On Gregory Leadbetter's 'Dérive' and ways to see the city
When I read Gregory Leadbetter’s latest collection Maskwork (Nine Arches Press, 2020) ahead of our podcast recording with him, I did it with a stack of sticky notes at my side, ready to tab any poems that felt relevant to Overhear and the ideas we’re particularly interested in – place, technology, cities and Birmingham in particular, among other things. By the time I closed the book, there was a fringe of neon paper fanned out along the top of the pages, plus a 400-word Google Doc of my thoughts on what I’d been reading. Needless to say, we did not have anywhere near enough time to talk about all of it with Greg – as wonderful as the forty minutes we did have with him were – so I’ve decided to write up some of the other thoughts I had into a blogpost: part poetry review, part only-semi-lucid ramblings of a person who has been in lockdown for far too long.
I’ll begin with a poem we did get to talk about, which was ‘Beorma’, a kind of tribute to Birmingham through an exploration of its origins, as a place and as a word. Greg talked to us about the idea that we are continually reinventing ourselves and our world, and how etymology, the study of words and their histories, can reveal that often hidden process to us. We touched several times on the notion that the things we think of as fixed in our day to day lives are almost always anything but. Ideas of place, reality and identity (individual and collective) are instead subject to continual change, shifting and evolving – and this poem is a wonderful encapsulation of that in relation to the city of Birmingham.
A poem that seems to (if you can forgive me the pun) walk with this idea is ‘Dérive’, which we didn’t get around to talking about during the podcast. As explained in Greg’s notes at the back of Maskwork, the title ‘comes from the French for “drifting”, relating to the psychogeographical practice […] of traversing urban or semi-urban terrain in a deliberately experimental attitude,’ which is exactly what the subject of the poem does. That sounds (again, forgive me) right up our street. Finding new ways to explore spaces is what we’re all about, and I loved reading this poem and getting to see how those ideas were expressed and embodied through the language and images of the work.
The first sentence, ‘turn around three times and walk’ sets the tone for the whole experience; this is a process of disorientation rather than orientation, you have to be dizzy and defamiliarised before you take your first step. There’s no clear destination set out and no map to take you there – in fact, the first image of the poem is an atlas made soggy and useless by nature’s own ‘November rain’ and anyway, the poem points out that it was ‘out of date before it got soaked’. Again we come back to the question of fixedness: we think of maps as a way to capture and pin down (truly, I’m sorry) physical spaces but even those are subject to change, as anyone who has ever tried to navigate using an old A to Z will confirm. More than that, they fail to capture much of what makes up the human experience of physical spaces, some of which this poem goes on to explore.
Thinking back to ‘Beorma’, we talked about how the name of a place can tell part of its story. However, in keeping with the theme of defamiliarization, this poem seems more interested in un-naming the place. We only ever get the name of the area backwards and italicised: ‘Doowylloh/ which spools a film in misheard Welsh…’. This is a reversed naming process, in which the speaker imagines what the place with this inverted name might be, unmaking the familiar history and opening up new possibilities for reinterpretation and through it, transformation. When we go from this straight into the first use of the first person and mention of the speaker’s history (‘…from the faint cry of my missing ancestry’), it feels as though this is a consequence of the un-naming process. Deconstructing the name, and therefore identity, of the place has allowed for the personal to enter the narrative – there’s now space for the individual to become part of the landscape and its story.
From here the personal experience is centred as we get sensory details of the journey, from the sound of birdsong to the smell of hot pork rolls but this is not the only lens through which we see the environment. The poem really seems to embody the feeling of meandering without a set destination; its stream-of-consciousness voice conveys the sense of the subject going wherever the mood takes them. During our podcast recording, Greg talked about leaving room for the more intangible aspects of space, and we get those here too. The added texture of memories – other walks through the same space and their collective significance – and possible futures build up a fuller experience of the space by breaking down precisely those parameters by which we usually define those experiences. I was delighted by how time as well as space seemed to fall apart as the poem continued, particularly the lines ‘a neighbour I have never yet met looks a little lost/as if he had turned three times and fifty years/had passed’.
During Greg’s launch event, he talked about the title of the collection and his interest in masks in general. He brought up philosopher John Grey, and his separation of ‘unadorned reality’ from ‘artful illusion’ to which Greg added the alternative third option of ‘artful reality’. He argued that the addition of memory, of myth, and the projection of the personal onto so-called unadorned reality wasn’t an act of obscuration but an act of revelation, giving us access to the less tangible dimensions of our experience and understanding of the world which otherwise go unnoticed or unexamined.
For me, this hugely echoes my musings on what I love so much about Overhear as a project. What we do when we pin poetry to places could also be seen as an obfuscating addition: are we romanticising your local pub and disguising its true nature by asking a poet to write about it? Well, in my humble and not entirely unbiased opinion… no. In fact, what we’re asking you to do – helping you to do – is what the subject of Greg’s poem does in ‘Dérive’: let go of the usual boundaries and restrictions that shape how you experience and live in the world and open yourself up to the possibility of something more.
This blogpost could have been triple the length; I could go on about these ideas forever. If you're interested in reading more on the subjects we discussed I'd recommend some of the reading below:
Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle which Greg references in the notes for 'Dérive' or this handy illustrated summary of some of its ideas.
Frederick Jameson’s essay ‘Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’, specifically the section that talks about The Bonaventura Hotel as a microcosm of the postmodern city
Of course, if you haven't listened to our podcast with Greg, I cannot recommend it enough, he has far more lucid thoughts on cities, space and writing which you can listen to here.
His collection Maskwork is available to order from Nine Arches Press right now, and if this 1000 word blogpost on just one of the poems contained can't convince you you'll get a lot out of it, I'd also recommend watching the launch event with Nine Arches, which was filmed as posted on their YouTube channel here.