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Thursday, April 09, 2020

Five more poems from BAD IDEA published on Daniele Pantano's The Abandoned Playground

I’m pleased to say that today a block of 5 poems from Bad Idea is published online in Daniele Pantano’s new magazine The AbandonedPlayground (a consonant title for the age we live in). Read poems 40-44 here.

The first poem is deliberately dated Maundy Thursday 2019, which is a year ago today, of course, and I was then looking back to the last poem in the first book of ‘The English Strain’ project, which is dated Easter 2018, but name-checks ‘pauperising Maundy monarchs’. (That poem was published recently, too: see here:
https://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2020/03/robert-sheppard-four-poems-from-non.html
)




Easter is important to the Petrarchan tradition, because, on Good Friday, 1327, Petrarch (supposedly) first laid eyes on Laura (who mysteriously appears in poem 40 today!). So all roads lead to Petrarch and all roads lead to Maundy Thursday or Good Friday.    

Another poem, 'The Michael Drayton Companion (1619)' is really about The Robert Sheppard Companion, although I fuse my fate with his. I read it at the launch of the book (see here about both the book and here about the launch, at which I read this poem!).

Here's me reading 'Bad Idea 44', another of the set.

Thanks Dan!

Daniele Pantano has appeared on this blog, here. Has his own site, HERE

My ‘English Strain’ project is illustrated by two posts about the background to the project: one that looks back at Book One, The English Strain here and another at Book Two, Bad Idea here , which is what has been excerpted in this showing.

The links above themselves have further links to online poems from Bad Idea.


In ‘Petrarch 3’, the opening part of Book One, the transpositions are achieved by having 14 versions of one translation from Petrarch, including ‘Empty Diary 1327’, though the poem that is transformed itself mentions that fateful Good Friday espial, on the darkest day of the Christian calendar. This part of Book One, ‘Petrarch 3’, is published under that title. Another part is published as Hap which ab(uses) the Petrarchan versions of Thomas Wyatt. Both pamphlets are still available. 





Look here and here for more on my Petrarch obsession/project, including how to purchase Petrarch 3 from Crater Press in its ‘fold out map’ edition. Hap: Understudies of Thomas Wyatt’s Petrarch is available from Knives Forks and Spoons here:
https://www.knivesforksandspoonspress.co.uk/product-page/hap-understudies-of-thomas-wyatt-s-petrarch-by-robert-sheppard-26-pages

The Robert Sheppard Companion may be read about and purchased here

But in the meantime, read the 5 poems (and others accumulating) at The Abandoned Playground. 

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Thoughts on Collaboration 12: Steven Fowler with Camilla Nelson (regarding the performance)

In all these ‘thoughts’, I alert readers to the fact that it is part of a strand (15000+ words now) concerning collaboration, and I ask people to consult the hubpost, which lists (and explains the focus of ) each post, here:  https://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2020/01/robert-sheppard-thughts-on.html

However, today’s post cannot be properly be understood without at least looking at ‘Thoughts on Collaboration 11: Steven Fowler with Camilla Nelson (reading the text)’, which offers a close reading of the text ‘When the Rules Keep Changing’, which Fowler wrote with Camilla Nelson. READ THAT HERE


On tour: bottom row: Sarah Cave, JR Carpenter, Camilla Nelson, SJ (Steven) Fowler



Their performance of this is part of the South West ‘Enemies’ Poetry Tour, a reading on August 6th 2016, at Bath’s Literary and Scientific Institution. The call for participants (https://www.theenemiesproject.com/southwestcall ) gives an idea of the tour and reveals (something I hadn’t clocked) that Camilla Nelson’s press Singing Apple, was the co-organiser, which means, with the micro-logic of small presses, that Camilla herself was. ‘The South West Poetry Tour is curated by Camilla Nelson and SJ Fowler,’ we are told. Full documentation of the tour, which includes videos of every performance, may be accessed here:

https://www.theenemiesproject.com/southwest



Spend a minute or two scrolling through the different combinations, enjoying the variety, or spend many hours looking through the lot! 



