-interviewed by Will Barrett-
The following interview with S J Fowler was done over email. I’ve met Steven several times and found him to be wonderful, generous company, but I was still intimidated by the prospect of conducting this interview face-to-face. Therefore, I wrote the questions all in one block at some aphoniac hour one evening, sent them the next day, and Steven answered every single one. The resulting transcript has been left mostly unedited, although Steven has pointed out he has proofread all his answers. I have refrained changing the ordering, and asking follow-ups. The interview therefore stands as a record of a moment in time, a brief conversation between two (slightly sleepless) people. If more were time allowed, I would revise a few questions and push harder for more biographical context.
S J Fowler is a poet, artist, performer and many other things, all of which you can read about on his website.
Will Barrett Hello Steven. How have you been?
S J Fowler Very well, thanks. & thank you for the volume of questions, very generous. You’ve also offered me a perfect space to add a wee proviso before I get into them, and I’ll answer them all together in one go. This is something I always try to add before such discussions, which I hope is taken for granted, but rarely is. My answers are approximations, and contain necessary generalisations, and they are opinions, not a call to arms. They are constantly open to revision, and are being revised. And if anyone disagrees, just come and speak to me face to face, much better.
WB I think for this interview we should stick mostly to your collection The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner, which came out last year on Eyewear. For anyone completely new to your work, and this book, what advice would you give them as readers? Let’s assume they’re not very familiar with 20th or 21st century poetry.
SJF Okay, so I’m going to hit you with a deluge. Do forgive me, please take it as me taking your questions seriously. The advice I can give is theoretical rather than contextual, in that if you have what is a traditional, or shall we say dominant, notion of what poetry is, my poetry won’t mean much to you.
There is a profound error made about what poetry is, that pre-dominates in the UK, and beyond, but definitely in the UK right now in 2015. Poetry is made of language, not of emotions. Its building blocks are letters and words and the often fractious relationships to the meanings we attribute to these materials. This is the starting point of any poem, any text. Moreover, the poem exists as a physical thing, first seen, then read. Its context and its appearance, has great power, alongside its meaning. Language is the material of conversation, and of thought (perhaps, somewhat), and poetry, unlike music, has to work within the material of its own consideration and concept. What I mean by this is that poetry uses the thing we use to conceive and express all things. Music, visual art, sculpture – they do not. That is, unfortunately, their advantage in our time.
Therefore, very simply, poetry is, to me, the thing we do that uses this language material for something other than conversation or declaration. How is it, then, that the majority of poetry, or what most people know poetry to be, is essentially a conversation with oneself? Most poetry is first person ‘I’, narrative, subjective, descriptive, anecdotal and sentimental. It enforces a singular, limited notion of self-hood (one authorial voice) and employs language for its everyday function. It conceives emotional expressiveness, or ‘insight’, as the last moment of poetry, the crowning moment. Whereas, in reality, it is the first moment – an adolescent urge to express one’s feeling, one’s emotions and experiences, directly, often quite literally. Assuming a myriad of things, perhaps worse of all, the assumption that is interesting to other people. It brooks no ambiguity of meaning in its content, and it mistakes realism, or descriptive narrative (with occasional adjective flourish or familiar metaphor) for reality. It emphasises the romantic notion that the poet has a god given gift, that they are inspired by a muse, an essentially theological aesthetics (the poet alone with their god). It is Calvinist, the lucky few are born chosen. Moreover is represents a bizarrely specific type of writing, one we have come to know as ‘poetic’, one that is of a very certain time, and world of language, and that is now, horrifically retrograde.
For me, poetry is about the human animal in wonderment about the very possibility of language at all. It should be about refracting and reflecting and mulching the endless and idiosyncratic world of language, its materials, its meaning and the expression of that which surround us all differently. The poet’s ‘gift’ is the skill, attention and uniqueness of this refraction. This then is a poetry that reflects our world. It is one that keeps pace. It allows for a poetry that takes in data, algorithms, the changing nature of speech, the changes in our very cognition due to technology and so on. It is a poetry that allows us to be the multiple people we are, from our varying moods, to our varying languages, to our feelings in and out, and at the edges of expression. It does not hoot the same horn for forty years. And it is a poetry where the meaning is not closed. The reader should complete a poem with their world of meaning and language and understanding. The poet confronts the material of all conception and displaces and displays it for others to understand.
