“And back around the time of the OJ Simpson trial, I sold knives door-to-door” – interview with Ryan Van Winkle

Interview by Will Barrett


Ryan Van Winkle is a poet, performer and podcaster, with his hands and legs stuffed in various interesting pies. Ryan has a new book out, The Good Dark, and to help promote the release Ryan has set upon himself the task of completing a “virtual book tour”, essentially a marathon series of back-to-back interviews with lots of different websites. This interview was meant to happen in May, but after some re-scheduling I’m very happy to welcome Ryan to Sabotage Reviews for what will now be the final leg of his virtual tour.

Why do you write?

Ryan: To clear my head. To help me sleep. To comfort, to apologise.


What do you like about your new book, The Good Dark?

Ryan: I like that it still feels honest to me when I re-read it. I like the fact that I finished something. I like the cover.


What have you done to earn money?

Ryan: I’ve worked in kitchens, washed dishes, I’ve cleaned toilets (badly), looked after kids with mental health issues, done a medical trial. And back around the time of the OJ Simpson trial, I sold knives door-to-door.


Does poetry help you or waste your time?

Ryan: Both. It helps me waste my time in a manner that I can justify.


Are zoos cruel?

Ryan: There’s Sea World which is evil and then there’s zoos which (I’m sure) have far better and more ethical practices. However, the last zoo I went to was particularly bad. The bears were slovenly, the lions were emaciated, nobody and nothing looked happy. Even the ice-cream cones seemed sad.


Do you think you’re a good person?

Ryan: I couldn’t say. I try. I hope other people think I am. Personally, however, I feel I curse too much and am too insecure to be a good person.


Is there any point to Facebook?

Ryan: Well, it is comforting to know where people are at without having to actually talk to them. Facebook, to me, is like a high school hallway. You get information about people who you don’t really interact with through a bizarre kind of osmosis.

Also, I like sharing pictures. I used to make doubles and triples of all my negatives and post them to friends. Facebook isn’t as nice as getting those things through the mail, but it is a lot cheaper and less work for me.


Should we trust politicians?

Ryan: I don’t. They are like shitty poets — you’re always having to read between the lines with the hope that your interpretation of their vagaries are the interpretations they will govern by. The language of politicians is frustrating because they really resist saying anything actually meaningful or honest, lest they have to actually stand by it.


Can violence ever be justified?

Ryan: Sure, but I wouldn’t want to be the one to justify it.


Is it worse to fail at something or never attempt it in the first place?

Ryan: I’d rather regret something I’ve done than something I’ve never done. Trying and failing – most the time – is pretty safe. I mean, I wouldn’t try to jump six trucks on a motorbike but, otherwise, I’m game.


If you could choose just one thing to make different about yourself, what would it be?

Ryan: I’d like to be less lazy. I’d like to be more organized, schedule time to exercise, put all my receipts and warranties in a place where I can find them, that kind of stuff. I feel like the business of being an adult doesn’t suit my ‘things take care of themselves’ philosophy. Also, I’m pretty sure I’m paying too much for broadband.


If you could be happier not writing poems, would you stop?

Ryan: Yes. I’m with  Bukowski when he says:

you have to wait for it to roar out of

you, then wait patiently. if it never does roar out of you, do
something else.’


Can people change?

Ryan: They have to.


How do you feel about children?

Ryan: Fun to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.


Where do you sit on the creativity-insanity scale?

Ryan: I’m afraid of scales.


Do you have a favourite memory?

Ryan: Snow days.


Where should I go on holiday?

Ryan: Anywhere but Switzerland.


How should you handle the end of a friendship?

Ryan: As quietly as possible.


Is there a purpose to guilt?

Ryan: Comedy.


How full is the glass?

Ryan: Doesn’t matter — refills are free.


Who is your ideal celebrity neighbour?

Ryan: Tom Waits. We’d never speak to each other.


What advice would you give to a just-born infant, entering this life for the very first time?

Ryan: Goo-goo, ga-ga. And sorry.


