price’s explanation, however, is frank:
I wanted a change from the magazines I’d been involved with in the past. I wanted to try editing solo instead of the collaborative work I’d done for over a decade. I didn’t want to go through the fuss of art council form-filling, painful ‘informal’ chats about funding, and over-detailed business plans. Nor did I want to keep a subscription list other than my own address book, nor set up a bank account for transactions. It was simpler just to produce a slim booklet with understatement shared between its production values and its poetry, and then give it away as I saw fit.
This is a disarming statement and, no doubt, true. But other conversations with the poet suggest more than simply not wanting ‘to go through the fuss’. ‘Because the magazine is not funded by any publicly accountable body, and is such a tiny enterprise, I don’t feel the need to meet anyone’s agenda but my own and if I have an agenda, it’s one I can’t articulate’. After years of editing the kinds of literary journals in which ‘the construction of statehood, regionality and other identity variables [was] underwritten by public funding among other things (quite understandably)’— funding that, inevitably, set its own ‘agenda’, Price would seem to feel the need for a different forum for Scottish poets. What Painted, spoken offers, then, is a new space — a locus within which alternative modes of communication between poets, and between poets and readers, may be explored.
‘Strange still, to meet new people and be charmed’
--SB Kelly, ‘Lunacies’ (Painted, spoken #1)
With no explicit agenda to promote, the personality of Painted, spoken emerges from the writing it publishes; ‘editorial policy is constituted’, its copyright page says, ‘in instalments by the contents [of the magazine]’. The result is a house style, at once, idiosyncratic, and capacious, identifiably Scottish, yet, in the end, more interested in the poets themselves than in whatever identity papers they may carry — in Fanny Howe and Virna Teixara, as well as Edwin Morgan and David Kinloch and Tom Leonard and – and – and —. There is a definite preference for the kind of poetry Price himself has called ‘Informationist ’— that is, somewhat loosely and ironically, post-modern, Scottish-affiliated, and responsive to technological change. Nevertheless, the magazine has always had space for many different flavours of poetry.
This stylistic capaciousness (Informationists would call it ‘eclectism’) has been evident since the magazine’s beginning. Issue #1 featured work by SB Kelly, David Kinloch, and Price himself, alongside a long narrative poem by Raymond Friel (‘The Martyrdom of Saint John Ogilvie’), eight excerpts from Peter McCarey’s hypertext project The Syllabary and a very funny instance of found poetry, by Alexander Hutchison (snippets from A Taste of Scotland are isolated and re-assembled: ‘It is an ideal occupation for children / on a wet afternoon / put them head to tail in an oven proof dish / and remove any pips’). The poets of this first issue are all Scottish but what connects their work is less nationality than a reiterated interest in dismantling the assumptions of history, nation, language, (and even cookbooks!) in order to encounter these things all over again.
The tone is set by the poem that leads the table of contents. ‘Lunacies’, by SB Kelly, is eccentric (in the true sense of the word) in that it seeks to rewrite the super-conventional poetic topic of the moon by literally working around it. Each ‘stanza’ consists of a visual blank edged by three statements — paratextual materials of the sort the critic Gérard Genette likens to permeable thresholds. On the top margin appears an italicized pseudo-title; on the left, a term descriptive of a lunar phase; on the right, an imagist mini-poem. For example:
Putting two and two together to get two.
Full Rills and craters
(once thought features),
always identical when they
appear – like a twin’s ghost.
Repeated nine times, the effect is of a salutary reordering of the pathetic fallacy, a chary dance between object and subject (a process, as Kelly says, of ‘[r]esigning when you have not been in a position of importance’).
