‘The Red and Yellow Nothing’ by Jay Bernard shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry 2016

 

In March, The Poetry Society announced that Jay Bernard’s The Red and Yellow Nothing had been shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry (2016). For Ink Sweat & Tears, a webzine with only a few print publications, this was a huge honour and although the eventual winner was Holly McNish’s Nobody Told Me, we can only thank the Poetry Society members who recommended Jay’s pamphlet and THA judges Jo Bell, Bernard O’Donoghue and Kathryn Williams for recognizing the spark in it.

From the judges: ‘This collection is an adventurous pilgrimage through style and form reclaiming medieval myth. It is beautifully paced with a musical momentum and demands to be revisited.’

From judge Kathyrn Williams’ introduction on awards night: ‘The pace and menace of The Red and Yellow Nothing has the horse pace of the ride of the Valkyries. It is time traveling through gender race and genre and is explored through an Arthurian legend – It reads like a song in my head.’

 

Joint Winner of the Café Writers Pamphlet Commission

The Arthurian tale of Sir Morien is the story of a young knight described as being “black from head to toe”, who rides to Camelot to find his father.

But what happened before this story began? Jay Bernard’s The Red and Yellow Nothing is a prequel that asks this question, and in the process meditates on the black presence in European art and culture, long before the invention of the divisive racial categories that exist today.

Morien’s story moves across genders, landscapes and centuries with references as diverse as William Dunbar and Kendrick Lamar. Patience Agbabi calls the collection “a psychedelic trip of genre and gender, fizzing with 600 years of wordplay.”

 

 

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The Red and Yellow Nothing originally came out of the 2014 IS&T/Café Writers Commission competition which Jay won jointly with Jon Morley.

 

Jay Bernard on writing The Red and Yellow Nothing. (From The Poetry Schools’ feature where each of the 2016 Ted Hughes shortlist is asked to blog about the writing process.)

…The Red and Yellow Nothing was like that. I didn’t realise what I’d written until I’d written it.

There are many influences. My introduction to the story begins with a quotation from Jessie Weston about the story of Morien in its current form – part of an idiosyncratic C14th compendium called the Lancelotcompilatie: “As it stands, the poem is a curious mixture of conflicting traditions.”

When I first started this project, I tried to be coherent. I tried to make it a neat confection of historical figures interacting with each other. And it didn’t work because the technical requirements of such a story are not neat.

The story itself isn’t neat, how could my interpretation seek to neutralise, formalise, make coherent?

More, including the influences of Kendrick Lamar, The Child Ballads and, we kid you not, Super Mario can be found here.

 

 

Reviews and Interviews: The Red and Yellow Nothing

 

‘The source text was translated into English by Jessie Weston in 1901. She commented, “the poem is a curious mix of conflicting traditions”. Bernard has more than lived up to the gloss. The pamphlet is a strange, lurid, baroque mash of tradition that calls to mind the “livingness” attempted by Hölderlin in his work with Sophocles’ Antigone. It does not stick with one style for long but is always dangerously alive…

…It is joyfully anachronistic (at one point Morien plays “the first computer game”). The world of the sequence is other, but complete. And the reader swallows each psychedelic trip. It is a magic trick to write back like this, into “the land before the story-o”, and for it to feel so crisp and alive and crackling.’

Edwina Attlee The Poetry Review Volume 107:2 Summer 2017

 

‘It’s incredible that so much has been fit into about 24 pages, including the handful of full-page illustrations by the poet, without feeling overburdened. The Red and Yellow Nothing has the feel of a heartfelt and intense investigation into something complex and significant, a true poetic quest, and one that has compromised little, if anything at all. It’s confusing, it’s challenging, it’s deeply satisfying, and it would be a real mistake to let such an exciting piece of work pass by uncelebrated.’

Dave Coates Dave Poems April 2017

 

‘For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?’ (W.H. Auden ‘The Night Mail’). Many poems have fallen underfoot in the forests of memory. Jay Bernard’s pamphlet makes brilliant use of one of these. Morien is a Middle Dutch romance; its hero, a Moorish knight. Bernard introduces her poem as ‘an inquiry into the idea of blackness in Europe’ before slavery.