What the MacGuffin? A conversation with Jim Hinks from Comma Press

– interview by Will Barrett – 

I first knew about Jim (above, racing towards the future) when I heard him talk on a panel at the Digital Utopias conference in Hull earlier this year. Jim is the Digital Manager at Comma Press, and also the project lead on MacGuffin, a new website, currently in beta, where you can upload short fiction and poetry onto a massive, stylishly designed database that is fully searchable and allows multiple ways to sift through content. Writers have been able to make their work available for free on the Internet for many years, and there are countless established websites, platforms and messageboards with considerable communities attached, but MacGuffin offers a few interesting new finesses to the model: an emphasis on audio, fully customisable tagging, access to analytics and reporting tools, and, arguably most importantly, a super search function that can very quickly be configured to filter down to exactly what you want. And that’s one of the promising things about this ambitious project – online fiction is alive and well, but it’s often unruly and scattered across the blogosphere. With enough take-up, MacGuffin could finally centralise a lot of this disparate, floating creative activity which so often is too hard to discover online unless you already know what you’re looking for.

I was interested to know more about MacGuffin, so I sent Jim an email about whether he’d like to do an interview, and as two people who are as into the nerdy back-end stuff as much as as the creative side of things, we hit it off.

Full disclosure: this conversation contains several references to CAMPUS, a website that I work on in a professional capacity. Jim was very keen to make this interview an open conversation between the both of us, where we could both share our experiences creating, designing and moderating creative writing portals in an informal manner, rather than a traditional Q&A. So, conscientious as I am about the danger of moonlighting, I felt some discussion of my own work was appropriate in context. However, in the interests of fairness, I haven’t linked to CAMPUS nor explained much about what it is.

The conversation took place using a chat room in a couple of sessions over two days, concluding on the day of the British General election.

If the best thing your favourite book has going for it is the feel and smell of the pages, Literature is in trouble.

Will Barrett: Hi Jim! Perhaps you ought to very briefly describe what MacGuffin is, for those who don’t know about it.

Jim Hinks: MacGuffin is basically a big jukebox for literature. Everything on there is in text AND audio form; writers upload the text and an mp3 of their work. Readers can read the text (via the website or app) or stream the audio (and toggle between the two). The tagging system makes it really searchable.

Will Barrett: Let’s get an idea of the background to this project. How exactly did MacGuffin get started?

Jim Hinks: Well, a couple of years ago, Comma Press (the independent publisher based in Manchester, whom I work for), developed an app for short stories called LitNav. It featured short stories set all over the world. End-users could read the text or listen to the audio. It was aimed at commuters – you could search for stories according to the length of your own journey (and according to other criteria, like genre, location, etc). Although it was a really modest, low budget project, readers really seemed to like it. But the most frequent feedback we heard was from writers, asking ‘How can I put *my* story on there?”

So we had the idea of expanding and improving it as a self-publishing platform. The big lightbulb moment was about tagging and content discovery (with apologies for using the word ‘content’). On lots of platforms (like Amazon KDP, for example), writers upload their work and tag it with keywords to describe it. I might upload a novel and tag it ‘Historical fiction’, ‘WW2’ etc., and then whenever any Amazon user searches one of those terms, my book should appear in the results. I had the idea, ‘What if any end user could tag anyone else’s work, to describe the content.’ Then I realised that with this system, users could use tags to add a story or poem to a personal reading list (e.g. ‘jimsfavouritestories’) or share it with a group (e.g. ‘leedsuniwriters’) or add it to a meme (e.g. sundaysonnets). Then it was just a *simple* case of raising the money, finding the right developer, and actually making it happen.

17 May 2015 11:21:53

MacGuffin in action

Will Barrett: So you’ve made LitNav, gotten some interesting feedback about going further with the model and making it open source, and then you made an application to the NESTA Digital R&D Fund right? I’m curious to know what the main arguments of your proposal were, and what specifically were you trying to identify? Because there’s also a research component to this, isn’t there, as much as it is a cool new tool for writers?

Jim Hinks: Yes. All projects supported by the Digital R&D for the Arts Fund need to answer a research question. Our question is can ‘broad-folksonomy’ content curation be applied to literature, to learn about changing reader behaviour and taste? These project each have three partners. An arts partner (Comma Press), a tech partner (fffunction.co, a UX and web design company), and MMU (research partner).