‘Lunacies’ measures mimesis against the ‘vast digressiveness’ of the world and pleasures of that sort also inform the contributions of McCarey and Kinloch. There are eight poems here from McCarey’s The Syllabary (www.thesyllabary.com), an online project that matches poetic definitions to monosyllabic words sequenced on a 3-dimensional grid. Some of these monosyllables are familiar (‘debt’, ‘zed’, ‘date’, etc.), others, until now, unclaimed within McCarey’s linguistic community (‘zet’, ‘deet’). Each syllable, however, gets its own idiosyncratic ‘definition’. Thus, ‘zet’ is explained as:
Routine — a tree of lemons with no zest,
A boarding-house of widowers in cotton vest
And trousers missing buttons at the waist:
Peely-wally, slovenly, ascetic….
And ‘deet’ provokes:
If you dreeped
You hud tae
Push oot fae the wall as you let go
Or you couldny bend your knees
When you hit the grun.
Begun as a means of showing McCarey’s young daughter ‘how letters worked’, these poems develop into an account of the poet’s linguistic identity in English and Scots, even as they comment on the mad order and random beauty of language. Questionable identities also shape Kinloch’s deliciously sensuous ‘Four Shifts’, a quartet of stanzas inspired by the still lifes of Glasgow artist Alison Watt (whose ‘Shift’ paintings were themselves inspired by the technique of Ingres, in his portraits of women). Kinloch’s language here — like Watt’s brushwork — is, at once, abstract and tactile in rendering the surface of draped sheets. Exaggerated and excited alliteration does the work of the artist’s lapidary approach.
Tango my sheets
Tiny fold: out reach
Their shy tangent
Before a swivel
Tugs them in.
By the fourth part of the poem, Kinloch is referencing Heidegger’s notion of zwiefalt (helpfully footnoted as the idea of ‘the folded nature of being’), but one need not have read Heidegger to get the main point here. The more startled, sensual detail Kinloch brings to the description of the folded sheets, the more the folds themselves insist upon the absent presence of the body. ‘I is not there is it / an other elsewhere’. The more you read, in fact, the more necessary that strange and familiar ‘other’ becomes; the abstract incarnates the material. Interestingly, ‘Four Shifts’, so rich in multiple dictions and languages, closes out with the Scots/English word ‘sarky’—an associative powerhouse of a word capable of simultaneously suggesting shirts and shifts as well as a nippy argumentativeness.
This inaugural issue of Painted, spoken concludes with a poem written by Price himself. This is an isolated event in the magazine’s history as Price is appropriately distrustful of editors who publish their own work. ‘Informer’, however, is useful as a kind of editorial marker for the entire first issue. For one thing, it converses (or, at least, appears to) with the work of the other featured poets: Friel’s attention to history; McCarey’s and Kinloch’s disruptive syntax, Hutchinson’s bricolage — all are refracted in the poem’s broken lines. More broadly, ‘Informer’ serves as a guide to the ongoing direction of Painted, spoken. ‘For a magazine that doesn’t have an editorial, it’s a way of making an oblique one’, Price says. At the time, it served as a means of giving ‘a steer to potential contributors that I wasn’t looking for poems only in conventional prosody or syntax’.
Embodying these ideas, ‘Informer’ is derived from a newspaper article, gutted of two thirds of its content and drastically re-ordered. The result is, at first glance, almost unreadable:
Kids risk manhole mothers
The complaints about wide
an at of
on Farm Way
House children and are on
She small been quite
done them kids
Read aloud, however, something else becomes apparent. While fragments of the original article (about potholes and complaints) remain, a quite different ‘narrative’ begins to emerge from the gaps (potholes again) between the very words that formerly composed the article. This narrative comments on unspoken suburban anxieties to do with class, houses, homes, estates, families, mothering, and the faulty paving over of the natural world (‘so even can up be it / dangerous be to lid / down You’). It speaks to the fear of sexuality, to the fear of women (‘manhole mothers’), and, especially, to the perceived vulnerability of children (a thought that invites a complete re-reading of Hutchison’s ‘Receipt’). ‘Informer’, Price says, ‘shoots edgy glances towards the way children are used by adults as a place to locate their own fears and prejudices [so that] when adults say “think of the children” they might actually [mean] “It’s me that’s uncomfortable with this but if I invoke children I won’t have to deal with it because everyone will then think this is an outrageous / disgusting / dangerous topic”.’