This is probably reads as shrill, but it is not a myth. If the situation we have in poetry was applied to other artistic fields it would be as though painters in 2015 could really only be known for painting pastoral landscapes, or contemporary composers could only write melodies in order to gain widespread acclaim. Of course they could toil away in obscurity, trying to respond to the actual world around them and not the romantic tradition hundreds of years deep, but we’d call them ‘experimental’, and gently shift them to the margins. This first-person anecdotal mode of poetry is the absolutely dominant in prizes and festivals in the UK. The fact is, there are thousands of poets in this country and around the world that have reacted to the same stimulus as those in the art world, the developments of thought, and of life, in the post-war era. They are just not known. They certainly have not been lauded or recognised here.
This comes down to a few simple factors, and this is the best way to introduce my work, through its aspiration. Rich aesthetic experience, be it poetry, music, art – requires attention. It requires context, theory and concentration to engage with it, to appreciate it, to develop a taste for it. It requires investment. A Rothko takes time to understand, to reflect itself back onto you, to represent the majesty of the non-literal – the moods that escape description in conversational language. A Schoenberg piece requires multiple listens, to attune oneself to the layering, the brilliance that sits in between the complex sounds that lie outside of our ordinary ear. Why is a poem expected to offer gratification immediately? I am attracted to that which requires me to work toward understanding, and that requires me to grow in perception. How have we come to value reduction? To mistake a flowery speech or an anecdote broken into lines as a poem?
To my eyes, most poems are bad speeches, and this is where spoken word sits even further beyond what I take poetry to be. It is most often a speech, given in exhortation, performed in a contrived rhythm. It allows for no misunderstanding of meaning, brooks no ideological inquiry and tells its readers or listeners what they already know, and by and large agree with. It takes for granted that language has situated, static meanings and it mistakes speech without rigour for poetry, and couches this in affectation. If I asked what differentiates a dominant/traditional or spoken word poem from a sentimental anecdote or a banal political speech you could perhaps point to the former being in lines and the latter being a block of words. There is no difference, generally speaking, otherwise.
And before you think this is just aesthetic malingering, all of this is underpinned by a fundamental, ethical choice about how we see existence. When confronted with the unknowable, adversarial, immensity of life – just take mortality itself, that everything is permeated on our absolute certainty of aging towards expiry – you can either admit your limitations and be grateful for life itself, a life lived in confusion, or you can try and make up an answer to all, and pretend you have control. The traditional, dominant mode of poetry is founded upon the notion that the poet can control language to represent the profound experiences of life. In so doing they employ means which are less than the things they wish to represent. In anecdotes, observation and conversation, and with sentiment, they reduce the world onto their pages. They transfuse life. Faced with overwhelming complexity, the response is assuredness. This is disingenuous at best, ignorant at worst. The contemporary, or what is called experimental poet, is making what is immensely complex in existence equally complex in language. This is what my work is about.
WB How exactly did The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner come about? It contains lots of previously published sequences and commissions, produced over a period of a few years. Is there a specific reason why you brought these poems together? Was it always your intention to have this work as part of a larger single collection?
SJF Each of my books has been radically different, unrecognisable from the last. Certainly I’ve had experiences where people have assumed I’ve written a certain way after having a peek at one and then been confused by another. Rottweiler’s…is the first book that was collated in any sense, or collected is the better word perhaps. All others have been written in one cohesive go, with one method, responsive to a subject, generally speaking. Though I suspect some find it gauche to say, this book came about because I had chance to publish a book, and in a way, I collected it on commission. It is a commission made up of commissions. More prosaically, I haven’t been writing for long, since 2010, so this covers the first years where I was getting asked to write sequences, for galleries, collaborations, residencies, tours etc… The book is generally defined by the fact that poems were by and large written at the request of others. There is variance within, I’d say.
WB Is there a normal procedure you follow when it comes to putting a poem together?