You’re back. Good. Let’s watch Camilla Nelson reading a collaboration with JR Carpenter. They are well-matched. I have a whole batch of little topographical self-published pamphlets by the latter from when she read at Storm and Golden Sky, not unlike some of the works of Nelson’s Singing Apple (‘a small independent press devoted to the material investigation of poem production in relation to plants’, a blurb says). The video begins without introduction, but I’m guessing that the text is called something like ‘Many Reasons for Planting Trees’ (the first and last lines) and it repeats a chorus about ‘propagation’, and the changing seasons, which might be thought of as its poetic focus. It sounds as though there is some found text at use here (maybe all of it is). When one of the speakers reads of her ‘apple-shaped interior’ we sense that the socius and the self and the environment are being related to one another in a Guattarian way for this collaborative eco-poetics. The (female) voices are well-matched (I can’t distinguish them, despite JR’s Canadian accent). It’s good. All in all, a successful collaboration in the ‘Enemies’ mode, even a model. Watch it here:

Video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89DXuh2mvIA&feature=emb_logo

 Or on the South West page here https://www.theenemiesproject.com/southwest


Notice that the two readers, despite the text being about physical growth, sprouting, blossoming, fruiting, are immobile, other than the ‘mobile’ phones they read from, as still, in fact, as the Barbara Hepworth sculpture next to them, a third collaborator, one might almost say! This isn’t a criticism. They don’t even have microphones as an excuse (I like to move a bit when I read and find microphones constraining and, often, unnecessary; I need to be miked up, like the late Miles Davis; that’s the trouble with looking at YouTube, you get distracted and watch other clips.). The screens they read from are small. They need to concentrate. They do. The uniformity of voice partly derives from this concentration.


The text that Nelson and Fowler coauthored could have been read in this way. Its thematics about notions of self, self-disclosure, and ambivalent violence is largely a psychological affair, despite the language of (will towards) movement and copresence. Two writers side by side reading a collaborative text is an adequate image of copresence. (Social undistancing, to refunction the contemporary jargon.) This is not what we get. Instead, we receive ‘a reading performance, read while dancing / wrestling,’ according to the note in Nemeses. (291)  


The text (I listened without watching) is not identical, either due to later revisions, performance improvisations, or ‘live edits’, possibly caused by the disruptive movements during recitation. I will not focus on textual variations largely because it is impossible to judge the reasons for them. I doubt whether you will be surprised to see that Steven Fowler read the left-hand poem, Camilla Nelson, the right. (You can read that back onto the reading of the previous post if you wish, HERE, and, for economy, I will do so in my final analysis.)


Let’s watch it; it’s only 5 or so minutes long (the usual ‘Enemies’ limit, to ensure evenings aren’t unbearably long.): Here: 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-rn4ZGsziM&feature=emb_logo



The basic trope in this performance of ‘When the Rules Keep Changing’, I mean, of all elements except the recitation (which they attempt to read ‘straight’), is that the rules of two voiced collaborative performance, turn taking, for example, and immobility on the part of the non-reader (the kind of thing we see in Nelson’s duo with Carpenter), keep changing. The two poets interfere with one another, generate what communication theory calls noise to interrupt the message. What’s that quote from Benjamin I use as a preface to my book Unfinish? ‘Interruption is one of the fundamental devices of all structuring’. If so, in the larger formal entity of the performance as a whole, these actions are constitutive. However, they are not abstract interruptions (such as sudden noises, actions without motivation, DADA stuff). They are mainly (though not all) recognisable social signs of deliberate irritation at the other (which is reflected in the text). This includes Fowler flicking Camilla’s ponytail, looking out the window, reading with a back to her; and Nelson moving Steve’s microphone, stopping his picking his teeth (a silent ‘Don’t do that!’), and so on. They are visibly niggled by the other! At one point we see Nelson reading with Fowler standing too close behind her. (I am reminded of something Hilary Clinton said about the way Trump deliberately did that to menace her when she was speaking during the Presidential debates.) Later, when it involves wrestling, SJ carrying Nelson round the room, behind the audience (which is visibly laughing, slightly nervously), or Nelson jumped on Fowler’s back, it is more obviously ‘a reading performance, read while dancing / wrestling.’ (291) You notice Nelson is barefoot and dressed for dancing (and looks like a dancer) whereas Fowler is well-known as a wrestler and cage boxer. Nelson tucks the text in the back of her waistband so she can move, a clearly premeditated strategy. If you had any doubts, you realise that this has all been pre-planned, which is not to say that it doesn’t have an element of improvisation.    

What I say of the end of the text, on the page alone –


The section (and the poem) ends with an image of asserted knowledge and safety:


                                    the birds
have eaten all the breadcrumbs but I know the way.
Held close           kept safe. A flame stilled long enough


The movements of the ‘game’ of the whole coauthored poem’s ambivalent adversarial gestures are brought to temporary pause ‘long enough’ for illumination,  


is enacted by Nelson reading these last lines on her own while Fowler kneels before her in an attitude of supplication or submission. Game over.