Although, there’s not much point in us building this thing if it’s not going to be fun for people to use. So the ‘cool new tool for writers’ element is not to be underestimated. From a personal point of view, my guilty secret is that, after years of being an editor of other people’s short stories, I’ve recently returned to writing them myself. The idea for MacGuffin also comes from me thinking ‘what kind of platform would I like’? Then trying to build it.

I had the idea, ‘What if any end user could tag anyone else’s work, to describe the content?’

Will Barrett: I completely agree with that. So what sort of folksonomic systems did you look at when developing this? I’m excited by this – all the new micro-genre categories people will come up with…

Jim Hinks: Twitter is a pretty good example, in terms of the way people use hashtags to create memes and lists. It started off as completely alien, and now it’s second nature to people who use twitter. Actually, Last FM was a bit of an inspiration too, though they kind-of buried the tagging system a bit.

Will Barrett: Last.Fm! I always cite that too, although I use it a warning from the past. But it has a really interesting development history.

I think Last.fm failed ultimately, as it wanted to stir up the mainstream but it ended up condensing people’s taste in music, not diversifying it, and I do wonder whether it’s search and navigational system had a huge influence on that. Recommendation engines and top lists can be very deterministic, and narrow everything down to a nub of core tastes. Is that not something you worried about with MacGuffin?

Jim Hinks: Yes. I actually quite like Last.fm, in many ways, but I guess it just lost out to Spotify etc. And since starting the project, I’ve learned quite a bit the slash-fic community (fan-fic erotica), and how they used bookmarking tools like delicious to organise their stuff online (now superseded by archive of our own). There’s a great talk about slash-fic by Maciej Cegłowski, here: http://archive.dconstruct.org/2013/fananimal

Will Barrett: “Fans are inveterate classifiers”

Jim Hinks: Yes, I am worried about that. But music and literature are very different. I can listen to a bar of most music and decide whether I like it or not. This *generally* isn’t the case with literature (unless I read/listen to a passage that’s either really bad or really mind-blowingly amazing). And MacGuffin lends itself to serendipitous discovery too (so rather than condensing taste, it facilitates stumbling across new stuff). For example if you search for the tag ‘ice’ you’re going to find a range of stories and poems with ice as a theme. Some will be to your taste, and some won’t, but it’s fun to surf through them and make discoveries.

Will Barrett: But it’s up to the user to make sure the tags are appropriate. Did you look at GoodReads at all?

Jim Hinks: Yeah, I kind of like Goodreads. It seems like an inevitable site. Though obviously it doesn’t host content. What’s your favourite content hosting site?

Will Barrett: That’s a good question! Wikipedia?

Well, ok this isn’t a pure ‘content’ hosting website, as the emphasis is on content aggregation, but users do bring a lot to it in the ways material is brought together, sometimes ingeniously – and that’s Metafilter. Similarly, I like things like Reddit, Barbelith (now extinct), ILXOR, the Popbitch messageboard. But these are all sites from a certain generation of the web, around 2006-2007, so they’re personal to me. And they’re weblogs, which are old-fashioned now.

Jim Hinks: Ah, okay. In a way, those sites are actually of the opposite of the model for MacGuffin, as with MacGuffin we made a deliberate decision not to have comments (an alternative name I toyed with was ‘nocomment’). What was Barbelith?

Will Barrett: The site still exists, but no-one uses it. It had a very interesting and esoteric creative community: http://www.barbelith.com/

Why did you eventually decide to not have comments? That’s a pretty big decision to make.

Jim Hinks: Something about the comments sections of content-hosting sites seems to encourage people to either be mean to each other, or overly effusive in their praise, like drunks at the end of a party. If you’re a writer, you can get really wound up about this stuff. So on MacGuffin, no wasted time seething about someone’s criticism, or composing your riposte. Rate it, tag it, move on. Be happy! However, having said that, the social media integration is pretty decent, so if people really want to, they can chat on Twitter or Facebook or wherever.

Will Barrett: See I’ve found a different experience with CAMPUS.

Jim Hinks: How would you characterise comments on CAMPUS?

Will Barrett: Initially I was worried about YouTube style trolls lowering the tone everywhere, bringing down the neighbourhood, and there has been a little bit of that, but generally I moderate less and less and interactions have only increased, most of it very genial, generous, supportive. And I’m not sure I buy the argument that people who write poems ore stories are more civilised as you can follow discussions on Facebook between poets and it can get nasty rather quickly.