This retelling of Morien is wildly appealing. Its opening (which can be sung) owes less to Le Morte d’Arthur than to topsy-turvy Disney, spiced with folk song in the style of the late great Kenneth Williams…’

Alison Brackenbury Under the Radar – Issue Eighteen

 

It is difficult to put a finger on the immediate aftermath of reading The Red and Yellow Nothing: there is puzzlement, rage, and wonder, but ultimately the sense that Jay Bernard has created a rare and beautiful thing. Part contemporary verse drama, part mythic retelling, the pamphlet – containing one long poem, broken into sections with stage directions – is framed as a ‘prequel to the tale of Sir Morien, son of Agloval’, narrating the backstory of the young Moor’s arrival in Camelot.

Theophilus Kwek, The London Magazine

 

The Red and Yellow Nothing is the story of a quest… or is it, and if so, for what? Jay Bernard has unearthed an Arthurian tale from a Middle Dutch poem of possible French origin, translated into English a century ago. Sir Agloval, a knight travelling in Moorish lands, meets a princess and then leaves her. She gives birth to Morien, who grows up and rides to Camelot in search of his father. He has some adventures, and there’s a happy ending… in the original.

In The Red and Yellow Nothing things go differently. I’ll talk about it in terms of the story, which is one way to give an idea of the variety in this unusual pamphlet. Adventures become experiments in time, space and identity, spinning out of a kaleidoscope of poem-episodes, leaving me dizzy and disoriented.

Fiona Moore, Sabotage Reviews

 

…Morien travels from Moorish lands to England to start his quest to find his father, in a sequence split into 13 parts, each starting with a stage direction. In II, the introduction suggests maybe we can empathise with the frustration one feels when the local people take one look at you, then hurry away from you before you’ve finished your sentence. Here, Morien asks a bard:

I'll fight you. Why don't you come out and face me and
fight me and tell me what you know? I've been riding since 
I don't know when, now I don't know where, 
why don't you come and face me. Everyone says
'I know not good knight where your father dwells.'

…The Red and Yellow Nothing is an exploration of identity, primarily through race, using its medieval setting to get away from modern labelling and to encourage readers to think about their own prejudices. The poems are rich in detail but remain mindful to need to progress a plot and tell the story.

Emma Lee, London Grip

 

Is ‘horrible’ horribly good?

I didn’t like this ‘prequel to the tale of Sir Morien’ but I can’t forget it, which must – I think – be sign of potency. What I remember best is the bit that appalled me most. That’s the way memory works: we have hotspots for disgust, sex, violence.

… I’m reminded that when I first met the word ‘allegory’ I thought it meant a story you couldn’t fully understand. And so it is, for me, with the The Red and Yellow Nothing. I don’t understand it at all but I can’t forget it. I wish I could.

Helena Nelson, Sphinx OPOI Reviews

 

Bernard turns the story of a lit­tle-known me­dieval knight into a fresh, witty and ex­cit­ing quest for iden­tity, in an imag­ined me­dieval world that is equal parts strange and fa­mil­iar. The poem is in­ter­spersed with gor­geous, richly tex­tured im­ages.

Diva (UK) 1 May 2016 (37)

 

…the two main readers were Jay Bernard and Jon Morley, both with new books. Both books are ambitious, many-sided. vivid and fascinating.

George Szirtes on Facebook after April 2016 launch of Commission pamphlets


 

Jay Bernard on The Red and Yellow Nothing

…I wanted to write something about blackness that wasn’t tragic, but still spoke to the situation we are currently in. The paradoxical nature of now: the way you can be erased, snuffed out, disfigured, distorted, while being privy to the remarkable insight that is only possible from the margins.

I thought that writing about black characters in a world before the construct of race as we currently know it would be a liberating move. I thought it might open up a contemplative space less weighted by the ballast of the media, and American media in particular. We are always expected to view ourselves in a certain way – and I wanted to present and view Morien completely differently.

Interview, October 2016 Poetry Spotlight

 

I wanted to write this pamphlet because I wanted to go backwards in history and begin exploring a time when blackness was not the thing it is today, when Moors culturally dominated the British, when race/racism had not yet been invented. There are some interesting scenes, such as when Morien rides to the beach and none of the sailors will take him because of his appearance. It’s very easy to read that as racism as we now understand it, but in the story [of the original Middle Dutch source] its pitched as a kind of stupidity…

Interview, April 2016, Speaking Volumes

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Jay was also celebrated by Spread the Word as part of LGBT History Month, February 2017, in the United Kingdom, where they shared the poetry platform with Dean Atta, Sophia Blackwell and W H Auden as well as other noted poets!

The Young Poets Network in conversation with Jay here.

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