I’m not suggesting that there is a general conclusion about performative elements as they appear in collaborative texts to be drawn here, but it is clear there is an observable relationship between text and action. Remember the importance of the isolated word ‘live’, when Fowler talks of Nemeses demonstrating collaboration as ‘the making of challenging and complex work, live.’ The ‘text’ of the total performance is a multi-systemic act-event that only the reader as witness can put together.  Juha Virtanen’s Poetry and Performance During the British Poetry Revival 1960-1980: Event and Effect presents his ‘conception of performances as events of intersubjective authorship and cacophonous collectivity’, (p. 21). This occurs at exactly the point where the reception of the literary work as an act-event (in Derek Attridge’s terms) opens the whole thing out to a multiplicity of intersubjective assemblages, a co-creation of many minds beyond the two performers. That’s what’s happening here.

*

For comparison, it is worth watching: Óvinir: London - SJ Fowler and Ásta Fanney Sigurðardóttir, also recorded in 2016, for a different take on ‘wrestling’ collaborative poetry:



Also: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TE162HrChrM

During the writing of this response a package has arrived. It contains Camilla Nelson’s KFS publication, Apples and Other Languages.  

Remember, all posts in this ‘Collaboration’ strand may be accessed via links at the end of the first post, a hubpost, as I call it, here:


Monday, April 06, 2020

Thoughts on Collaboration 11: Steven Fowler with Camilla Nelson (reading the text)

It’s time to examine the collaborative practice in Fowler’s projects in detail. (You need to read the previous posts, really; see the link at the end of this one.) ‘I have proofed my concept with others, forming transitory but generous communities which have supported the making of challenging and complex work, live, and it has taken me on an extraordinary personal journey,’ Fowler says. The ‘challenging and complex’ work I want to examine is also a short one, ‘When the Rules Keep Changing’, written with Camilla Nelson.


I know Camilla, having met her at conferences, always at Bangor, now I think of it, but I don’t really know her ‘own’ work well, beyond a number of isolated poems and witnessing her in performance. I have two of her books on order, and both have taken longer than one would expect to arrive, but I can’t wait any longer to get on with the next part of these ‘thoughts’. I’m also having to wait until Rupert Loydell publishes my review of Fowler’s ‘collaborations’ on April 1st to post these ancillary ‘thoughts’, but I am writing them well ahead of their appearance. (I’m trying to keep the ubiquitous coronavirus at bay as I do: as I said on Twitter: 1st April is literally unthinkable from where I sit.)

‘When the Rules Keep Changing’ is a three page text in two columns, the left-hand one of short, irregular, conventionally punctuated lines, in classic free verse lineation, absent of stanza shape. The right-hand poems consist of longer lines, utilising phrasal caesura, spatial syntax, with minimal, but not absent, punctuation. Internal openness is held in the frame of three 12 line stanzas. The left-hand text asks, at one point, ‘are you cold enough Camilla?’ but we cannot simply infer that this was written by Fowler, since the voice is a feature of a particular situation to which I will return, in which the question is posed. It may be a quotation or an imagining. Neither can we assume that any of the verses are the sole work of one or the other co-authors. (My own collaborative practice of covering the tracks of authorship, most radically in Twitters for a Lark – see here – alerts my awareness of this possibility: https://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2019/03/my-ref-statement-describing-twitters.html

)

The nature of the self is at issue in both the first lines (and that stands whether you read the left or the right-hand text first, the left being positioned lower on the page than the right. I’m now going to privilege our conventional left to right brain programming!). The left-hand text opens:


Why would I tell a simple
story of myself
to a room of strangers? (p. 269)


which questions self-exposure, and recognises that ‘telling’ is alienated from the self that is told, and evades the complex contemporary realities Fowler’s poetics embraces (it may also embody misgivings about the self-revelation that public performance entails. Geraldine Monk is very good on that, here: https://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2013/12/the-tildes-outside-language-were-not_14.html

 ) The single, singular, voice questions love and safety, self-obsessively, but ends by


Trying to let things go, to be kind
out of choice and not fear,
inhibition, introversion, eticence, wariness, caution, suspicion, misgiving, mistrust (p. 269)

(Surely ‘eticence’ is a typo for ‘reticence’? I didn’t say so in my review, but there are more typos than there should be in a book of this quality.)

The long line which invades the empty space under the right-hand text, and is an image of the thoughtless impositions of self-enclosed personhood, is a list of inwardly-looking, even ‘selfish’, to use a term from Fowler’s poetics (‘the whole endeavour is ‘selfish’, I summarise, in my review), self-conscious (but not negligent, let’s not overstate it), negatives. At least the passage continues and ends: ‘or laughter’, which is one of the joyful antomyms of the long line’s list. It is almost as if the rhetoric of this voice embodies ‘the unitary vision of the subject as a self-regulating rationalist entity’ (p. 211) that Rosi Braidotti bangs on about. (Idea, the muse of Bad Idea taught me her post-Deleuzean (or should that be most-Deleuzean?) thought. https://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2020/01/robert-sheppard-links-to-all-six-bad.html

) But it is also tempered by the possibility of laughter.  