Jim Hinks: Ha, yes! And also those chats that are like: ‘Oh darling this is so wonderful! You’re amazing!!!!’ etc etc, which probably isn’t all that helpful to the writer, though it might feel nice. You moderate comments?

Will Barrett: Well this is the interesting thing, I used to moderate quite a lot, and now i don’t, and – ok correlation is not causation – but I think being more relaxed about comments and working more on UX has improved the quality and certainly the frequency of natural, organic interactions.

I mean poets on Facebook can be red in tooth and claw when they want to, as with anyone, but I do think it is the way Facebook works, as a physical machine/programme, that encourages sparring more then other online forums. Disclaimer: most poets are extremely responsible, polite people, but Facebook does have a reputation for encouraging verbal jousting. I refer you all to the massive Kate Tempest backlash when they announced the Next Gen shortlist.

Jim Hinks: Poor Kate Tempest. You’d think trolls would pick more deserving targets.

Will Barrett: Most of the community areas on CAMPUS are completely public and everything gets published openly and visibly on the home page area (there are private areas too, that we use for teaching, but they’re facilitated by watchful tutors with moderating capability). Facebook and Twitter are big public sites, but they have more of a discrete feel, like you’re tucked in a nook away from the main forum of activity – many people forget that they’re broadcasting to the entire internet because most people experience Twitter, FB through the filters of their personal timeline. So they feel intimate, but they’re not, which is why footballers and politicians are always caught out saying heinous things. CAMPUS, through necessity as much as design, doesn’t have the same feeling of intimacy, like you’re talking between just friends, which has helped create a global sense of transparency that’s balanced the tone without much external effort. Jurisdiction helps too: I generally encourage people to use their real names, or literary pseudonyms.

Like I say, I personally believe you can hardwire good, progressive behaviour through good, progressive design and UX, and rely on moderation less. Very innocuous-seeming decisions – as small as a like button – have massive consequences to how people psychologically relate with and use a website. This is particularly important to get right with what we’re both doing, as creative writing is often such a personal thing, to have a part of yourself terrorized is pretty traumatic and unproductive.

But it’s not just the Internet where trolling happens; it seems to be a universal way some humans sometimes behave. Think of all those stories in newspapers where standers-by jeer suicides to their death from the pavement below. Allowing anonymity or a safe sense of distance emboldens those tendencies.

Jim Hicks: I agree. I’d be interested to know how much you feel the good behaviour – so to speak – is also a product of the community of users you attract, in addition to the design (or perhaps the functionality & design attracts a better community of users?). You mentioned that poets can still be snarky to each other online, but CAMPUS hasn’t experienced that.

Will Barrett: The community is the most important thing, absolutely. Everything else is window-dressing. It’s the main reason you go to a site, weblog, content publishing platform. Especially with creative writing. This is why MOOCs work less well with creative writing, as close community and social interaction in sensibly-sized groups are absolutely central to the learning process. It’s not like learning maths or physics – the pedagogy involved is very different to create a virtual environment that really impacts on how people read, review and experience literature in way you can’t achieve face-to-face, particularly how to think critically about poems and stories.

I’m not sure CAMPUS encourages a special kind of community other than they are practicing or returning poets, which is our central aim. We are lucky that we’re building on a 18 year old institution with an existing audience, so that’s a good starter. Having an existing community to work from helps to promote general tolerance and respect, and means that the quality of feedback is relatively decent. Although sometimes I think it’s too nice!

Jim Hinks: And yes, too nice can be just as destructive. I’ve workshopped some pretty bad stories of my own and thought ‘I wish people would just be honest – I can see the flaws in it; help me.’ And likewise, sat silently as someone else’s work is critiqued thinking, ‘am I the only one who thinks this is really bad?’

Probably the thing that will require most moderation on MacGuffin is ‘barging in’, as we’re calling it. When a user tags themselves into someone else’s reading list or what-not. I think that will happen a lot, perhaps inadvertently, until people get the hang of what MacGuffin is.

Will Barrett: Yes. You see it on Twitter with hashtag squatting. People gaming the system. And Facebook with people spamming comments with their personal promotions. It’s inevitable, and it’s a hard thing to police because you’re operating an open policy on who can join. Which again is why I tend to prioritise design and community. The technology for all this stuff isn’t that innovative right? It can only do so much.