SJF Absolutely not. It is wholly dependent on what I’m seeking to achieve, if I know that, or what accidents occur, if I don’t. Speaking pragmatically, I do often write between reading other people’s writing, poetry and non-fiction usually.
WB Would you say your attitude to poem-making is pattern-based?
SJF The very opposite, overall. I want to consistently be alive to what is happening in the making of a poem, and to what a poem might do. Poets often speak about this, and are just referring to the internal structure of the fully conversant words they employ, their order etc… I think there’s a series of profound stages of consideration before you get to that.
WB Do you think there’s anything particularly special or innovative about the methods or devices you employ in The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner? At first I found the poems very singular, but then I began to pick up allusions, Tom Raworth at first, and then Queneau …
SJF That’s not for me to say, and if I was going to, I’d have to have a stronger idea about what we (you and I, in dialogue) might consider special or innovative. They are faithful to what I wanted to achieve, I feel that much. And within that aspiration there is certainly the influence of Raworth and others, very directly, very palpably. I wear this influence with great pride. I think the only singularity in content between the sequences is pretty material, i.e. their formal appearance on the page is singular.
has its own
we trick to
From ‘Scent‘, The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner
WB On one of the very first pages of the book there’s a disclaimer: ALL ERRATA IS INTENTIONAL AND THIS WORK HAS BEEN THOROUGHLY PROOFED. I was incredibly intrigued by the idea of putting in ‘intentional errors’. Firstly – why do this? Secondly – how do you make decisions when writing that sort of thing?
SJF This note was a request from the editor, which I think was braced for my rejection. It’s the biggest compliment I’ve ever had. It is an accidentally perfect explanation of my process in this book. Error suggests its opposite, which is fine in speech, or an essay, for practical reasons, but in poetry? I loved this nod towards a notion that poetry should have good grammar and good sense. If anyone believes that, they have a love affair with control, even power I’d say. There is no sense in expression until we wield it, none in my dreams, none in my highest or lowest moods, none after trauma to the body or head. There are a thousand reasons to represent the ‘error’ in language as it is in life. I make the decision as to how to employ the error in the same way all poets make the decision to employ non-error.
WB Have you spotted any actual errors in the book now that it’s printed? How could I tell between an intentional accident and a real one?
SJF I am very scrupulous. Another beautiful moment for me in the creation of this book, the publisher, as a practise, uses a copy editor to proof its collections. I completely understand the reason for this, as your question suggests, sometimes errors are accidental (in fact, it’s all the more profound when this happens, and that depends what we understand accidental to be). The poor copy editor was given my book as a matter of process before they could be warned of my methodology. The list of corrections ran to many pages. I wrote ‘intentional’ after the first, then copy and pasted ‘see above’ thereafter.
WB The overall physical book design and layout of The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner – I’m guessing you had a lot of say in this?
SJF It’s necessary in the kind of work I’m interested in, but massive compliments must go to Todd Swift for embracing my approach and the designer Edwin Smet, who made every allowance for me and I would say it was very much their abilities which has made the book what it is in this sense.
WB Despite the presentation of the poems, the unusual line lengths, lack of punctuation, etc. – most of the syntax is intelligible, almost proverbial. If you read most the poems aloud, and you free yourself from the lateralisation of the page, a lot of it makes sense. Given your reputation, I think I was expecting something a lot more abnormal.
SJF Thank you. It’s satisfying to me that I might not be writing to be abnormal for the sake of it, but employing innovation when necessary for the means of each and every different poem. Some of these sequences are employing denser explorations than others, I can recognise that, but honestly how people conceive one book to the next is not about what I intend, for there is only so much I can know about each reader, but about what they know and don’t know. You have clearly read things, or considered ideas, which make this book seem quite approachable, and that delights me, I don’t want to alienate anyone for the sake of it. But if you read the reviews for this book, or when I’ve spoken to some peers about it, it is generally described as extremely dense, often impenetrable and even hermetic at times. I agree with you though. So your question is really about you, rather than about me.
WB How much of what you do is propelled by innocence? Or ignorance?