The right-hand text opens with a contrary view of self, even pleads to the other: ‘be my mirror’, but refuses the singleness of self: ‘show me my many selves’. It is as though the self-enclosed subject is countered here by what Braidotti calls ‘the nomadic vision of the subject as a time continuum and a collective assemblage’ (and we will come back to her notions of collectivity to describe collaboration itself). (210) The right-hand text espouses the role of ‘shape-shifter     name-changer’. 

Metamorphosis is form. The text is likewise less of a first-person narrative, although the signature line, ‘I can’t play the game when the rules keep changing,’ expresses a ‘wariness’ towards game-changers rather than name-changers. It also questions ‘the game’ of this self-mirroring text, which is itself an image of (this) collaboration. Perhaps there are issues to be explored before we simply quote Rosi again, with her sense that the first person plural is party to the mantra: we’re ‘all in this together’ (Braidotti’s words stick a little in my throat after Cameron’s austerity hard-sell in our Age of Immiseration. And now Trump’s just tweeted it too, about coronavirus, the ‘Chinese Virus’.) She says: ‘Our copresence, that is to say, the simultaneity of our being in the world together, sets the tune for the ethics of our interaction with both human and nonhuman others.’ (210). That seems to me a model for collaboration, generally. The right-hand text continues (and ends this section, its ‘turn’), the voice suspecting that its shifting positioning (it is difficult to assign gender here) is compromised by the egoic stasis of the addressee:

You’ve shown me the shape of your treasure,
told me why she’s hidden     trust in a locked box. (p. 269)       

There is dialogue here, at the textual level (where we read), and at the compositional level, though there is difference and distance, revelation (‘shown me’) and concealment (‘locked box’, trust/trussed).    


In the second section (perhaps I should also have said each section is a page) the texts begin simultaneously, by which I mean they both start on line one, though Western reading will privilege the left. This is another first person script of mild dejection that picks up on the ‘trying’ liturgy at the end of its part one:


Trying to understand the love
of those who cannot give it,
like a screwdriver. (270)


It’s an odd simile, but one that emphasises violent gesture (with the dual sexual and exploitative connotations of ‘screw’), but what is being attempted to be understood is a paradoxical withholding of love: love exists, sure, but it is retained, a stagnant reservoir, in the self. The voice itself speaks with a daring combination of violence and tenderness. The narrator says, ‘I’m also ready,/ all jaws’, like you might say ‘I’m all ears!’, ‘with a kindly fire/ with freedom of movement’. (270). This only amplifies the ambivalence of part one, already noted. The dichotomy is repeated (‘hand-made weapons/ technology of love’). Violence to the self tempers this readiness for engagement (there’s a mania for it, almost). Of course, this poem is written for a performance in 2016, and that might explain the desire for ‘freedom of movement’ differently: that resonant phrase is one of the dull bureaucratic notions that became illuminated by contention during the Brexit debate of the same year. Inward negative energy battles against a will towards community and copresence, literally bending in the last words of this section: ‘Its [sic] just angry infolding, with a clinch. /The inclination towards tactility’. (270) (Odd to write that in the Age of Social Distancing.)


‘Tactility’ would be a useful noun to summarise the focus of the right-hand poem, though focus might not be the best word for this more dispersed discourse (it’s clearly a collage) though we do read a first person voice: ‘Only once your hand’s around my wrist can I begin to feel/ skins lie different’. (270). The poem is alive with sensation (with a slight threat that echoes the violence this poem is answering to its left, as it were). We sense a realisation of bodily movement, or rather, of the bodily (‘you offer me your body/ to lie down in’)) (270), slightly sexualised, and movement, or rather dancing and swimming (which again has its edge of danger): ‘the shimmer and dazzle      mask the drowning.’ (270) There is less attempt at coherence in this more fragmentary discourse, but like its predecessor, it returns to a sinister image of containment, ‘a long-locked room’. But there is more hope in freedom of movement than in its ‘mirror’ poem: ‘These walls I’ve worn down once before.’ (270) Although that also suggests that previous attempts at accessing copresence have failed (or at best were attempted before).