Jim Hinks: That’s true, and neither Facebook or Twitter have cracked it, so perhaps I’m being optimistic to think we can. We reserve the right to close someone’s user account for persistent breaches, but it needs a kind of green>yellow>red card system.

Will Barrett: I should add – the design of CAMPUS is (open secret) one of the weakest areas of the site, but it still retains an audience in spite of those problems. So a good community seems to be the most important element to users. This idea is reflected in other creative places online, something like the Mudcat messageboards (a hub for folk musicians) which is the least user-friendly thing you’ve ever used in your life, but there’s a cause and a quality/intensity of content and discussion that sustains it.

It’s only in beta so there’s not much of a community on Macguffin yet. So, parking that, what do you think are the really novel, totally unique things about Macguffin and how it works?

Jim Hinks: It feels like the right time for a self-publishing platform for text and audio – amateur podcasters have led the way in recent years, showing that you don’t need expensive studio equipment. If you have a smartphone, you have a recording studio in your pocket. Plus 4G is expanding and getting cheaper, and will soon even be on most of the tube network. If MacGuffin isn’t successful, I can imagine someone else coming along with something similar that is.

Will Barrett: I was going to ask about that – audio is so central to this. Audio content is a really big growth area (my girlfriend is even working on one of a new of exclusive original content pilots for Audible). Is that why you made it such a core part of the Macguffin offering? And do you think people will go for it? It’s quite a big step up to get good writers also become good performers…

Jim Hinks: Ah, yes! To build a platform that offers readers text & audio versions of everything, you have to accept that, at least until people get used to the idea, you’re going to loose 75% of potential writers who aren’t up for recording a reading (or don’t like their own voice, or don’t have time, or think it seem technically difficult, or they just can’t be arsed, which are all legitimate reasons).

But I hope that when those writers, who’ve been put off, see other writers sharing work they’ve published on MacGuffin they’ll be motivated to return and upload work themselves. I hope the motivation works both ways: ‘I could do better than that’, or ‘that’s good; I want my work to be seen alongside that.’

Will Barrett: Start from the edge and work in. Again look at Twitter and how that started. I loved Twitter when I joined – it was full of creative people and discussion – but I can’t abide it any more now it’s so popular. It’s like a pack of angry bees inside my head.

Jim Hinks:  “It’s like a pack of angry bees inside your head.” God yes. Did you read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed?

Will Barrett: No I’ve not read that yet, but I’ve seen some serialised bits here and there. I saw the thing on YouTube about his fake Twitter account and the ‘infomorph’

Jim Hinks: What if that initial user-base is so niche it it puts off more centrist readers and writers? It’s a balancing act. I think having publishers on board (and people like Arvon) should help though.

Will Barrett: So you’re encouraging some competition on the site, then? Is that partly the reason for the star-rating system. To add a mild gaming or reward element to help people aspire towards greater achievements?

Jim Hinks: Ah, gaming. It’s been a bone of contention and still is. Should we make ‘trending’ (i.e most read) stories visible on the homepage, as a motivating factor? Should we make the most recently published story visible in preview on the homepage?

Will Barrett: What are your feelings on that issue? I did note that there was very little by way of curated content on the site, or recommendations/lists, autofeeds of most popular posts. It’s like Medium with all the editorial taken out. The focus is the search box and the metadata – that’s it. Is that deliberate or are you going to deploy other stuff later when you have more stories on the site?

Jim Hinks: Our thinking so far has been to make a lot of this info available in the analytics (which we haven’t even touched on yet) – so any reader can do searches for content with certain tags and see stats on how much it has been read/listened to, what the ‘drop-out rate’ is, and so on. So you could use the analytics to find the trending stories tagged ‘crime’ for example. That functions being added over the next couple of weeks; at the moment the analytics just tell you some basic reading stats for individual stories, e.g. where in the world they’ve been read, what the read/listen ration is, the rating for read/listen, the completion percentage for read/listen, the drop-out points for read/listen. Stuff that’s probably more useful to the author.

If you click ‘just take me to a story’ on the home page, it’ll randomly return one of a pre-selected bunch of stories and poems. But honestly, I’d rather keep my hand off the tiller as much as possible (god that makes me sound like a complete free-marketer).