SJF I value neither. I sincerely hope I don’t utilise or possess too much of either. Innocence cannot be held against someone, but is not to be admired, and the latter is a way of being, and the worst way.
WB There’s an interesting tension in your work – and this can also be said of quite a lot of conceptual poetry – that while you’re trying to unfix language into something more motile, at what point does something animated and new just become chaos?
SJF My poetry isn’t conceptual in this book, though it is occasionally in other places. Your question is founded upon an assumption I don’t agree with, as you probably have guessed from above answers. Language is not fixed, so it cannot be unfixed. Just because we employ it in conversation for a purpose does not in any way fix it, unless it’s comforting to think of it that way. Just hearing another language I don’t understand unfixes it, or something misheard, overheard, whispered or whined, this all unfixes it. Just stuttering or saying something that is less than what I thinking unfixes it. Chaos is, we have no risk to make chaos. The worry here is that we might lose control over language. We never had control. I’ll give you a friendlier, perhaps less dramatic example. I recently heard a lecture from a neuroscientist who explores the effect babytalk from a mother has on a newborn. The research has found that these sounds, the googoos which we have culturally reduced to irrelevance and non-language, friendly chaos basically, is absolutely fundamental to not only our ability to speak at all, but also in the communication of basic human emotional development, like empathy. When a sound poet makes a baby noise, or when my ‘experiments’ in language take a word off into its syllabic root, perhaps like these gurgles, it is less than an ode? Sillier? We seem to think so.
WB You describe yourself – among many things – as a ‘vanguardist’? Is this term your own invention?
SJF I hope this doesn’t sound deadpan or coy when written, but it’s a translation of avant-garde, or avant-gardist. I am monolingual, it felt right to do so.
WB Do you think concepts like ‘avant garde’ or ‘experimentalism’, which you use willingly, help perceive your work, or the drive within it?
SJF I get asked a lot why I use these terms when they are ‘dead.’ I find this powerfully ironic. These concepts mean being interested in the new, or with avant-garde, it is a military term which means the advanced troops, the front line, the first to be shot. They represent my desire to represent the time I actually live in and, perhaps most importantly, be prepared for the future. For the world is changing so quickly it is hardly perceivable. The fact that poets who claim to be experts in the use of language are often still writing like poets one hundred years ago, when information technology has changed everything about our daily lives, revolutionised communication, altered our physiology and the world population has doubled over the last forty five years, is scary to me. Saying I’m avant garde is saying I’m open to the future, even if it has mistaken connotations.
WB I actually think the ‘experimental’ tag is a moot one, with this book. There’s a really interesting contradiction at work. A lot of the poems do force you to play with possible meanings, but also – ultimately – I think the force of your character is so strong that the meanings we construct are much closer to the writer’s than the reader’s…
SJF Well we’ve met in person, so that perjures you somewhat. I think people who read this book without that context won’t feel my character at all and this book will absolutely be about them as much, if not more, than about me. I might be wrong about that.
WB Do you get sick of words like ‘prodigious’ or ‘prolific’ being applied to you? How do you react?
SJF Being active as a poet, an artist and an organiser, even as a human, is what makes me happy, hoping to not sound sentimental(!) I fully admire and respect people who are more careful and gentle and rarefied about what they do. The downside of my energy is that I’m often impatient and can be rougher in my work than some would like. I currently enjoy being this way, aesthetically, but I hope it changes with time. So those words are compliments.
I attempt to bore a sized finger hole
into the random embarrassing use
of what expression does the human face
take when the head has lost it’s bodY?
From ‘Epithalamia’, The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner
WB Who are some of your key literary influences?
SJF There’s a lot. I suppose it’s appropriate to single out some poets from the British tradition I’ve alluded to, though the act of listing writers is a disservice to the way I read and hope to read, which is ever changing and aberrant. But Tom Raworth, Anselm Hollo, Bob Cobbing, Allen Fisher, Bill Griffiths, and peers, people don’t mention peers enough, but my peers influence me more than anything– Caroline Bergvall, Tim Atkins, Jeff Hilson, James Wilkes, Tamarin Norwood, Holly Pester, Hannah Silva, Philip Terry, Tom Jenks, Cia Rinne, Emily Critchley, Chris McCabe, Tom Chivers, Keston Sutherland, Dylan Nyoukis, Christodoulos Makris, Sean Bonney, the list could go on…
WB Historically, a lot of modernist and avant-garde movements were allied to oppositionist political causes. A huge amount of the aesthetic was about breaking down the legitimation of political rule and its traditions. We still live in politically fractious times, but modernism is more of a museum piece. A poet might write a political poem, but would s/he’d actually join a demo and dodge police cordons? What is the relationship of politics to the avant-garde in 2015, and how has it changed?
