This interview first appeared in Neon Highway, and was conducted by Jane March (an electronic emanation of the editor Alice Lenkiewicz (see Page 460)). Strictly speaking, it wasn’t an interview, but a questionnaire, but the fiction of dialogic communication was preserved. It was undertaken during 2003, and some of the projects described in answer to the penultimate question have been either realised, abandoned, or are in progress still (and I’ve added links here to some of the works or their sources). Thanks to Alice for permission to republish. RS
'Jane' began by speech-bubbling me the following:
Hi there Robert, can I ask you a few questions? Thank you.
Before beginning her bold questioning, thus:
Could you describe the kind of poetry that interests you and why this is? Where do you situate yourself in terms of contemporary poetry?
If you mean ‘kinds’ of poetry, not kind, then let’s say that I am interested in all kinds of poetry. Poetry’s delight is its variety across space and through time, rather than its supposed universality. Its particularity: Ovid to Ulli Freer, Basho to Pope, Petrarch to Klebnikov, Herbert to Celan. (Which is why I am so antagonistic towards the Movement Orthodoxy in Britain, and its narrow notions of what poetry might be.) One is adrift in the imaginary museum as a reader, while one is still positioned in terms of the current field of literary production as a writer, to borrow the terminology of Bourdieu. For example, I appear in the Tuma Twentieth Century British and Irish Poetry as a representative of British ‘linguistically innovative poetry’, which I suppose will suffice, although I’ve been as much responsible (as a commentator and publisher) for that cumbersome term’s currency as I have been its passive recipient. But then in certain moods, I feel I don’t fit this or that label, or that there are qualities in the work that are simply not recognised or recognisable by the act of being situated in such a field. Is that another way of saying that it is not entirely in the writer’s control where he or she is pigeonholed? Don’t my Empty Diaries have more in common with Tom Paulin’s The Invasion Handbook than with many books in ‘our’ corner of the field?
Why do you think it is that innovative poetry has not caught on with the education system? Why do some children study Simon Armitage and not Allen Fisher for instance?
That children – or adults, for that matter – are allowed to study poetry (or literature) at all in an increasingly instrumentalist education system is semi-miraculous. Though perhaps it is best not to enquire too deeply about what good it is supposed to do. Why some poets are taught, while others aren’t, has to do with the inherent ‘teachability’ of certain writing practices, and I suspect that some writers actively produce work in collusion with the way it is consumed in the classroom and examination hall. Other writing practices (those you dub ‘innovative’) do not fit so well in this paradigm, indeed actively counter commonly taught reading practices. As such they do not appeal to over-worked teachers who are often themselves not readers of poetry in any sense other than the classroom. That some of us who teach take on those writers is a different issue, of course. And the teaching of writing adds another dimension, one where I think innovative practice needs defining and defending.
What are your views on the contemporary education of poetry? How would you define the difference between experimental and non experimental poetry?
Teachers are scared of poetry and they all too often pass this fear on to their students. I can’t answer your unrelated question about the difference you perceive, because your terms are partly not ones I would use. I would counter a poetry of saying, which attempts to avoid thematisation and stasis, and achieve something like ethical openness, with a poetry of the said, which risks inertia and immediate naturalisation (which is the demand of every exam question, of course). At most, it is an ethical issue about making a text maximally open to the reader, while recognising the impossibility of the act, because the saying as an ethical gesture must always be concretised in an actual fixed text. Raworth’s Eternal Sections seem about as near as we’ll get to it. It is also to recognise, with Vološinov and Bakhtin, that language use, even in heavily distanciated and defamiliarised forms, remains dialogic. But that’s a book length argument in a couple of sentences: bits of Levinas rubbing shoulders with Veronica Forrest-Thomson.
The techniques that one uses to achieve this aim may vary. It certainly isn’t a question of pursuing stylistic brinkpersonship (‘experiment’, if you like) for its own sake. Some ‘experimental’ work can be bogged down in the said.
How do you think these differences are portrayed to and perceived by the public?
Since I partly refute your premise, this is difficult to answer. What the public perceives at all about poetry I couldn’t say. The ‘Romantic’ paradigm of self-expression prevails, it seems to me. While a small minority will recognise Armitage from their schooldays, nearly nobody would recognise Allen Fisher as a name, or even necessarily recognise what Fisher produces as poetry. Which is, to come back to an earlier question from a different angle, why education is crucial here. And I do my bit as a poet, academic, teacher and big-mouth.
What would you say to someone who said, “I can’t understand ‘experimental’ poetry. It doesn’t seem to make any sense.”
‘Sign up for private tutorials at £38 an hour!?’ You would then get that person to analyse every noun and verb in his or her statement (especially ‘experimental’). If he or she did say ‘seem’, by the way, you’d be in with a chance, wouldn’t you? You are more likely to hear something completely dismissive, i.e., ‘It doesn’t make sense’. So: what does ‘making sense’ mean? And who makes sense in the aesthetic relations between text and reader? All these questions open up the issues. Then you can go back to particular poems.
