James Cummins was born in the Middle East, but because of his pale skin and ginger hair, he was never regarded as anything but Irish. He is a poet, editor, scholar and teacher. His books include Warbler (DEFAULT, 2009), speaking off centre (livestock editions / dusie, 2009), FLASH/BANG (Veer, 2011) and origin of process (Wild Honey, 2011). His poems have appeared in magazines in Ireland and internationally, He has performed at festivals and events in Rhode Island, Connecticut, Cambridge, Prague and Sussex. As a co-editor of the small presses DEFAULT (2005-2011) and, more recently, RunAmok (2011-2012), he has consistently brought new work by Irish poets to an international audience.
An intensely kinetic reader of his own work, Cummins writes that ‘move and countermove’ into texts that colonize the full space of the page with analogous abandon. Lines from songs activate mental hyperlinks – shortcutting the listener/reader to radio times gone by and to our other, earlier selves. Occasionally at readings, he will stop his habitual, urgent pacing to sing these lines and then plough immediately back into the emphatic rhythms of his spoken words. The effect is jarring, a quality cultivated by a prosody in which, as FLASH/BANG itself acknowledges, ‘each line is not directly related’. Throughout his work, words and phrases make visible their immanent associative and generative capacities, spawning derivatives and mutations via mishearings and misprision as though a poem can be prompted to continue making itself by the audition of its own prior production. Cummins has an especially acute ear for the demotic, as well as for language that has been pressed into the service of gross institutional ends; his citations are the sites of his social critique. When he appropriates language from the world, he does so with the knowledge that phraseology cannot be washed clean. His found phraseology drags with it, into the poem, the baggage – ethical and cultural – of its former usage. Even assayed at its mildest points, his poetics, without being didactic, is never unpolitical. Anger at the spectacle of a world gone badly awry irrupts in taut condensations: ‘crowds of people gather outside/ but there is nothing left to eat’. His outcry is minimal but ferociously direct.
Intertwined with an interest in institutional deformations of language, Cummins’ poems address themselves to an expanded lyric tradition. With humour and not a little tenderness, they test the lyric’s capacity to accommodate an
to object (FLASH/BANG)
Images of everyday intimacy – ‘the noise of you sleeping’ – and everyday domesticity – ‘salt of the table/ pinched over shoulder’ – rupture abstract montage. Memory is both theme and method in Origins of Process, where injunctions to ‘HOLD/ PROCESS’ frame recollection as compulsion and complex (potentially fraught) mechanical operation all at once. Like a polaroid snap, the moment stilled in memory announces its punctum in FLASH/BANG in a ‘FLASH’ of ‘magnesium and aluminium.’ But there is nothing pure or automatic about recollection; memory is more complicated, more creative and more compromised than that. Frequently, however, the past that is recalled or, rather, (re)made in writing emerges out of a specifically Irish, rural and culturally Catholic place – a hyper-haptic landscape tinted ‘gorse-yellow’ and marked by ‘the cross and every other station’ (Origins of Process).
The process of writing and the work of poetry are among his principle preoccupations. Cummins inscribes a resolutely quotidian poetic practice onto the surface of the text. Inhospitable to mystical accounts of visitation by the Muse, he does so not to heroize but to humble his own activity:
give me twenty minutes and i’ll give you a poem
or at least a parataxis (FLASH/BANG).
The illusion of organic form is similarly undermined as FLASH/BANG narrates its own account of its division into numbered sections. After a 13th part in which no words appear, the 14th begins: ‘leaving the last one blank’. These poems demand that we attend to exigencies of writing as a manual act: a prosaic, everyday activity which takes place in real time, in a real physical space:
i read this poem over
lowering all the cases
in a room
in the process of transformation
Calling attention to the surface of a text (and, indeed, an entire practice) which rejects the systems of grammatical hierarchy implied by capitalization, the poem allows in the possibility that something less than entirely banal might be at stake here. If there is any magic or transformative potential (beyond, perhaps, some domestic refurbishment) to be had in this writing space, it is located not in the poet but in the language-oriented, language-driven text. Cummins has little time for mythologizing poets, whilst being an unabashed and passionate advocate of poetry itself.
In 2007, Cummins joined the board of the SoundEye poetry festival and, at present, teaches poetry and creative writing and is researching and writing about the work of Tom Raworth. From 2010-2012, he led a weekly workshop on innovative poetry in Cork. Free, public, open to all-comers and given entirely over to radically experimental and often socially-committed poetry, this workshop represents, ethically and aesthetically, what Cummins is about.
Warbler, DEFAULT Publishing, Cork, 2009
Speaking off Centre, Livestock Editions, Boulder / Dusie, Zurich, 2009
FLASH/BANG, Veer, London, 2011
Origin of Process, Wild Honey Press, Wicklow, 2011
Video of Cummins performing FLASH/BANG at the Winter Warmer Festival
Online poetry journal Return to DEFAULT, edited by Cummins
The annual SoundEye Festival, co-curated by Cummins