SJF Thank you for confirming my earlier supposition. Modernism is considered a museum piece. But it isn’t.
To answer your question, and I must avoid another essay on this one, modernism or the avant-garde often did take on a political character but this is not definitional. It is an occasional characteristic. Moreover, often the innovation was about not presenting a binary opposite. Dada is the finest example. It is generally marginalised as an onanistic, self-indulgent cabaret of childishness. Dada is about World War I. While their society is advocating ethics as the responsibility to mass murder humans from the neighbouring country, and exhortation against this madness is utterly ignored and nullified, Dada responded with a superseding of both positions, into a world of expression and experimentation where the categories of that debate no longer make sense and the enlightenment values of progress and ‘sense’ which led to mass death are subverted. Dada was then not against the war, it was above it.
Modernism in this era has often absolutely responded with the same receptivity as Dada. The political change in our time is extremely complex and hard for me to speak about in a few words, but certainly it is not direct, totalitarian control and it has a lot to do with corporate capitalism and us becoming alienated. Whatever your politics, to not recognise this in some fashion is to be blind. If you read any poetry by, or interviews with, Keston Sutherland, Nathan Jones, Sam Riviere or Sean Bonney, to choose a few examples amongst many, you will witness a highly sophisticated engagement with the extremely specific problems of contemporary consumer capitalism and its effects on people’s lives, happiness and language. Moreover, I have seen poets on the ramparts, but that is irrelevant, they were people on the ramparts who happened to write poetry.
WB Do you feel an obligation write more politically at this politically difficult time?
SJF It depends utterly on what one defines as political. In fact this is the crux of the matter. If one conceives of political poetry as that which has political words or ideas or references as its subject or content, then that is as limited a definition as the effect that poem will have.
However, if political is conceived in the very form or structure of the poem, then I am political, and so is every poet who is sensitive to the language of their world and who is aiming to be faithful to that. Language in the 21st century has a very real smell of advertising and consumerism about it. The poet evokes language outside of that context, often to be deployed outside the service of making money. The poet subverts the process of language control equaling thought control, as Charles Bernstein says (I paraphrase poorly). The poet is then creating political resistance, not for a specific political party or theory, but for independence of expression and freedom of thought and creativity that all should possess, but often don’t under our current political moment.
WB I wouldn’t call this a mainstream book, but it’s not antagonistically obscure. I’m not even sure what ‘mainstream’ means any more when you see how small publishing is in gross terms now. There’s as many people reading the Poems In Which… blog as there are people buying Robert Crawford.
SJF I could tell you what mainstream means, but I’ve been divisive enough. There might be as many people reading a blog as buying that book, but numbers do not represent anything other than themselves in this context. They perhaps signal slow change. I hope so. There is hope.
WB It’s an incredibly tender collection. There are elegies, and wedding poems, and a lot of pleasure, reverence, reflection, melancholy. It’s quite sentimental at points. You’ve constructed (or been laden with) this mythic persona of this bear-sized, cage-fighting modern day Viking, it seems odd to consider you doing things like getting married, or washing the dishes, or feeling winsome.
SJF All a beautiful compliment, apart from the word sentimental, but that can slide, as I choose take your meaning well! I’ve always written responding to experiences of love, friendship, death, it’s just I’ve also written about violence, horror, injustice. Most poets don’t seem interested in the latter, well certainly not capturing what that really is.
WB Is there anything in your personal life that as particularly affected your writing?
SJF It’s all one enormous blancmange that is my writing.
