Sunday, 24 January 2010

Defragmenting Sappho

One of the great privilges of this weekend was being asked by the poet Kevin Cadwallender to help with the editorial process for his forthcoming book Defragmenting Sappho. This was a really interesting manuscript to read, and I'm really excited about the thought of this book being published.

Kevin was one of the best poets I encountered when I was starting out in the Newcastle scene. The first night I met him I became enraged on learning he was a vegetarian, and threw the contents of a bag of ham sandwiches in his direction. I haven't repeated this process on anyone else, so there's no scientific evidence, but on the basis of the one time I've ever tried this I can say that it's an excellent way to start a friendship.

In those days Kevin was mainly known, I'd say, for his performance poetry, which was astonishing, amusing, exhilarating and life-affirming in an endearingly cynical way. Kevin used to be a clown (in one of his poems he talks of being the only person to run away from the circus) and he has a clown's range of expressivity which, of course, encompasses both the comic and the tragic.

But there has also been a more serious, reflective and literary side to Kevin's poetry,  which he has chosen to foreground in recent years, especially following his move to Edinburgh. And I think Defragmenting Sappho marks the apotheosis of this process.

These new poems are based on the fragments we have of Sappho's poetry, and particularly the translations thereof by Anne Carson. These poems are far from the crazy, shouty, declamatory poems I first heard Kevin perform all those years ago. They're not small, they're not slight, but they are spare, some of them, and many of them have the pellucid sheen and depth of the best haiku. These are poems about love, and death, and aging, and loss, and they say things about those subjects which are exciting and sensual and heartbreaking and true. If you'd told me ten years ago that these poems were by the same person who wrote Red Dalek Loves You, I might not have believed you.

I might not have, but I would, because I would know that that person was Kevin.

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