Section three’s left-hand text immediately picks up on (responds to, in one of the first evidences of direct to and fro, in this sequence) this penetration of barriers. It is a nightmare, with both surprise and reversal:


The room darkens, 
a head emerges through the wall,
though your door is open.
It is a dog’s head
and it asks,
are you cold enough Camilla? (271)

The intrusion of the first name is almost a refutation of the multitudinous self that claims to be a ‘name-changer’ (269), an attempt to pin the building sense of movement down. (Do we even think: this is Fowler addressing Camilla? Is this a recognisable dialogue now, in the same way that Alan Halsey and Kelvin Corcoran address one another in Winterreisen? See here: https://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2020/02/thoughts-on-collaboration-or.html

 ) The door is open, so the mural penetration is unnecessary, and turns out to offer this interrogative canine with its intrusive, but not completely understood, question. The single, authoritative, certainly male, possibly masculinist, voice, promises, ‘If you come with me,/ I can get you out of here.’ (271) But he knows he’s defeated: ‘You ignore it and fall asleep./ Once shy, twice bitten’. (271) Amid this hint of Sleeping Beauty (we are back with Fowler’s collaboration with Chamberlain; see my Stride review), there is a hint of projection here, rather than mirroring. These are lines that the narrator might easily apply to his own ‘cautious’ self-hood, although the biting actions remind us of the readiness of jaws announced earlier. Such a strategy makes for special pleading, bordering on emotional blackmail, masquerading as fairytale transformations: ‘The wilderness only seems beautiful/ when you’re visiting’. (271) At least the self-withdrawal of the left-hand poem is countered by a desire for the copresence of the other, although the ‘wilderness’ is rendered ‘hideous’ by the addressee’s absence, or rather, by her immobility (‘if you’re stranded’).

This antagonism (combined with self-doubt) reflects the poetics that Fowler expresses, even in the name of project and book: ‘enemies’ and ‘nemeses’, and the way copresence or coauthorship snaps back onto the ‘selfish’ motive for the act. ‘Collaborations are a means of friendship, yes, and they are an innately social act of writing… But they are really just about ourselves. Collaborations are really just mirrors rather than procreations.’ (283) ‘Be my mirror’ is an invitation advanced in this text, but rejected. After all, ‘I can’t play the game when the rules keep changing.’ (269)

This is a game whose rules keep changing because of the nature of the incessant, insistent, dialogue: ‘Red riding hood     Snow White      The hunting ground.’ (271) The undercurrent of fairytale imagery - openly female in orientation – is thus brought to the surface, explicitly, in this first line of the final right-hand 12 line stanza, only to be rejected, in the only first person plural in the text: ‘We’ll not write fairytales or nursery rhymes.’ (271) This could also be the voice of a collaborator trying to establish some stable operational rule with the other collaborator.

You ate the apple after asking.
But that’s not how the story goes.
You’ll not be made the villain of the piece. (271)

This is a strong act of refutation of pre-set narratives (Snow White probably, The Book of Genesis, re-gendered, less so). It refuses victim-status to its addressee (whose ‘psychology’ we’re familiar with by now). The section (and the poem) ends with an image of asserted knowledge and safety:


                                    the birds
have eaten all the breadcrumbs but I know the way.
Held close           kept safe. A flame stilled long enough


The movements of the ‘game’ of the whole coauthored poem’s ambivalent adversarial gestures are brought to temporary pause ‘long enough’ for illumination. The rules of the game of collaboration have stopped because the collaboration is over (to again read the text as a meta-commentary on its own composition, perhaps a projected prediction of its ultimate performance).




*

This is a fairly in-depth reading which (like most such close readings) leaves untraced trajectories that other readings will (or could) pick up on. You could sensibly ask: ‘Are there two narrators in this text, or not?’ and a whole list of other questions might arise. Somebody else might register how much they enjoyed the text. I do, too, but I don’t say that above. Perhaps more of you will consult the original. Much of the above won’t be used in my eventual article on collaboration, though I am pretty sure I will comment on this work.

Imagine it read ‘live’: the two columns perhaps read in turn in two monotones, by two rigid, fixed, bodies, tentatively clutching their microphones, and mumbling away in the contemporary ‘poetry voice’ that is probably learnt from records of Philly Joe Larkin. ‘Hideous’ as a fairytale wilderness!  

Of course, anybody who has read this text will know that there are two photographs printed under the second and the third poem: Fowler lifting up Nelson and Nelson on Fowler’s back, respectively! (270-271) They are still shots of the performance of the piece by the two authors, and gesture towards the ‘live’ element that is essential for Fowler, ‘challenging and complex work, live,’ as he accurately puts it.  

They point us to the extraordinary video of that event. See it (and you) next time, in a couple of day's time.  

All posts in this ‘Collaboration’ strand – there are now 10 others, an interlude, and links to associated reviews on other blogzines – may be accessed via links on the first post, a hubpost, as I call it, here:

https://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2020/01/robert-sheppard-thughts-on.html


There are several posts already that cover Steven Fowler’s extraordinary work as organizer, and as coauthor and poetics writer. It is probably best to look at least those before moving on, or, even, before you read this post!