WB How is it that you came to write poetry? I think you told me once that you came to it relatively late, but have certainly made up for lost time since…
SJF It’s a really long story, but to say it short hand I had never read a poem outside of forced school GCSE stuff until I was 25 and then I discovered it by accident, by taking a book of poems I’d bought in a charity shop because it was 25p before a long travelling experience where I had lots of time to read it and little else to do. I was incredibly fortunate that book was a brilliant book, and even more chance came into play to make me receptive to what it had to offer. I started writing on that trip, when in Russia, and have never stopped. But I might stop.
WB Where and how do you write?
SJF I have no set place or way. Often I wrote when I worked at the British Museum sat on the galleries. I was a gallery warder for years and wrote instead of watching the objects or answering people’s questions. Now whenever.
WB How do you revise? Do you show your work to friends or road-test at readings?
SJF I revise a lot. I actually have a cooling period now, if I can. I write something, work on it a lot, then force myself to leave it at least a month. Then I normally repeat this process. Mood, diet, the time of day, the season, all these contextual factors are as important to the experience of the poem as the content itself. I truly believe that. I never show it to others or read it to test it, that would presume something I don’t really believe in, that poetry can be written with others in mind.
WB Is beauty important to you?
SJF I think there’s many ways to understand that word. But certainly it is what I’m seeking, if beauty can include experience, gratitude, kindness, as well as something more material.
WB You’re known for your polymath tendencies, but are there any central themes to your work?
SJF This is not resolved in my head, but I’ve recently come to work with scientists from various disciplines during a residency at the Wellcome Collection, called the Hub, and have a felt a kinship to an ideal many of them share. For years I’ve tried to maintain an interest in science, though always feel myself woefully equipped, but something that has often come through is that science is about truth. Truth in the qualified sense, a truth about what is known under the best duress that knowledge can endure. And a truth about is what is not known, or potentially not knowable. Truth as in honesty. Honesty with ourselves, with other people, honesty about our limitation as well as our strengths and potentials. Honesty about our dishonesty, and how we employ it. I am interested in that in my work I think. If I write about prisons, the work must be not be difficult, but psychologically aggressive, relentless, violent, sexual and oppressive. If I write about loving someone, it must be about confusion, loss, wonder, joy and so on. These, to me, are truthful, honest ways of writing poetry about these things I’ve experienced.
WB What do you like in a poem?
SJF Authenticity, and see the last answer.
WB How do you like your earlier work now?
SJF I have no ill will towards it. It’s not personal.
Strohbar, Ewattingen, Germany
red egg nimble
From ‘Wildermenn’, The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner
WB Anselm Hollo is namechecked a lot in the latest book, in two large sequences. I will make a confession – I didn’t know who he was until I read your book. How did you discover him and why is it that Hollo is such a central figure for you?
SJF I’ve known his work for a long time, just after I started reading poetry. He is an immense figure to many, just occluded from the traditional, dominant scene. I put on the last reading he ever gave, in London, and I met him just once, at that reading, just before he died. I had read him before then, but after meeting him, in his last days I suppose, I bought every book of his I could, thinking at the time, I could talk to him about them all when we next met. I even wrote out interview questions for him. When I found out he had died I read them again. In them I found a man who had written how I wanted to write, who had lived a big life, as I want to live. I found poems of his where he relates experiences I had, ambiguously, but felt powerfully, and literally. He describes being in places in London I often visit, with people he loves, as I do now. He wrote these works when he was about my age. His work is beautiful, wonderful, full of subtle mishearings and repetitions, and it is his speech, which is often plainer than my other work, which perhaps influenced the more proverbial elements of this book.
WB Are the poems in ‘Wormwood Scrubs’ supposed to be emulating haiku and renku?
SJF They are supposed to be playing with the potential of minimalism and mocking the profundity that both these Japanese forms purportedly evoke, in the sense they have come to represent something new, and lesser in the hands of the modern, dominant, Western tradition. Have you ever come across Kenneth Yasuda’s book on Haiku? It’s a 300 page theory book where he explains in great depth why most contemporary readers of Haiku misconceive the form.
WB Everyone I’ve spoken to about always points out that you’re an incredibly nice man in person. Is ‘niceness’ – or perhaps should we say ‘humility’ or ‘forbearance’ – an important quality in your work?
