We speak to new poetry publication JARG
Image: 'Response to John' (2015) by Low Coney. Analogue collage from found imagery.
'John' by Matthew Smith
John does not look 22
overgrown red hair bursts
through a soiled waterproof
flecked with blood
by a poorly-lit-busstop
dirty left-hand outstretched
clinging to a cracked Starbucks cup
he shakes it as passers-by
half-singing any spare change?
Every now-and-then he stops
tries to straighten up
as if his hand-me-down shoes
or too big
or too small
It only seems appropriate that it should be pissing it down in Liverpool the day I interview the founders of JARG, the city’s newest poetry magazine - nothing like a bit of Northern atmosphere on a Monday morning. However this gloomy, overcast, Film Noir setting couldn’t be more ill-suited to the wit and warmth that JARG editors, Ben Russell and Matthew Smith, unconsciously exude.
JARG is on its way to becoming a poetry powerhouse since founding in 2014. Working tirelessly on the publication, Russell and Smith are involved in all aspects from fundraising to editing and distribution. I was lucky enough to speak to them about all things beat, curation, love, masculinity and their endeavours to change modern day poetry perceptions.
How was JARG formed?
Ben Russell: When Matthew and I got to our third year studying Creative Writing at John Moores, we wanted to create a magazine or journal we could send into schools to provide an alternative to the poetry included in the national curriculum. We felt uninspired when studying for GSCE’S and A-Levels and the minimal poetry we were taught was too abstract and didn’t resonate.
This changed when we began our undergraduate studies. The poetry we were exposed to spoke to us and we wanted to consolidate this into a collection we could share with fellow students and the public that had only experienced poetry in the realms of a stuffy classroom.
We wanted to provide the alternative, something that young people could relate to. The poetry being produced today is exciting, interesting and relevant.
Matthew Smith: Through studying I think both Ben and I started to gravitate more towards poetry than the other elements of our course. We were struck by the contrast of teaching we’d experienced at school, where poetry is taught to the test, and how we were now being inspired as undergraduates. There were suddenly no parameters and the idea that any sort of art is open to interpretation was restored to poetry for us. We were also shown alternatives to the go-to poets that make up the national curriculum, such as Philip Larkin and Carol-Ann Duffy. The taught “norms” were stripped back for us.
At school, poetry was always seen as floral or decadent and as working class kids this didn’t hold any resonance with us. The more we were exposed to contemporary poets the more we began to find similarities between our own lives and this new content. A lot of poems appeared to celebrate the mundane, things that we take for granted and that opened our eyes to the potential poetry had and how relatable it could be.
We wanted to start an independent magazine that would promote contemporary poetry, written by both student and established poets, to an audience that hadn’t engaged with it before. We’d had our opinions changed through further studies so we felt we could create a platform to show that poetry can be of the times and can be relatable. Whether it’s a poem about poverty, heartbreak, loss, we’ve all experienced them, or are aware of them, on some level, and there is poetry being written today to reflect that.
Is there a stigma attached to poetry?
BR: Yes to a certain extent. I think many people avoid it because their only experience of it was at school and it’s become attached to a drab routine of study. The poetry being produced today is underground because of this. There are nights showcasing work by poets in cities around the country, there are people writing and releasing collections all the time, it just doesn’t have the platform that it rightfully deserves. This drove us to create JARG. We made it free and accessible to as many people as possible, distributing it to venues in and around Liverpool. By promoting the poetry we responded to we felt we could do away with the upper class clichés attached to poetry and the stigma it’s been branded with in recent years, restoring it to a relevant art form.
MS: I’d agree. I find that when I meet new people or get talking about what I do and I say I edit a poetry magazine they’re always quite taken aback and then more often than not they’ll bring up the Romantic poets or pre-war poems which again I believe stems from school and the way the curriculum is written. I don’t think poetry has ever been taught properly as it promotes poets as these unattainable, artistic geniuses. There’s a certain fear surrounding it and this stems from the curriculum dictating to students that poetry means x or y and if you don’t see either of these you’re wrong. This lack of interpretation stays with you if you don’t engage with poetry again in later life hence the stigma attached to it today.