6. How would you describe your own process of writing poetry?
I don’t think I have a single process. I have used various techniques of accelerated collage, which I call ‘creative linkage’, at certain times. More recently I’ve been writing kinds of shadow ‘texts or commentaries’ based on other texts, in an act of intertextual critique. I have written strictly neo-formalist works (using word count) as well as writing a kind of free prose, or lineated prose. I’m playing a lot with sentence boundaries at the moment, stretching or collapsing syntax. I seem to swing from one extreme to the other, but the common factor is to generate works that are different. That was almost a working principle of ‘Twentieth Century Blues’, but is less so now. There is no separation of acts of writing and editing for me.
It’s probably not for me to decide whether I achieve a poetry of saying, but that’s the aim.
What would you say to the budding writer/poet to encourage and inspire them with their work? What books would you recommend them to read?
Read. A writer is a reader who writes. Reflect. Develop a poetics.
Can you list five poets before the 20th century that you admire?
Can you list five poets during the 20th and 21st century that you admire?
Milton Marvell Rochester Byron Blake. George Oppen, Roy Fisher, William Carlos Williams, Bob Cobbing, Robert Creeley. Whoops, I’ve run out of names.
How would you define ‘good’ poetry versus ‘bad’ poetry.
These are morally inflected terms, aren’t they? Better to think in terms of adequacy to the perceived necessary poetics of the time. So Williams was adequate to his age, whilst WE Henley wasn’t, we could say (or not, depending on our standards of adequacy).
You are well known for your interest in writings on poetics. Why do you feel poetics are important? How would you define poetics in your own words?
Whether or not I’m well-known for this interest or not, I define poetics, quite precisely, as: the products of the process of reflection upon writings, and upon the act of writing, gathering from the past and from others, speculatively casting into the future. Poetics is a discipline, though a flexible one, but more importantly it is a discourse, though an intermittent mercurial one. (The unwritten history of the discourse suggests this.) In the pedagogic sense, poetics is a writer-centred, student-centred, self-organising activity. It is a way of letting writers question what they think they know, a way of allowing creative writing dialogue with itself, beyond the monologic of commentary or reflection. Poetics exists for oneself and for others, to produce, to quote Rachel Blau DuPlessis, in the best definition: “a permission to continue”.
Do you have any forthcoming publications?
Yes: Tin Pan Arcadia from Salt, a large collection from my long time-based project ‘Twentieth Century Blues’ which spans the years of its composition from December 1989 to 2000, from its ‘Preface’, ‘Melting Borders’, through various other strands – some ‘Empty Diaries’, some ‘Killing Boxes’ – through to the final ‘The Push Up Combat Bikini’, which is also the last ‘Empty Diary’. Creative work produced since then, the ‘texts or commentaries’ that take on a set of deliberately distant materials – Anne Sexton’s drafts, Bernhard Schlink’s novel, Charlotte Saloman’s visual opera, Jiri Kolar, Marvell, Sephardic songs, none of these particularly associated with ‘me’ – will appear from Stride as Hymns to the God in which my Typewriter Believes. That book also contains a writing through of my own journals written in the aftermath of September 11, the September 12 we are all living through. That suggests another collection, unwritten as yet, just a few poems that follow on from the ‘Killing Boxes’ strand of ‘Twentieth Century Blues’, and a free prose essay that answers Adrian Clarke’s reading of my poetics, ‘Rattling the Bones’. (Soon to appear in Softblow.) I teeter on the precipice of launching into a pre-determined sequence of 96 poems to accompany them, the sort of mad formalism I’ve avoided since completing ‘Twentieth Century Blues’.
Recently I’ve been doing some writing as visiting researcher to Sudley House in Liverpool, and that should see the light of day as both performance and text. Then there’s a short story about the Esperanto writer F Tropp. I’d like to write something connected with jazz. I’m fascinated by the close connection between poetry and jazz. Weird things: like Charlie Parker carrying a copy of the Rubáiyát around with him! I had plans to write a critical work on this relation but I’m not sure I’ve got the musicological knowledge to pursue it as an academic study, but I’ve amassed all this material and perhaps will extend the ‘text or commentary’ technique of Hymns to these materials: texts, recordings, anecdotes.
Critical works forthcoming include The Poetry of Saying: British Poetry and its Discontents 1950-2000 – its title is self-explanatory, and its thesis I’ve outlined above. Indeed, your oppositional pair, Armitage and Fisher, are both treated in that work, Armitage appearing as a soft version of the persistence of the Movement Orthodoxy, and Fisher being one of the discontents, who approximates the poetry of saying in his work Gravity as a Consequence of Shape. See February Page 450) And at the moment I’m working on a short monograph on the poetry, fiction, and non-fiction of Iain Sinclair. (See March: Page 456) Articles on Sinclair and Maggie O’Sullivan. I need to write something extended on poetics. And probably publish or make available a rather different kind of creative writing manual, working with Scott Thurston.
But my primary focus is on the creative work.
Finally, Are there any questions you feel I should have asked you and didn’t?
Thank you for your time Robert.