Guest post by Dr Will Martin
Whether it be rapping lines of verse, standing on a soapbox or playing bass in a punk rock band, Dunedin poet Victor Billot has always had something provocative to say about the source of global inequality in our media-saturated, capitalist society. Although many readers will already be familiar with Billot as a political candidate for the left-wing Alliance Party, fewer will be aware that he also played a significant role in post Dunedin Sound bands such as Age of Dog and Das Phaedrus in the early nineties. In more recent times, Billot has reinvented himself as a poet displaying considerable literary technique, writing two collections of verse that focus on the effects of new technologies on human consciousness in the age of the Internet and Social Media. Currently working on a new book of verse to complete the trilogy started with Mad Skillz for the Demon Operators (2014) and Machine Language (2015), Billot is now unleashing his unique brand of cyberpunk poetry onto the live music scene scene, rapping a number of poems alongside local jazz band the Bill Martin Trio at The Dog with Two Tails café this Saturday night.
Considering his background in Dunedin “post-punk” rock bands, it is perhaps fitting that Billot’s new verses follow in the footsteps of “cyberpunk” writers such as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, writers who have meditated on the powers of new interactive media technologies to transform the structure of society, consciousness and the limits of the human body. In Billot’s latest poem “Ambient Terror” – which will be showcased at the gig this Saturday – the cyberpunk theme is announced with a rhyming meditation on the hypnotic power of a Roland Drum Machine, “a doom pulse on the down beat” reverberating through the chamber of the human body as a “tribal thunder in the echo of your heart”. Just as electronic dance music has the ability to capture your soul with its complex overlaid rhythms, Billot compares the ideological power of a TED-talk or “mind-hack” to a computer program that invades our neural network, suggesting that we might be “caught in the jaws of an amygdala hijack”; a cryptic allusion to a biomechanical computer virus which controls the processing of information between left and ride sides of the human brain. While the tone of such poems might appear to be overly pessimistic, the verbal gymnastics involved in the construction of such poetry is playful and entertaining, constantly delighting us with witty parallels between the real world and its hyper-real computer simulation. Audiences can look forward to the relentless rhythms of encrypted lines rapped to the sound of an improvised drum-beat:
clouded in a nano fog of bad code
no relief in sight, just dread that forebodes
driving your monster with its heavy load
down neural pathways on a nowhere road.
As a ‘punk’ musician and ‘cyperpunk’ poet, Billot operates as a “hacker of words”, challenging the meaning of phrases as they are shaped by spin-doctors in the public sphere and later rehashed by the masses in the blogosphere. Drawing on his own experience as a communications professional for the New Zealand Maritime Union, Billot reflects ironically on the power of spin-doctors to shape the consciousness of the nation. Billot’s main targets for satire are the political elites and the stream of information they use to keep our heads figurative in the clouds, yet the poet’s verbal pyrotechnics imitate the very propaganda that has become the subject of critique. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the leading lyric from Billot’s first volume of verse, “Land of the Long White Encrypted Cloud”, a poem which compares the virtual domain of “cloud” computing to the real terrain of politics in New Zealand. Reworking headlines engineered by “press secretaries” and “demon operators” to manipulate the masses, Billot constructs a pastiche of catch phrases that paints a disturbing satire of political discourse in Aotearoa:
Flat lining on the level playing field, buzzed on dairy futures
the rock star economy is lying comatose backstage,
tattooed with sponsored e-ink barcodes.
From his staunchly Marxist perspective, Billot presumably believes that New Zealand lacks a solid manufacturing sector to underpin the economy, painting the picture of a “Protein Republic” that remains wholly dependent upon financial speculation on the price of powdered milk on the global market. Laughing at our religious devotion to the pronouncement of the official cash-rate – as if the conservative technocrats have no power to intervene in the “free market” – Billot suggests that the titans of the entertainment industry are now in Kahoots with the NZ political elite who have attempted to control the domain of cyberspace with legislation such as the so-called “three strikes” copyright amdendment act of 2011. Such paradoxes are best exemplified by the bizarre biography of exiled internet Billionaire Kim Dot Com, whose attack on John Key’s credibility over the issue of cyber-surveillance led ironically to an increase in support for the conservatives in the 2014 election. In the prophetic words of poet:
The Central Committee streams a live feed
direct from the rumpus room of the dot com mega mansion,
going out in a razzle dazzle of fruit loop tweet bombs
denouncing Islamophobia in Eketahuna,
before uploading to a secure folder
in the land of the long white encrypted cloud.