It’s really satisfying to read stories on there, and tag them jimsfavouritestories the search for that and have them all returned. I can use that functionality to make playlists for other people, or share with a group. If people get that, we’re in business.

The rating system was conceived less as a way of gaming it, but as a way of forewarning readers to bad text/audio. We can make adjustments to the search weighting to push low-rated stories down the search results – something we’ll be playing with in beta.

I think if users (writers and readers) start tagging other people’s content, it’ll work just fine. If not, we’ll have a platform working on a narrow-folksonomy model (writers tagging their own work on upload) which obviously can work well, and has lots of precedents, but isn’t what we hoped for. It’s really satisfying to read stories on there, and tag them jimsfavouritestories the search for that and have them all returned. I can use that functionality to make playlists for other people, or share with a group. If people get that, we’re in business.

Will Barrett: The work you’ve done on discoverability is really great…

Jim Hinks: Re: stars ratings. Yes, we tried a few variations at the prototype phase. I think a lot of this stuff is about building on existing user-behaviour. Most people have used amazon. Most people understand what a 5 star rating is. We’ve got enough new things to teach them.

Will Barrett: Star systems are surprisingly useful, even if it feels a bit wrong to condense a work of art down to such a crude measurement. I don’t have much time to spend searching for something, it’s a very handy shortcut if I need a hand blender and want to know which ones work the best. The ratings are reassuringly reliable.

(*Need* a hand blender.)

It’s a bit different with stories though, isn’t it? It’s much easier to agree on an objectively ‘5 star’ hand blender than it is on a story, which thrives on subjectivity.

Jim Hinks: Yes. But some people are REALLY into hand blenders. I have 4! But I agree about subjectivity. Anyway, the main reason for it on MacGuffin is to alert readers to bad audio. A text rating of 5 and an audio rating of 2 should tell you beforehand. You can also look in the analytics for that story and see whether other readers have dropped out before then end.

There’s a whole section to be added to analytics, about which tags are trending where in the world, and what stories are trending for each of these tags, and so on.

Will Barrett: The analytics side is very cool and I like how comprehensive it is, and that you’re sharing all that information. Kindle don’t do that. It democratises the insights you can get as writer from how people read your work (and where they stop reading!)

For a writer, analytics could be more useful than reviews. On Amazon I NEVER read reviews for books. It’s rarely helpful: “I didn’t like the film version of this book”, “I didn’t like the fact an elephant got shot, that was sad”, “the book is too heavy”.

Jim Hinks: Hey, we’ve come back to comments again! As a short story publisher, we sometimes get Amazon reviews saying ‘I wish this book had been a novel’. In a way that’s stupid, because they’re reviewing a collection of short stories, but at the same time I suppose it’s still valid, and I don’t doubt their sincerity in wishing it was a novel.

Here’s a classic. http://www.amazon.co.uk/product-reviews/1905583524/ref=cm_cr_dp_hist_two?ie=UTF8&filterBy=addTwoStar&showViewpoints=0. But again, you can’t really argue that it’s not a sincerely held opinion.

Will Barrett: Have you done any user profiling for Macguffin? On CAMPUS we’ve been using the Forrester model. So that defines users according to behavourial traits – Influences, Engagers, etc – and we use observation to monitor different groups.

Jim Hinks: Well to go back to the beginning, we started with a design jam. We basically invited a bunch of readers, writers and literature professionals (creative writing teachers, librarians, etc) to listen to the idea, decide on some functionality and tell us what they think. We used a lot of their input, and discarded some (like a facility to comment on stories, for reasons discussed above). We then prototyped. fffunction – the tech partner – are very good at UX, and they built a prototype that we guerrilla tested a lot, through several iterations. This was following several key predefined user-journeys, such as search for a story, upload a story, etc.

By January we had an alpha-build, on a live database (the first time I really breathed a sign of relief, that yes, the end-user tagging will work, at least from a tech point of view). We tested this in MMU’s digital labs (again on pre-defined user journeys), and used retina tracking to flag up some design and navigation pain points (essentially users being flumoxed about where to find buttons they need to click). I can really recommend this – there are some videos on the blog; http://macguffinblog.com/2015/03/06/pain-point-videos-from-the-platform-alpha-test/. We also tested an early iOS build in the lab.