Saturday, April 04, 2020

Robert Sheppard: 'PULSE: All a Rhythm' published in Tentacular 5 (with links)

I am pleased to say that an excerpt from my prose processual poetics-critical piece, Pulse: All a Rhythm, has been published in Tentacular 5 (more about this issue and the magazine below).




Pulse is a ‘treatise on metre’ which was produced by a strange method. The first draft of this piece was made by ‘writing-through’ Tiger C. Roholt’s Groove: A Phenomenology of Rhythmic Nuance. New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2014, between August 2016-February 2017. Throughout this process, contingency is its rhythm, a pulse that matches the varieties of montage, de-montage, that I attempt in my own practice, with interruption as structure, with transformation and transposition, formal resistance, creative linkage, ‘imperfect fit’, near-perfect fit, all kinds of multi-form unfinish. Later drafts were subject to the usual processes of revision and editing, in the light of that poetics.    

Its subject? Rhythm. Not metre – rhythm: pulse, surge, the ‘sound-mind’, which becomes ‘rhythmizing consciousness’ as chance throws theoretical materials my way to sharpen my vocabulary. It is an extension of the critical work (though it is not itself a critical work) in my The Meaning of Form. (See here for that tome: http://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2014/06/robert-sheppard-meaning-of-form-forms.html ) It’s also about cognition.

Pulse is HERE: https://www.tentacularmag.com/issue-5a/robert-sheppard

The whole of Pulse is due for publication as a booklet from Like This Press.  

Issue 5, Spring 2020, is edited by Jonathan Catherall with guest editors Flo Sunnen and Dylan Williams - spring 2020. See here. www.tentacularmag.com – and my thanks got to all three! And congratulations on the issue.

There is an editorial here: https://www.tentacularmag.com/elsewhere-blog/issue-5-is-here

which is contained in one of the interesting ‘extras’ on this well-thought-out online magazine, the ‘Elsewhere’ blog feature, though that word does a disservice to the quality of the pieces here. (Find that Robert Hampson piece on the British Poetry Revival.) See: https://www.tentacularmag.com/elsewhere/

In a previous issue, Patricia Farrell’s ‘Handshoe’ may be read here:  https://www.tentacularmag.com/issue-4a/patricia-farrell

And an excerpt from Charms and Glitter, my poetry-photo collaboration with Trev Eales (which is due for publication by Knives, Forks and Spoons within days) may be read and seen, here:

https://www.tentacularmag.com/issue3c/trev-eales-robert-sheppard

Friday, April 03, 2020

Robert Sheppard: Thoughts on Collaboration 10: SJ Fowler’s poetics of collaboration

You need to have read at least my previous post (here) and the link to my review of SJ Fowler and 54 others: Nemeses: Selected Collaborations of SJ Fowler, 2014-2019. HTVN Press, 2019 (here) before you read this. Better still, is to follow all posts in this ‘Collaboration’ strand; they may be accessed via links on the first post, a hubpost, as I call it, here:

https://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2020/01/robert-sheppard-thughts-on.html





Nemeses carries two prose ‘explanations’, the first short and introductory, the second more reflective. The first is entitled ‘A Note on How the Collaborations have been revealed’. Unlike me, Fowler’s not wasting time interrogating the word ‘collaboration’. Which is just as well, given the range of activities that he has undertaken under its umbrella. Indeed, that is his major concern here, his worries about trying to stage on the page, not just texts, but the performances they were often written for, or out of. Remember, some of the texts are post-performance notes. This worries Fowler: he is content to offer ‘a new work, at the very least an iteration or spawn of the collaboration that inspired it’, which offers a performative and an organic metaphor for the ‘new work’. (His use of the word ‘inspired’ is a surprising choice, perhaps shorthand, but it causes problems later.) But he is worried that some might be not inspired at all; he hopes they are ‘not a shadow of that, not a dead trace’. He admits to having to omit certain live performances that won’t fit in the book. My review proves that he has produced spawns not shadows. (If you are going to mix metaphors, mince them.) 

On the other hand, he is clear his book is probably unique, with its cross-art explorations. But poetry is the starting point, he insists. In a parenthesis, he defines poetry (or the ‘language arts’) as ‘something language referent used for a primary purpose other than information or literal communication’ (a distant, clumsy relative of Wittgenstein’s comment in Zettel that a poem, while it uses the language of information, is ‘not used in the language-game of giving information’, a fragment which so energised Veronica Forrest-Thomson). But, more germane to my current theme, he talks of poetry, in these works ‘emerging with film, music, sculpture,’ etc. A formulation that might be contrasted with a sense of collaboration as ‘merging’. Emerging not merging. (p. 9) Co-emergence.