What poets inspire your own writing?
BR: Sam Willetts, who we met in a writing workshop at university, is one. He’s had an interesting life which resonates through his work. He lived on the streets and struggled with drug addiction. His writing is honest, unforgiving and accessible. It’s very simple but always contained elements that you could attach yourself to.
MS: Yeah Sam Willetts. Digging which is about his struggles with heroin addiction is fantastic. There’s just something about his writing. It’s cold yet warm, sparse but vivid.
I’d also say I was inspired by two of my tutors, Alicia Stubbersfield and Andrew McMillan, both of whom we were fortunate enough to include in our first edition. Andrew has recently won the Guardian First Book award for his collection Physical. Not only are they both great poets but they supported us in our own writing, and editing JARG. They were always there for advice and without them JARG would have never been realised. Andrew has the ability to write about love, which has been the subject of art over and over again for centuries, in a very modern and refreshing way. That for me, to take something as old as time and make you, the reader, connect with it now is a beautiful and powerful thing.
What are your thoughts on Beat poetry?
MS: I think it’s important. Howl by [Allen] Ginsberg in particular is a piece that should be considered in detail when imagining the poetry cannon, however I don’t consider Beat poetry to be relatable and I think that is what should underpin all good poetry. It’s what we set out to promote through the contemporary poetry we showcase through JARG. As Ben said, I think it was evocative of an artistically transitory period. Perhaps if I had been around during the late 50s or early 60s - due to the simplicity of small towns and lack of control or influence over wider issues such as war and civil rights - I would have looked for something, or strived to write material that was more exploratory and mind expanding. It just doesn’t resonate with me personally.
BR: It’s one of the most prevalent styles of poetry and during the late 50s and 60s it was considered art in its own right alongside Warhol’s films and The Velvet Underground’s music. If you couldn’t play the guitar you’d become a poet. In its day it was an interesting way of individuals to speak out against social injustices however I think in today’s landscape it’s lost its relevance. I think it was only appropriate for the era of experimentation of which it belonged and outside of that it appears to have become a fad.
Is poetry an overtly masculine discipline?
BR: I’d say that’s partly the reason why I skirted round Beat poetry. JARG is focused on contemporary poetry that isn’t gender typical. It’s universal and indiscriminate. Going back to the Beats, as a group they’re work is associated with machismo and the characters that made names for themselves through that genre are legendary for their masculinity and virility. Poetry, alongside music and literature is universal and that’s what we hope to promote through JARG.
MS: See, I wouldn’t say poetry is genderless, by any means. I think there are poems that you could remove the writers name from and know what gender they were, just through their observations or phrasing. I do think that poetry, like all other arts, has been male dominated which is unjust and incorrect, because I don’t consider poetry a masculine discipline. I’d refer back to Andrew Macmillan’s poetry which I represents how poetry can be written by a male but not used in an overtly masculine or virile way. That’s how I consider contemporary poetry and why we hope to promote this rather than the somewhat outdated styles that use the art form as a vehicle to promote gender stereotypes.
Do any local poets encourage your poetry?
MS: Paul Farley, I don’t know whether his poems resonated with me because I was born in the same area but I did feel a connection with his writing reflecting Liverpudlians having a certain pride about their city. Also Brian Patten., The Projectionist’s Nightmare I would count as one of the best poems I’ve ever read. I think that Roger McGough’s commitment to his art should also be commended. Poetry isn’t mainstream and therefore anyone who continues to promote it and raise its profile deserves praise.
BR: Yes, Paul Farley made a name for himself round here a few years ago, his poems bring to mindEcho & The Bunnymen because it’s scenic and atmospheric yet evocative of Liverpool. You can tell he’s proud of his city and its culture. There’s one poem that springs to mind in particular Liverpool Disappears for a Billionth of a Second which was based around the myth that people can experience a time warp on Bold Street. It’s been reported that for a split second whilst walking down the street, in the blink of an eye, they’ve been transported back 200 years.
