Review: Confronting the Danger of Art

In the sea of self-publishing, e-books, and enough self help books to bring even Socrates back from the brink, it’s always refreshing to find authors and presses that are finding new, innovative means of publishing. Especially in the poetry world, where wading through the endless stacks of chapbooks and small press poetry collections can seem like an unending task.

Sidekick Books is a London-based press that announced its presence in 2009 with a book of computer game poems by poets Kirsten Irving and Jon Stone. The press hasn’t looked back since, focusing on collaborations between poets and illustrators that are not only highly original, but also quite clever.

They have kicked off a new series based on UK government-issued pamphlets from the 1970s with the highly satirical Confronting the Danger of Art by poet Ian McLachlan and artist Phil Cooper. This little pamphlet kicks off with an epigram from Plato’s Republic, which famously sought to exile the poets from the ideal government, which should be run using reason and logic instead of the emotional and artistic mind of the poet. This sets the tone for the verse in this collection, which relies on the juxtaposition between McLachlan’s highly ridiculous, exaggerated verse and Cooper’s simple, yet evocative drawings on each page.

Confronting the Danger of Art might have readers recalling the political satire of Orwell’s allegorical Animal Farm or the oppression of art in Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta graphic novels. The first section of the pamphlet warns the reader of the different types of artists and the dangers that they pose, as in Hazard, where McLachlan uses over-the-top metaphors to describe how dangerous poets are.

Like poor drivers endangering others,
drifters, pootlers, erratic lane-shifters,
eyes on a flock of birds, or sunset,
not on the road, recently, one poet
crashed into a minibus of children,
survived, caused sixteen fatalities.

McLachlan fits it all in this little stanza: exaggerated verse, the cartoonish picture of the wayward, wandering poet, and just the right amount of dark humor to make the reader laugh.

As with any safety pamphlet, Confronting the Danger of Art is separated into three distinct sections to help any responsible citizen escape the destruction of art. The first is threat assessment, which ends in a simple mantra that I imagine would be posted all over town in this dystopian universe. The second is “health and safety,” which I find to be the weakest part of the pamphlet: some of it seems a little repetitive and more of a means to an end than a standalone set of poems. It only contains a few poems, most of which are eclipsed by the cleverness of those found in the other two parts. The poems are still solid and communicate the author’s purpose, but I simply found them to be too ordinary and unoriginal.

The authors truly hit their stride in the final third of the book, “criminal detection.” This section is focused on the discovery and capture of artists, the best of which is titled “collective recognition,” and is basically just a list of group etymologies for the different types of artists (presumably for reference purposes, and should have probably been put under some sort of index):

A mob of actors
A mischief of authors
A dissimulation of bards
A quiver of cameramen
An unkindness of dramatists
A descent of musicians
A nest of novelists
A rake of painters
A nuisance of photographers
A plague of poets
A scold of rhymers
A flange of sculptors
A murder of screenwriters

Again, this is a very simple idea but McLachlan pulls it off because no matter how easy it looks, each line is different and funny for its own reason. Some use alliteration (“a nest of novelists”), some are a bit more subtle (“a murder of screenwriters”). This page also contains some of the best illustrations in the book: artist Phil Cooper uses a collection of small drawings associated with these various groups (pencil, drumsticks, hypodermic needle) to help set the tone.

Near the end, Cooper has another of his best illustrations, evoking the spirit and look of old school public service warnings. Above a set of scared eyes are the lines, “Do you KNOW where all YOUR family are?” Bookended by poems meant to cause anxiety about the artistic intentions of your closest family members and friends, this image really pulls the final section of the book together.

The pamphlet ends with a couple of poems warning the reader to be a good citizen and use the proper procedure after you’ve discovered an artist. I found the final poem, “Footnote,” to be a little weak and too similar to the weak poems in the middle of the book, but it did summarize the theme of the book well (if without the signature humor).

Confronting the Danger of Art is one of the most original ideas that I’ve come across recently, but it unfortunately falls short of its potential. The tongue-in-cheek poetry was brilliant at times, but it fell flat on just as many occasions. The future of poetry is going to be related to the blending of itself with all kinds of visual arts, and I was impressed at some of the juxtapositions between McLachlan’s poetry and Cooper’s illustrations. The high points of this book give me hope for the future volumes in this series, and I look forward to see what Sidekick Books can come up with next.

— Spenser Davis (twitter.com/spenserdavis)

Confronting the Danger of Art is available from Sidekick Books for £5 + P&P

Spenser is a freelance writer from Fort Worth, Texas. He graduated from Texas Christian University, and his work has appeared in The Rumpus and TCU’s student literary journal, 1147.

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