He offers one definition: ‘… collaboration is a way of learning, and a way of being a writer’. (p. 10) Learning, for the collaborators, could be positive or negative in terms of results (though all learning is arguably positive, whatever the results). As a way of being a writer, it’s a novel and learningful way of being so, guiding the emerging without merging. 

The essay at the end of the book is entitled ‘A Nemetic Poetics, or Being Happy Alone in Company’, which, in its very name, pitches challenge (Nemesis) against the creative joy of collaboration, which is necessarily communal (although Fowler himself still clearly feels solitude in that situation). This piece divides between the personal (what collaboration does for Fowler) and the textual (the nature of what is produced via the modes of collaboration employed).
 
However, he rejects the argument that writing is a particularly lonely activity. It is a cliché of the profession. (But, writing as I am at home, with Patricia downstairs drawing, and Stephen in the next room, drinking his way through the morning, I’m not lonely at all. I would hate one of those Yaddo-type weeks in solitude writing, but neither am I a café writer.) ‘Everything that requires concentration is lonely,’ states Fowler, and I think I agree. (279) But ‘The usual monoculture of poetry is a stereotype responsible for quite a good deal of bad poetry,’ by which I take him to mean that the still-prevalent idea of the solitary genius leads to a particular kind of self-based poetry, or model of poetry: ‘ “popular” poetry is now resting upon a strong biographical context…’ (279). Poetry is quicker to write than a novel (Discuss!) but that’s not the main point. ‘Poetry is lonely because of the very specific 21st century milieu. Poetry is out of these times… It is a thing without market force, which allows it to create weird contextual manipulations of what quality is’ and requires concentration (from readers and writers). (279) This is perhaps a recasting of traditional arguments about the autonomy of the art object, the kind of thing that you find in Adorno and Marcuse (see here for some of that aesthetics https://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2014/06/robert-sheppard-meaning-of-form-forms.html
And here: http://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2014/05/robert-sheppard-further-notes-on.html
): it is beyond the clutch of capitalism in its unusual self-definitions of quality. This is sometimes thought of as the source of the critical function of a poem (in this case). 

But Fowler doesn’t follow this argument. Instead, he argues that ‘we are in an era when everybody’s brain is morphed by rapidity’. (279). He doesn’t bemoan this. ‘This is not necessarily a bad thing,’ (it’s just the way we are in our post-postmodernity, one might say, though Fowler, wisely, avoids this term; see here: http://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2016/05/robert-sheppard-supplanting-postmodern.html
). ‘But it is bad for good poetry,’ presumably because the morphed brains of poets are trying to work in a no-longer-sustainable solitary concentration on something with weird qualities. Fowler doesn’t recommend slowing down, on an analogy with slow food, for example. ‘The world has changed and the poem can only change so much.’ (280) There’s a minimal catch up possible on the poem’s part. 

I don’t think Fowler is arguing for a golden era when age and poem worked in harmony. Indeed, that myth of such a golden age is found throughout the history of literature. I’ve been tracking the Renaissance and now the Romantics, in my ‘English Strain’ project, and the sense of poetry’s alienation from one’s age is felt throughout, is almost a cliché. ‘The world is too much with us,’ complains Wordsworth. Poetry’s critical distance (perhaps its formal distance; see here: http://robertsheppard.blogspot.co.uk/2014/05/robert-sheppard-formal-splinter.html) could be regarded as its strength, its critical function, but that isn’t a common thought, and it isn’t one entertained by Fowler. In short, whatever you do as a poet, ‘no one can care’. (280) That’s not a Sinatra-like chorus of ‘No One Cares’. No one can care – because of (let’s use Fowler’s word as shorthand) societal ‘rapidity’. Fowler surmises that this is OK, and could even be how we measure success: there’s no one here! But it’s lonely and, although academia might support one (does it?), on one hand you’re ‘unable to swallow the anti-intellectual and sentimental thrust that dominates’, but you’re ‘stuffed’. ‘What can one reasonably expect? To write difficult, strange, hermetic, coded, weird books and expect them to appeal to readers?’ (280) It’s just ‘funny’ to say so, Fowler concludes. (280) It is.

