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:

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
And here:
): 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:
). ‘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: 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: 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:

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: