Monday, 18 April 2011

Doing it First: An Unofficial Introduction to Mr If's Violence is the Answer

By Frank Burton

So, here we are again. In the absence of an interview with the author, I’d like to say a few words about Mr If’s Violence is the Answer.

I’m not surprised Mr If doesn’t give interviews. The brief biographical note accompanying his two ebooks states: “Everything you need to know about Mr If is contained within his books. All other biographical information is irrelevant.” I agree. Every piece of work Mr If writes is in some way about himself – his own experiences, his own opinions, or an analysis of himself as a writer. Certain facts (such as how old he is, where he’s from and his real name) are held back from us – with good reason. Without this air of mystery, Mr If’s poetry and prose would perhaps be less interesting.

This, of course, makes this unofficial introduction to Mr If’s second collection of mashed-up poetry and prose somewhat superfluous. But Mr If’s work always invites further comment and analysis. You can’t read this collection and not talk about it afterwards.

Violence is the Answer is a striking title for an extremely provocative and controversial collection. I use the word “controversial” not because of the explicit language or the graphic sex (which I’d argue isn’t controversial at all – it’s just not to everyone’s taste). Even the potentially treasonable “The Queen’s a Bitch” turns out to be a fairly reasonable assessment, not of the monarchy, but of Mr If’s own writing process. (“I agonised over this poem, even though saying “the Queen’s a bitch” isn’t in any way intelligent or poetic, or shocking in any meaningful way.”)

What’s controversial about the book is the poet’s uncompromising critique of the armed forces, and his repeated assertion that soldiers are under an obligation to refuse to fight. (“She spouted the usual paradox about being against the war but supporting the troops. I said, “That makes no sense. If you’re against the war, you have to be against the troops, by definition.””) His most vitriolic piece, “People just don’t want to hear this” (which contains plenty of material the Daily Mail would love to quote out of context given the opportunity) spells out Mr If’s unsettling central message: we shouldn’t be blaming the government for the state the world is in – we should be blaming ourselves. “We should blame anyone who voted the fuckers in. We should blame anyone who drives a car or uses public transport or consumes products with plastic packaging. We should blame the soldiers who’ve agreed to go out there and fight. We should blame the factory workers who manufacture the weapons.”

Nonetheless, Violence is the Answer is much more than a series of political rants. The main focus of the book is on Mr If’s affair with Marilyn, the wife of his friend, Nettles, who is away fighting in Afghanistan. (Names have been changed to protect the identity of the people involved.) The back story to this narrative is Mr If’s first collection, Entertainment, a series of confessional poems about various affairs with the wives and husbands of his friends. These encounters are always brief and meaningless. With Marilyn, our serial adulterer appears to have found love. If only Marilyn wasn’t married to one of his oldest friends. And so, Mr If’s personal conflict is skilfully contrasted with the conflicts in the Middle East – a difficult task to pull off successfully. His masterstroke is the final piece, “The First Time,” in which the revelations about Marilyn and Nettles’ relationship cast a new light over everything that’s gone before, inviting the reader to turn back to the start of the collection and begin reading again.

No doubt, many people will have stopped reading before they reach the end. This book will divide readers more than any other I can think of. Still, for my money, Violence is the Answer is one of the most daring and original books I’ve ever read. Mr If clearly isn’t the first poet to write about sex and violence but I’ve never seen it done in this particular way. By writing completely anonymously, he’s performing a trick many bloggers have pulled off successfully, but very few poets have attempted up until this point. (Plenty of performance poets base their act on an assumed identity but they will never be anonymous for obvious reasons.) I may be totally wrong but I can’t help thinking we’ll be seeing a lot more poets adopting mystery online aliases as time goes on. If that happens, remember: Mr If was doing it first.

Read Mr If's Violence is the Answer online or downlosd here.

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