What do I expect? Gentle reader, digression alert! I am still genuinely surprised that anybody is interested in my work. Which is not to say, on occasions, I don’t wonder why this or that poem isn’t more read or talked about. I suppose I am different from the younger poets one hears about, who won’t do a reading for less than £300, or who Tweet about their one day being gracious to younger writers when they are venerable, as though fame and position were now permanently assured for them (remember Nicholas Moore, George Barker, even Alex Comfort. I can hear voices asking: who?)… I never thought there would be a general audience, certainly no money. I grew up in the aftermath of the British Poetry Revival’s early days. I prepared for penury and obscurity on the basis of poets I met (Bob Cobbing, Lee Harwood, Paul Brown): I never learnt to drive; I eventually sought out an occupation to support me (English and Communications teaching in FE; the HE Creative Writing came later, after a different revolution, which has been successful in dragging some writing back from scripts of self-disclosure (pat on the back). Steven Fowler now teaches in HE, accomplishing the same.). I suppose I am a bit surprised to find some of the revered figures of the ‘underground’ still under the ground (despite a number of us undertaking scholarly work). But part of post-postmodern rapidity has destroyed the concentration necessary for the historical spade-work required (though the recovery of women writers over that last 35 years shows it’s possible). I think I genuinely believe that literary works can have efficacy (at the level of form) that is truly liberational. To take my recent ‘Poems of National Independence’, I take it that the satire about Brexit is on the surface, but the real aesthetic work, the lastingly moving part of the experience, lies in the act-event of the reception of the formal distance between Wordsworth’s original ‘Toussaint, the most unhappy man of men!’ and my ‘Flat-Battery Bo, rusticated man’s man!’ That’s where I locate the active, eventful innovation. (See here for more on that latest creative work: http://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2020/02/real-beginning-of-new-series-of.html But more on my poetics and literary theory, for it is both: Here'. While I’m at it, here’s another meditation on the poetics of form:  http://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2014/06/robert-sheppard-if-form-knows-if-forms.html



Finding poetry by a circuitous route (Steven has told me about this) Fowler asks the unusual questions. One of them, ‘Why don’t poets do collaborations?’ he has answered, in some ways, by organising Enemies. In other ways (as I say in my review of the book) he leaves concealed (mercifully, in some ways) all the collaborators’ separate poetics of collaboration. But we do get his. He notes, rather oddly: ‘I have proofed my concept with others, forming transitory but generous communities which have supported the making of challenging and complex work, live, and it has taken me on an extraordinary personal journey.’ ‘Challenging and complex’ tells us that this collaborative work conforms to the definitions of poetry he offers above. He admits, also, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that the whole endeavour is ‘selfish’: ‘I have somehow mitigated defeat in my other works by constantly working with others … collaborating has left me smug’! (I couldn't resist that photo above!) Working with others mitigates defeat. I wonder if that only applies to working with writers he regards as ‘better’ than himself? Not necessarily: there is the proofing of its concept with others that is the ‘thing’. This is a different notion from whether they are ‘friends’, these ‘enemies’, these ‘nemeses’; he notes he has a variety of everyday relationships with his collaborators. Again, isn’t this just because writing is so often not considered collaboratively? Think of any combinations of musicians in any field, and collaboration is non-controversial. Not necessarily easy, but normal, matter-of-fact, everyday...   

Before Fowler moves onto a more introductory focus (introducing types of collaboration in the book) he again repeats his definition of (innovative) poetry above, and has a final word on collaboration, which oddly reverts to the more conventional statements that one can make about it, whilst still acknowledging the ‘selfish’ edge to proceedings: ‘Collaborations are a means of friendship, yes, and they are an innately social act of writing’, particularly ‘live’, one might usefully add, ‘one that replaces the unknowable inspiration of the solo piece with the equally vital and viable suggestion or genesis of another active presence in the world.’ I shall come back to these formulations. ‘But they are really just about ourselves. Collaborations are really just mirrors rather than procreations.’ (283)


This is a little odd. Is ‘inspiration’ (not a word I use as either appropriate to solo or collaborative writing) only relative to solo production? It would appear so. It is not less ‘vital and viable’ than collaboration – nor more so – but collaboration is a mirror, a reflection, of ourselves, in this formulation. Are solo ‘procreations’ inspired creations, equal but different? Fowler assigns equal vitality to the two modes of literary production but the metaphors seem to favour the solo mode.

I suspect some confusion here (and it might be mine!). ‘Inspiration’ is the problem. His dismissive conclusion, ‘I mix my metaphors to not mention wanking and poetry in the same sentence,’ seems to deflect from this minor aporia, but I can’t say I know what that means, precisely, either. Solo ‘procreations’ I suppose?

I don’t think I recognise this model in the collaborations I’ve undertaken. To me, the main thing has been (this is another cliché) to produce something I could not have produced by other means, and with the ‘vital and viable suggestion or genesis of another active presence in the world’. It’s something that feels like growth. It’s something akin to the mental enlargement that one experiences in active reading: and that may be because ‘reading’ (co-reading) is precisely a necessary part of the process, possibly the essential part of the process.

Like listening in free improvised music. Deep listening. (This is an important consideration.)

To be contunued! All posts in this ‘Collaboration’ strand may be accessed via links on the first post, a hubpost, as I call it, here:

https://robertsheppard.blogspot.com/2020/01/robert-sheppard-thughts-on.html