On Toys
(An introduction)


. . .

Why is my website called ‘Various Toys, Some Transforming’? Or, to put it another way, why do I find it fitting to think of poems and books – certainly those poems and books that I’ve been involved in making, but others as well – as toys?

It’s not because I don’t take them seriously. Very much the opposite: I think of language as a powerful, volatile tool, with all the attendant responsibilities. What and how I write are linked very closely, therefore, with my ideas about doing good in a general way, politically or otherwise.

Paper Light Trap is an in-progress project – 1:1 scale calligrams of moths written in monosyllables, and envisioned as spy messages. I also use them as business cards.

Erratum, also in-progress, embeds poetry in a simple top-down puzzle game.

I find, therefore, that I’m drawn toward hybridity (things that are not quite one thing or the other), sequencing (interconnected sets of things), and collaboration (things that emerge in conversation with others). What is common, I think, in these three inclinations is a resistance to certain cultural tropes, chiefly the author as authority, the book as a totem of that authority, and the sanctity of the individual voice.

What I have in mind instead is distributed authority, enmeshment, and exchange. To conceive of a literary work as a toy is to conceive of it first and foremost as a site of reader activity and autonomy – something which is made for the reader to test and turn over, collect and calibrate, modify and personalise. This is the mode of interaction which is most conducive, I think, to discovery.

I am, conversely, suspicious of the kind of rhetoric that casts writing as moral instruction, demonstrative performance or intoxicant. These all seem to envisage a dynamic of priest and flock, where the author wields a sorcerous influence over the reader. I hope we can agree that the elevation of writers into godlings and mystics is not something that does society (or the individual writer) much good. Better to think of writing as a tangledness, the unpicking of which is a means of growing and becoming.

The Birdbook quartet (2010—2015) collects poems and illustrations from dozens of different writers and artists, – one of each for every British species across the series. The covers are paper-cuts by Lois Cordelia, depicting Dr Fulminare, a character who features across many of the books I’ve been involved in making.

The Headbooks series (2017—2018), also the work of numerous contributing artists, combines factual information with concrete poetry, remixed public domain images and ‘do-it-yourself’ pages for the reader to fill in. I also designed and illustrated the covers for this series.

For that reason, I make heavy use of characters and personae in my own writing. I rarely, if ever, think of it as me doing the talking. And I try to connect up the various characters and voices in irregular ways, to foreground their relationship to (and roots in) writing that isn’t my own. I have a fairly chaotic approach to form and structure, aiming for a kind of stitched-togetherness that has echoes of the spell gone crooked.

Poetry is my favoured medium because poetry is an art of combination. Rather than events taking place one after another as they tend to in fiction, dragging the reader along like a fish on a hook, there is a multidirectional array. And the combinatorial logic of poetry is easily extended: you start by combining words, then lines and stanzas, then your own poems, or your poems with other people’s, then books with other books, and so on. You nurture a system. Or rather, you construct a playset.

One of my favourite quotes, accordingly, is Aubrey Thomas de Vere characterising Keats as “one who would rather walk in mystery than in false lights, who waits that he may win, and who prefers the broken fragments of truth to the imposing completeness of a delusion”. The ‘broken fragments of truth’ remind me, again, of toys, which ‘contain small parts’.

The ‘Fakes’ section of School of Forgery, headed up by my collaged interpretation of Joe the Condor, concerns itself with counterfeits and approximations.

Poem inside a poem inside a poem.

If I have a political loyalty, it is to the outskirter and the imposter in each (certainly most) of us. The overlooked person gazing longingly on the party. Their opposite number, who is trying to escape it. To think of writing as toymaking is to approach it as supplying such persons with secret tools and tricks. After all, a toy can appear inoffensive and of no practical use, while containing a key or other subtle device. It can be an object of talismanic or oracular power. It can be a scale model of a more advanced machine. But to perform any of these functions, it has to be thought of as being in the hands of the reader, who meddles and squeezes and makes their own way.

read next: Ludokinetic Literature

Past Commissions

Photo: Lynton Pepper

Giant Strange
april 2015
For Roulade #2, a one-night-only live walk-through magazine, I recruited three other poets to create a tableau of a city under siege from Japanese kaiju. The kaiju were giant calligrams, or concrete poems. Read ‘Mothra’ here. I also mixed various sound samples from films together to create a sonic backdrop to the exhibition, which you can listen to here.


Warning Notice in the Key of B Minor
april 2014
Poem commissioned by the Southbank Centre as part of The Breathing of the Bellows, a project celebrating the refurbishment of the Centre's 7,866-pipe organ. If you are registered with the BBC website, you can listen to the poem being performed here.


Staring Into Space
december 2010 — february 2011
A sequence of poems and images recording daydreams, accompanied by a book for visitors to use to describe their own daydreams, for About a Minute, the inaugural exhibition at The Gopher Hole in Shoreditch. The pieces were later developed into the sequence Death Daydream Season.

More projects

Poems

On Toys

Ludokinetic
Literature

Sandsnarl

Unravelanche

School
of Forgery

I could kiss, say,

Headbooks

Scarecrows

Hybardrids

Tomboys

Birdbooks

Super Treasure
Arcade

Death Daydream
Season

Sidekick Books

Core Samples

Riotous

Superminis

The
Mechamorphoses

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