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:

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 ( ) 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:

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:

 Or on the South West page here

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:

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:


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: