In the era of the internet, knowledge is only the touch of a button away – but at the same time we are surrounded by untruths, spin and manipulations that make it hard to distinguish fact from fiction. As Emily Van Houten discovered during a reading at Durham Book Festival, Frances Leviston’s new poetry collection draws inspiration from the media of modern life, and asserts that poetry can be a means to convey essential truths in the disinformation age.
At times, we lie.
It’s not our best trait, as humans, to be able so carefully to manipulate information that it is no longer “what really happened.” But of course, the ability to spread disinformation helps us in politics, advertising, and various other fields.
Named after the phenomenon, Frances Leviston’s second book of poetry, Disinformation, reads as an homage to the word and the family of meanings it’s related to. While we often think of disinformation as a way for to slither untruths into the consciousness of others, disinformation is one arm of a far-reaching body of conversation on the meaning and the truth of the words we use each day.
an airy utterance trapped in glass
We sat in a sunlit gallery, listening to Dr Vidyan Ravinthiran eloquently praise Leviston’s February release. I agreed with him, reflecting on Leviston’s three-sentence long poem, Paperweight, which is described as an “airy utterance trapped in glass.” That phrase is also apt to describe Leviston’s whole collection of poetry. Her careful layering of rhyming words mixed into the lines and long, pointed sentences ease the reader into deep thought, freezing one moment in glass, as it were.
Leviston, whose first book was shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot poetry prize and the Jerwood-Aldeburgh First Collection prize, mentioned near the beginning of the event that all sorts of literal things pop up in the poems. She explained: the pieces are not simply dissections of what sort of disinformation we are fed as a public, but explore lived situations in which we find disinformation. The title poem is slightly, in her words, “domestic,” referencing the actions that start to “pass for traditions” as we shift and blur the motivations of the actions we commit. The poet spent a few minutes with this theme, suggesting listeners already appreciate the complex ideas that poetry gives to us, often in just a few short lines.
As in much poetry, the meaning of our words is questioned: “There is a plague of acronyms in modern society,” Leviston began as she introduced the fifth poem of the reading. When reciting the poem simply called “IUD,” Leviston’s clever ability to find something lyrical in the abbreviations showed clearly. Modern poetry must deal with things like this—new vocabularies stemming from new sciences. While she noted that acronyms can be bulky and awkward, the inevitable usefulness they give for sharing meaning offers prime subject matter for a poet.
Disinformation is a strong hand in Leviston’s examination of our human interactions, both positive and negative. Her way of reflecting on our voices, both literal and figurative, allowed me to once again think about the way cultures develop modes of communication—perhaps disseminating disinformation. In a more particular sense, our cultures take and shape narratives so that we begin to understand the world around us. That’s what Leviston does so well; her ability to analyze a phenomenon, describe it, and provoke the reader to think about it is aided by the fact that she’s not trying to appropriate the voice—she’s looking to share it with us.
Listening to a poet read her own words is a privilege, giving a depth to the poem that adds one more layer of complexity to the already tightly-weaved expressions. Though it’s only her second book, Leviston’s poems, and especially her readings of them, show not only her meticulous way of observing and remembering her environment but her surgical neatness when using poetry to describe that world.
Durham Book Festival ran from 6-17 October 2015; our reviews of many of the Festival events can be found here. Follow the organisers of the Festival, New Writing North, for more literary events throughout the year.