As a Joyce scholar and reader of Finnegans Wake, I was instantly impressed by the verbal wordplay contained in collections such as Machine Language, and could see the political relevance of the poetry to anyone who participates in meaning-making in the world of social media (is there anyone who doesn’t?). While the tag of being “self-published” might be taken as a criticism by someone seeking to become part of the literary establishment, Billot is the proud owner of his literary estate and sees the rise of print-on-demand services as the perfect medium for putting out his curious form of anarchic verse. While he remains critical of the power of the social media to distract the consciousness of its users – whose Facebook feeds are constantly being bombarded with political memes, glowing selfies and advertisements for dating sites – he nevertheless sees the internet as a medium for self-expression for artists who refuse to conform to the logic of the publishing industry. As a punk musician, furthermore, Billot believes that the performance of poetry can transcend its publication on the printed page, providing listeners with a unique experience that cuts through the wall of white noise. Considering the emphasis on rhyme and rhythm, Billot’s lyrics lend themselves to collaboration with jazz musicians, the improvisation of each cadence filling the space created by the interaction of piano, bass and drums.
Billot traces his passion for the performative side of poetry to his career as a punk musician in Dunedin during the early nineties. “I was writing all the time I was involved in music,” reflects Billot, “from when I was a teenager. My themes have stayed the same. In terms of how the two feed into each other, I think that with the poetry I approach it subconsciously looking more at rhythm and rhyme, colourful, with impact, reflecting the type of music I was into. It also means that for some, not all, of the poetry I approach it with a live presentation potential in mind. Any readings I do I tend to see more as a “gig” than a reading.” Similarly, he links the provocative side of his verse to the attitude of punk music, with its obvious disdain for the values of the establishment: “I think early on I picked up on the punk attitude that you didn’t need permission to try these things, that is one attitude that has stayed with me, even as I turn into a sedate middle aged character. Song lyrics tend to be influenced by the music, sometimes simpler, although some critics have in the past hated my more literary style of lyrics. Others like them. Who knows.”
As a former candidate and current member of the Alliance Party, Billot feels an immediate sympathy for the working class, and he links his preoccupation with the plight of the poor and unemployed to his own background in a migrant family. “My background is what I would call respectable working class, my parents perhaps a little unusual as they were into some artistic pursuits and quite open minded. My dad is from Jersey. I get on with them really well, my political views crystallized at a time of big change in NZ society, changes which in many ways hurt or disadvantaged working class people, because I saw my parents as quite hard working, responsible people, and they were having trouble with work and jobs, I reacted against that. In terms of where the poetry is aimed at, the honest response is that in the first instance I am writing it for myself, if other people find something in it all the better.”
Billot explores the plight of the disadvantaged in “Dark Water”, a poem which addresses many of the poor souls whom have been left behind by the Global economic system, whether it be the unemployed, the mentally ill, a victim of war or an asylum seeker. Staging a terrifying conversation between the voice of the Neo-Liberal state and a group refugees drowning in the water, Billot begins each stanza with the brutal refrain: “There is nothing here for you.” Putting the reader in the position of the drowning child, these words capture the territorial warfare waged between nation states at the level of the human body – some people have the right to be “here”, others are simply not recognized by the system, and are left to rot in refugee camps. Water, the very medium of life on earth, no longer signifies sustenance to the hundreds of thousands of refugees dispersed throughout Europe and the Middle-East, but rather a poisonous substance that infects everything and sucks the life-blood out of it. As Billot puts it, “Dark water draws the warmth from life | Dark water fills out hearts”.