Nick Power is also a key figure. I think he’s bridged the gap from music to poetry and his work's have raised the profile of modern poetry.
Is Liverpool integral to JARG? Would it work in another city?
BR: It makes sense to be here in Liverpool. There’s a still a strong creative ethos, it almost feels like everyone wants to get involved or encourage art and music. I can’t imagine it being as popular, or us having the following we’ve gained through our magazine and our JARG nights, if we were working in another location. That’s our next challenge - to distribute JARG more widely round the country and beyond, making poetry more relevant.
MS: I think it’s integral at the moment in terms of this is where we’re based, where we met and studied together. Both of us have ties to the city, I was born here and Ben moved here and chose to stay on here after university. We both love Liverpool. In terms of my own poetry I don’t think I could write about certain subjects without seeing what I have seen here and the issues that the city faces. I could have done this perhaps in another place, but I have to write about what I know.
In terms of the events we put on our relationship with Sound Food & Drink is integral to them being a success and for them raising money for the causes we support. Sound feels like our home.
Would you consider yourselves writers or curators?
BR: Right now I’d see us more as curators or editors. We both write and contribute to JARG but we feel a responsibility to showcase contemporary poetry and engage as many people with as many writers as possible.
MS: I haven’t written as much as I did when studying, so I’d say we’re more curators as far as JARG’s concerned. It does take time reading submissions, collating the poetry we showcase via the magazine and organising our events. Our links with Liverpool homeless charity The Whitechapel Centre formed when I did a couple of creative writing workshops there. However, I think I’ll always come back to writing , I don’t think it’s right to critique others without producing your own body of work.
What are you setting out to achieve with JARG?
BR: We’d like to push the magazine as far as it can go as the nights we’ve held in Sound Food & Drink have always been well received.
Our next night at Sound is taking place on Saturday 5 December in aid of The Whitechapel Centre. We’ve got a number of talented local musicians and bands playing. The charity provides support for people who have been made homeless or are at risk of social exclusion. Last year they helped just under 3000 people. We welcome any donations, food, clothes, sanitary products and any prizes for our raffle that we hold at each night.
MS: I’d say that in quite a small space of time we’ve already achieved quite a lot. When I say we, I wouldn’t just regard that as us two, that would include anyone who’s supported, read or contributed to the magazine, taught us at university, played at our events, donated money, time or shared our pages/posts on social media. It feels like a co-operative, it’s never just been us. I feel we’ve achieved something for the city in a way by bringing those people together to support a cause and support the arts.
What’s the future for JARG?
BR: The first issue came out in late 2014, and we’re aiming to release our second in early 2016. We’ve always strived for the magazine to be free and as widely accessible as possible. We are entirely self-funded however which can, at times, create problems with distribution. We’re hoping to gather together support for our next edition so that we can print more copies and therefore the poetry promoted can reach as wide an audience as possible, which has been a fundamental aim for us all along.
MS: We’d like to continue to support The Whitechapel Centre as it’s a cause close to our hearts helping people in a city we’ve studied and worked in for 5 years now. Homelessness in Liverpool is something you can’t ignore. We knew we couldn’t solve it through our events but we wanted to play an active role in helping a cause that does great work and supports many people at risk. We’ve managed to raise awareness and hopefully made a difference through our poetry which seems bizarre but music has always been used as a vehicle to raise funds for charities so why couldn’t poetry?
The focus after our next event will be to publish our next edition early next year. As Ben said we’re just hoping to raise more funds to be able to promote the magazine as far afield as possible. We want to produce more copies, we want to gain more readers and hopefully introduce contemporary poetry to a new audience.
JARG mentor Andrew McMillan performs his poetry alongside Rebecca Goss at Bluecoat on 17 Feb (6pm) as part of LJMU Writers' Workshop 'Writing the Body'.
McMillan's debut collection Physical is a raw and urgent hymn to the male body. In both The Anatomy of Structures and the powerfully moving Her Birth, Goss explores our embodied experiences of desire, pain, loss and love.
Follow JARG Twitter/Instagram: @jargmagazine