A feature on Sheffield-based poetry zine and live music night Unquiet Desperation, written for a university project.
People tell Mike Drabble that he sounds like an 18-year-old who’s just gone to university. His response? “Well, so what?”
He’s not just a smart-arse student though. He’s a philosophy teacher, a creative writing teacher and most interestingly, he’s the founder of Unquiet Desperation – whatever that might be.
“It’s not just a music night. It’s not just a poetry mag,” he says, though it is both of those things. But there is also a wider philosophy that underpins UD: “It’s about removing the illusions that we battle every day and seeing through to something deeper.”
Mike finds it easiest to explain UD in terms of ‘memetics’, which explains culture in the same way that genetics explains biology. Cultural ‘memes’ – poems, books, songs, paintings – are like scraps of DNA that combine to create a cultural organism or ‘memeplex’.
Which is a good way of explaining the monthly Unquiet Desperation Presents… nights in Sheffield, which are usually found at Bungalows & Bears. Show up and you’ll find bands on stage, artists working on canvasses, surrealist cinema projected on to the walls and aspiring writers working on poetry and prose to submit to the next zine. When dreamy folk songstress Alessi’s Ark appeared in February, there was even a tombola where you could win a Belle & Sebastian album (which in a way, says it all).
So UD isn’t just a music night, nor is it just a poetry mag. It’s an art studio, a cinema showcase, a writers’ workshop and an unashamedly twee village fete as well. It’s a… you know… a memeplex.
Local promoter Jeremy Arblaster is largely responsible for the nights, but Mike has been responsible for the bigger UD project since early 2006. “In Al-Qaeda terms I’m the spiritual leader,” he says, deadpan.
Following in the Beat tradition of Kerouac and Ginsberg, Mike decided to set up a mag where he could publish his students’ work. With Sheffield as his base, he began distributing UD in the local bars. Word started to spread, and thanks to the website, it started to spread globally. Within a year and a half, UD had gone international, with local editions in Australia and North America – including three editions in New Jersey alone. In a good month, 20,000 copies of the mag get printed, well outstripping any other UK poetry publication.
This success, it seems, is based on the deeply rooted concept of UD. “It’s about giving people more and giving people a chance to get out of their lives, but it retains the educational and altruistic element it always has had,” Mike says. “It’s all about giving people an opportunity.”
So UD offers people the chance to explore the limits of their own creativity. Contributors are
uncensored, as long as they’re driven solely by their own artistic impulse. There are no vested interests, which means that the zine has never carried advertising or benefitted from grant money, and never will. When I ask Mike how it’s funded, he pulls out his Barclaycard and asks me not to publish exactly how much debt he’s in.
What I will say is the figure is high enough to question the logic of resolute ideology. For Mike though, the relationship between art and money simple: “Too much art in Sheffield is people in offices around the Showroom Cinema [the heart of the so-called ‘Cultural Industries Quarter’] handing out money. They’ve got a 2.2 from some minor university in some arts subject and that qualifies them to control the lifeblood of the arts industry.
“Art has to come from the grassroots.” But life in the grassroots isn’t easy when every other artist in Yorkshire is being bankrolled by the Arts Council. Rejecting cold cash is something that few creatives seem willing to do.
“A lot of people like the idea of what we are saying,” says Mike, “but when it comes to actually doing it they find out how difficult it is and how much temerity it takes.” In other words, they give up on creativity for its own sake, because the rewards are too abstract. It’s much easier to be an artist when you’re only doing it to get paid or get laid, even if it does ultimately corrupt your work.
UD though, is the exception. It thrives internationally, beyond the zeitgeist and unhindered by market dynamics. The zine is on a temporary hiatus, as Mike prepares a new volume, but the UD Presents… nights will continue, and there are plans for poetry nights and creative writing workshops.
Unquiet Desperation, after all, is bigger than a 12-page booklet: “When UD withers, as eventually it will, the ideas will still be there,” Mike contends. But these ideas can’t be bought or sold – only read, watched or heard.
Unquiet Desperation Presents…