Billot is particularly concerned that the so-called “social media” generation have become disengaged from politics, their obsession with selfies and sound-bites obscuring any real engagement with the reality of being a worker in the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, Billot sends his own verses into the sea of information in the hope that audiences might find a gem amongst the dross: “In terms of a youth audience it’s a difficult one as the youth who are struggling the most will have little connection with poetry and the more well off educated segment probably identify less with the themes. However I am a political poet, I am inspired and motivated by public poetry that deals with the world as opposed to interior reflection. I don’t think there is one mode that is superior but I think New Zealand writers and art in general has a very weak relationship with the public sphere and politics for some reason, especially the modern generation. There of course major exceptions. In the new generation, it interests me how a lot of the political poetry is actually coming out of the hip hop/spoken word scene which is a non-academic, culturally diverse and more working class scene I guess.”
Billot’s playful poetry embodies the contradictions of consciousness in the age of the Internet and Social media, for his own puns and portmanteaus can be interpreted as digital icons and soundbites that compete for our attention in the stream of information. In “The 21st Century Book of Doom”, Billot links our total immersion in cyberspace to the construction of a doomsday machine that will create a total separation between the simulated computer reality and the world of the flesh. Such poems riff on themes already developed by the Wachovski brothers in The Matrix, yet the motifs of computer-simulated paranoia are updated for a generation haunted by sentient spam-bots and military drones in the post 9-11 era. In “Time Travellers”, Billot takes a more sympathetic view of the hipster generation, the young who are intellectually aware of global inequality, but too green to have experienced the harsh reality of unemployment or the burden of responsibility. The voice of the poet appears as one of “us”, struggling to find identity and authenticity in a world that no longer offers a stable here and now. In this poem, the central metaphor is the “stream” of time; but rather than functioning as a metaphor for the ever-changing structure of consciousness, the river is the endless movement of the city, whether it be the crowd of pedestrians crossing busy streets or automobiles circumnavigating the CBD.
We’re time travellers slipping through evenings and dawnings
and when you’re eighteen you don’t hear shadowed warnings
because you’re in the new and this new has not yet bruised
due to the world and its schemes that transpose the dreams
from rush of hot blood to the ash and the dusts
the world vacuums up and spits back in our cups.
The label of “time travellers” here pertains to those who are constantly experiencing the loss of history, immersed in a flood of cultural commodities that lack any intrinsic references to an historical period or style.
In many ways, Billot’s verses can be seen as a much-needed corrective to the tendency of many contemporary poets to focus on their own private emotions and experiences. Although Billot remains critical of excessive navel-gazing in poetry, he links his own engagement with politics to the success of other local poets who have expressed their views in verse: “I do see this as an issue in NZ writing and culture, although if you look at people like Hone Tuwhare, Baxter and Glover they did some great political or social poetry. Especially in New Zealand music, perhaps more so in white rock music, there has been a horror of trying to say anything about the world, the idea is to string together some mumbling about your “feelings” that is so oblique as to be meaningless, and I have a tendency to run against the grain, so I have reacted against that. Everything has its place, for example one of my favourite bands is Bailter Space, whose lyrics are often buried beneath waves of guitar and are these dream like repetitions of words about space, machines or the future – and it works. I don’t have much to do with the writing establishment, or at least they don’t have much to do with me, so can’t really say why it often seems little insipid. I am a bit of a fringe dweller, which in some ways I prefer but it would be nice to get some more sales and profile of course.”
Victor Billot reads poems and collaborates with the Bill Martin Trio this Saturday Night (April 23) at the Dog with Two Tails Café, 25 Moray Place. The poet will sign copies of his two published collections, Mad Skillz for the Demon Operators and Machine Language.
Will Martin is a professional jazz pianist, English teacher and author who writes about the intersection between music and literature in the age of Internet and the cyber society. He holds a PhD in English from the University of New South Wales (Sydney, Australia) and is the author of Joyce and the Science of Rhythm (Palsgrave & MacMillan, 2012)
Will Martin is the leader of the “Bill Martin Trio”, a Dunedin based jazz ensemble that features the elements of piano, bass and drums. His band plays every Friday night at Carousel Lounge Bar and regularly features guest soloists.