SJF I hope you still think so after some of my answers. I never put poetry before people. I wouldn’t be critical to their face if they didn’t ask me or it wasn’t absolutely necessary, as that would assume they want my opinion, which I don’t, and it would be counterproductive, and rude, I think.
SJF Humility is the most important thing to me. There is nothing beyond kindness, hospitality, friendship. I realise I have led a profoundly fortunate life in almost every way and that it is incredibly easy to be bitter and fearful even with that said. Often because of it. I aspire to be kind to people because I found it very difficult to be so, and as I’ve got older the aspiration has overcome the difficulty, in places. And it’s become clear to me this aspiration creates a feedback loop, and I’m happier for trying to show people that.
I also recognise people are occasionally suspicious about my attempts to be mannerly. I believe they imagine I am doing so out of an attempt to please, or to cover something, to manipulate. I believe wholeheartedly that showing people respect is a profound human quality, one entirely human in its character, and all the more beautiful for its lack of necessity. It is akin to a kind of love, I think Goethe said that, ‘Courtesy is akin to love’, showing people respect through consideration, attention and language. In the same vein, people mistake humility for weakness. Humility, simply put, means you acknowledge you’re going to die and that’s that. All follows.
WB Your poems can be quite fierce, but I didn’t anything particularly ‘shocking’, by which I mean there was nothing blasphemous or pornographic, or even deliberately risible. Your maturity isn’t compromised. Do ‘shock tactics’ disinterest you?
SJF I try not to think in these terms. If you read Minimum Security Prison Dentistry you’ll find a lot to condemn me with, considering the terms of your question. It’s a book about prison. I’ve read accounts that in prisons in America it is not uncommon for gangs of men to hold one man down and force objects into him. I’ve read that, in multiple accounts. I take it to be true. I also perceive American culture treating sexual assault in prisons as amusing and part of the punishment system. I might not want this to be true, but it remains so none the less. I feel a responsibility to represent this revulsion. I could just write it, describe it in speech, break it into line breaks, maybe use a metaphor. Would this represent the horror? Or lessen it? Would I being trying to control the terror and pain of this thing, make it palatable? Experimentation, in this case, is needed to represent this and yet not just describe it. This is what poetry does, for me. Sometimes this requires language which others find shocking. But again, that depends what they’re used to.
WB You’ve worked and collaborated a lot with poets outside of the UK, and there isn’t time to talk about all that … Does a term like ‘British’ have any ethic significance for you? Does it serve ay cultural implications or is it no more than a geographical term?
SJF A massive question but it certainly sits very low on my list on words I’d use to define myself. In fact by knowing how little I value the concept of nationhood, and how I consider nationalism to be the lot of the idiot, it has allowed me to become quite freely fascinated by the history of the country I happened to be born in, due to utter fortuitousness and through no achievement of my own.
WB Talk to me about Prynne. I know you admire him a lot.
SJF I do admire him a lot. All the more happy I am to pay his work compliments having never met him, never studied under him and being quite positive that he has never heard of me. All the better, as some would like to marginalise his achievements by saying those who appreciate his work are acolytes. His poetry is a lifetime engagement for the reader with the possibilities of language and meaning. It is inspiring, at times breathtaking. Moreover, what I take to be his gentle resistance to having his biographical details overwhelm the actual content of his poetry and a refusal of some of the assumed elements of the capitalist production of the book, by often resisting traditional publishing routes and reading appearances, is admirable. More the former than the latter, he is a brilliant poet.
WB Finally, there are some words attributed to Olson, although they’re actually Edward Dahlberg’s: ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO ANOTHER PERCEPTION. I felt like that was nice approximation of your poetics?
SJF I’m really tired as I’ve written all that stuff above after a day at work and now it’s 1.44am but I think that’s a nice approximation. I think I understand it to mean each perception we make of the world is not separated from the next, nor from its context, or from its multiple components, and so things are in multiplicity. I take this to be awe inspiring and overwhelming, and tiring. What is the poetry of tiredness? We need it, I haven’t read it.