‘The Ministry of Emergency Situations’ - Review by Helen Tope

Helen Tope reviews Todd Swift’s poetry reading at Peninsula Arts, from his earliest pamphlets to newly released collections.

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All poem excerpts taken from ‘The Ministry of Emergency Situations: Selected Poems’ by Todd Swift (Marick Press, 2014)

Todd Swift was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1966. After studying creative writing at Concordia University, Swift’s career began in television, writing material for HBO, Paramount and Fox. Swift, resident in the UK since 2003, has since completed a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia. The University’s peerless record in nurturing creative writing talent includes alumni including poets Adam Foulds and Sam Riviere and Booker Prize winner Anne Enright. Todd Swift has published eight collections of poetry. He also runs Eyewear, a poetry blog launched in 2005. In 2012, he then established poetry press Eyewear Publishing which has recently published ‘Jeremy Corbyn: Accidental Hero’, a political primer on the Labour leader which is gaining (like the man himself) a cult following. Swift has been described by Poetry London magazine as a “fusion poet”, marrying together experimental and traditional forms of poetry to create a voice that is all his own. Todd’s influences range from Ezra Pound and TS Eliot, to less familiar poets such as Nicholas Moore, whose emphasis on blending together the playful and the serious can be clearly seen throughout Swift’s work. Invited to University of Plymouth as part of the Peninsula Arts events series, Todd’s reading drew from his earliest pamphlets to newly released collections, taking us on a virtual tour of his poetic development. Notably described by Mark Ford as the ‘Orson Welles of contemporary poetry’, I was relieved to find that Ford was correctly identifying in Swift a charismatic and mischievous quality that made the reading feel all the more accessible. While contemporary poetry has a reputation, unfairly, of being inscrutable and distant, the joy with poetry readings like those being run by Peninsula Arts is that we get to see not only the poet up close, but their ideas too.

 The Ministry of Emergency Situations

During an emergency, all

Wedding rings must be removed

And citizens will be asked to

Undress in the streets. The Ministry

Will bathe those affected with

Disinfectant Foam. They must ensure

Their eyes are shut. Those who refuse

To take off their jewellery, tokens

Of affection, clothes, will be shot.

 

The fully naked will dance in

The medical shower, then be

X-rayed and scanned by magnets.

Inspections will go on. The cleansed

Will be allowed to request

Compensation for their torn rags,

Irradiated keepsakes.

The Ministry of Songs will form

A choir, and douse them in anthems.

Spider-Man 2

Sitting in a cinema with Sara; best date ever.

Doctor Octavius doing his Harold Lloyd act

Over and across the Manhattan clock towers,

MJ and Parker new web-crossed lovers.

She turns to me with a wow! like Monroe

Might’ve given the lens with her mouth.

Truth is, movie-going was made for true love

Delighted. It causes hugs and fear to implode:

That molten ball of fusion Doc Ock invented

In an abandoned warehouse; all the power

Of the sun in my hands! Emotion as

Mad culmination. She grips on to me

As tentacle arms slam New York masonry.

A child of the Beat Generation (in spirit, if not actual years), Todd read speedily, but losing none of the clarity of his verse. With energy coursing through each poem like electricity, Swift bounded from one idea to the next, each synaptic jump taking you somewhere new; somewhere unexpected. The array of ideas proffered was dizzying, but never overwhelmed: the reins remaining tightly controlled by Swift. Todd’s poetry may operate at 100-words-per-minute, but the careful organisation Swift applies to his imagery meant we, the audience, could easily keep up. Clustering words to produce images in our minds like flash-points, Todd cleverly pulled us along on his journey. Swift’s work also varies in tone from the unapologetically sincere to moments of pure irreverence and wit. The sheer dexterity in Todd’s poetry is phenomenal. Writing in a multiplicity of voices, referencing classical tales to throwaway pop culture, Swift’s poetry offers something of value to every reader, every listener, and that’s not easy to do. During the reading, Swift discussed the problem faced by contemporary poets – the difficulty of writing new material on unoriginal subjects. Love, loss, angst – how do you tailor them to your own requirements? It’s a problem not just confined to poetry. Grayson Perry in his book ‘Playing to the Gallery’ suggests that in terms of form, we have reached an ‘endgame’. Not in that there’s nothing left to be said, but instead we are in a state of ‘omni-directional experimentation’.
The idea of producing work to engender shock value is over 100 years old. As Robert Hughes said in ‘The Shock of the New’ in 1980 – even the avant-garde is now a period style. So instead of having an ‘avant-garde’, ideas can come from anything. Anything can be poetry, anything can be art. Todd Swift applies this technique with aplomb; utilising popcorn cinema with the same intent as an homage to Algernon Swinburne. Swinburne was very much the ghost in the room, as his work on rhyme (he invented the roundel); has greatly influenced Swift. Swinburne’s work may have fallen out of favour with the public since his death in 1909, but his technical virtuosity with metre and rhyme has ensured that he remains a critics’ (and poets) favourite. But it’s not just the word at play in Swift’s poetry: he connects to the reader via his own memories and experiences, retold in touching detail. Often choosing to write autobiographically; the personal sits front and centre. Swift doesn’t shy away from emotionally complex subjects such as mental health and infertility, employing the confessional with great poignancy. I’ve increasingly found that good writing – great writing – doesn’t need to explain itself, and Todd Swift’s poetry doesn’t put up barriers. His decision to combine the domestic with the public means we all have a point of access to his work: it invites you to dive right in.

Sonnet

No children;

Cold uncoils in the blood;

Science, true, not good

For you. So old,

Suddenly, or so young,

Lyric inside not to be sung.

Plug pulled, screen gone.

Sun out; mind

Bountiful, playing pain.

These are my children

In my head. Unbegotten.

This is to self-forget,

To have the future

Born forgotten.

This concentration on accessibility has meant that poetry is taking back the ground it lost, and a willingness to make work more inclusive, but still retain its complexity, is proving to be a masterstroke. As Director of Eyewear Publishing, Swift must be confident of poetry’s ability to respond and evolve. Attending this poetry reading reminded me that while poetry can be densely layered, with rich pickings for those willing to dig deep, the best poets’ work also resonates on a more immediate, physical level. Even the most challenging work comes alive when it’s read aloud. You hear things that the eye may not have registered on the page. The resurgence in poetry readings and open-mic nights, especially in Plymouth, is no fluke: the gleeful pleasure we get from listening to poetry pre-dates history. Our ancestors may have been busy dodging buffalo on the African plains, but they still spent hours recording their world on cave walls, creating legends and telling stories. Our need to self-express, and to witness others expressing themselves, is nothing short of compulsive. Poetry lives, because it has chosen to embrace its roots. Speaking and listening are what separates us from the buffalo. We give voice to our pleasures and our concerns, and by sharing them, we learn to empathise a little better. In a world that’s seeking to build walls, poetry creates connections; deep, resonant and meaningful. The way forward is much clearer than we think; it’s whether we’re prepared to listen.