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:


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:

 ) 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.

) 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:

 ) 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.  HERE

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:

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!