In the end though, what’s really being expanded upon here is the language of the mass media and how it at once speaks and silences us (a phenomenon ever more painfully apparent where I live now). These are concerns long familiar to Informationist poets, responsive and skeptical as they are to the movement of information in society and particularly, as Scott Thurston and Andrew Duncan point out, to ‘the information that is prevented from moving’. The title of ‘Informer’, then, alludes to the urgent need for freeing up this kind of news, even as it gives the nod to Informationism. In addition, it displays a wry postmodern awareness of the impossibility of moving outside of discourse and of the consequently ambiguous role of the poet as cultural informer.
Getting the news it seems is going to take more than just turning up the volume. It’s going to take some very careful listening.
In this essay I’ve focused on the first issue of Painted, spoken as a means of introducing the magazine to readers who may not have encountered it before. In no sense can what I’ve written be supposed to substitute for an overview of the magazine’s ongoing development, or, needless to say, of the work of its many contributors (to name just a few: Robin Fulton, Donny O’Rourke, Elizabeth James, Frances Presley, Ken Cockburn, Andrew Duncan, Tom Leonard, Larry Butler, Gael Turnbull, Hamish Whyte, Dorothy Alexander, Alec Finlay, Jen Hadfield, Douglas Lipton, Edwin Morgan, Fanny Howe, John Shreffler, D.M. Black, Sergio Monteirode Almeida, Elizabeth Burns, Virna Teixeira, and Michael Shayer).
Some issues of Painted, spoken are more overtly experimental than others. Some prefer Informationist-style work, others dramatic monologues, prose poems, haikus, and even rhymed quatrains. Updates from The Syllabary appear often with news from the outer edges of linguistic exploration. Sometimes, an entire issue is devoted to the work of a single writer (issue # 4, for example, is given over to innovative English poet Simon Smith) or to a single theme (the Special Issue of 2003 focuses entirely on US military violence past and present). Issue #7 initiated ‘PS,’ a section of commentary on music, poetry, art, and literary criticism; eventually, this column branched off to become PS, the prose supplement to Painted, spoken (with articles and interviews about, among other things, the poets of Migrant magazine, sound recording poetry in 1960s London, and Glasgow pop group Belle and Sebastian).
For a deliberately small magazine, this is an ambitious and well-traveled list that would be hard to describe as promoting a specifically ‘Scottish’ agenda. Yet, perhaps, skirting around the idea of the nation is no bad thing, given the plethora of nationalisms now in play in Scotland itself. Moreover, as Eleanor Bell and Scott Hames recently argued in IJSL, ‘there is no compelling literary reason why identity issues should be the primary critical consideration when encountering [new work by Scottish writers]’. What a magazine like Painted, spoken offers, then, is less an explanation of identity than an opportunity to explore (or even reject) it in a hybrid cultural space in which encounter and exchange is encouraged. Indeed, as its very title suggests, Painted, spoken is most interested in poetry that occurs at the very moment of encounter — between the visual and the aural, but also, between the public and private, the hypertextual and printed, the market-produced and the homemade, the national and the transnational. Between such terms emerges what’s possible now in Scottish poetry.
 Interview with Richard Price by Fiona Wilson (email: 22-25th May 2007).
 Robert Crawford ‘Spirit Machines: The Human and the Computational’ in
Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science, ed. Robert Crawford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 58.
 Richard Price, ‘About Painted, spoken’ www.poetrymagazines.org.uk/magazine/index.asp?id=14
 Interview with Richard Price.
 Interview with Richard Price.
 Interview with Richard Price.
 ‘Introduction’, Scott Thurston and Andrew Duncan, Angel Exhaust 9 (Summer 1993).