Will Barrett: Labs and retina testing! How fancy. I’ve been using A3 pads and educated guesswork.

Jim Hinks: This gave us a whole list of bugs and UX issues to fix for the beta release (last week). We’re pretty happy with the beta, but it’s not the end of the story. We’ve built in a good couple of months to respond to beta feedback (and further functionality requests) before the launch proper at the end of June. In test of gathering data during the beta, I hope users will use the forum, but it can be more important to pat attention to what people do rather than say. Our own analytics, combined with Google analytics, gives us quite a lot of data on this. Forrester sounds good and the first thing I’ll do after this is check it out.

Will Barrett: ‘Forrester’ is just a model, and it’s a bit academic for my purposes, but have a look. It’s an interesting at how to segment different types of ‘groups’ in an online environment when you’re faced with a big morass of stuff that you can’t really make sense of.

Jim Hinks: I must say I was slightly skeptical about retina tracking beforehand, but now I’m a convert, having stood in a soundproofed control room watching people fail to spot a button that I thought was obvious.

Will Barrett: I’m very skeptical about all that stuff too, but it sounds like it was genuinely worthwhile for you.

Jim Hinks: We had users do a ‘think aloud’ as they tried to complete tasks, and I was surprised at how often what they say doesn’t correlate with what they do. No matter how much you tell them they’re not the ones being tested (if they get stuck, it’s a problem with the design of the platform), people still feel self-conscious and don’t want to look silly, so their think-aloud often tries to mitigate the problem, rather than elucidate. Eye-tracking reveals this. Dan Goodwin, UX lead a fffunction, is adamant that watching what people do comes way at the top of the list, followed by what they say, way down. The user-testing we did seems to bear this out (and I say all this with the caveat that the beta is still far from perfect – though I hope we’re getting there).

Will Barrett: That holds a lot of truth for my experience as well. When I’m doing diagnostics on technical issues, I rarely rely on testimony, as you’re exactly right – there’s a huge gap between what someone says they did and what they actually did. I don’t think they’re lying to me though!

What about the way the stories are displayed, which is done in a certain way, grey serif font, line spacing, there’s a fade effect as you scroll through. Where does decisions made out of UX testing?

Jim Hinks: The look of the text has gone through a few of iterations, but it’s been relatively easy to get something we’re happy with. Pete Coles, the visual design lead at fffunction, went through a range of fonts and styles with us. The hardest part is getting the formatting right on text upload (or rather, when writers copy and paste into the text field). People paste text in from a range of sources with different proprietary html tags (MS Word being the most egregious culprit). It’s still a headache.

Then we apply our stylesheet to it – so there’s uniformity to each story and poem. You can select ‘poetry formatting’ to remove indents. You can apply italics, header, align left, right and centre. And that’s it. There’s an accessibility reason for this, as well as an aesthetic reason – if writers use all kinds of wacky fonts, it makes it harder for visually disabled users.

Will Barrett: How have you dealt with the accessibility issue with MacGuffin? I learned a lot doing CAMPUS about how to define user-end responsibility, and issues that were our responsibility as site designers and developers. You can make things as easy as possible but human fallibility is a constant factor. But deciding which is which is tricky.

Jim Hinks: Yes, and part of the user testing has involved finding testers with a range of IT competencies. But I think you’re right – you just have to accept that early adopters will be more tech savvy (though some writers who claim not to be have uploaded stories okay).
The biggest hurdle is always likely to be getting writers to record and edit audio themselves, on smartphone or laptop. If they have the smarts to do that, then actually publishing it on MacGuffin is a synch. It’s self-selecting, to some extent. As for readers; I do want it to be super easy to use, even if you’re not used to the idea of tagging (which is why we run a fallback Boolean free-text search of content, if someone types ‘short story about a cat’ or whatever into the search bar).

Will Barrett: There’s a big generation of very technically literate, and literary literate, young writers, really anyone up to about 40, who wouldn’t have a problem with Macguffin. And even the older ones tend to be fine, but they self-identify as technophobic and that blocks them from wanting to progress further.

Jim Hinks: YES – I completely agree with you. I’ve heard it quite a lot already: ‘that sounds too complicated for me’. But when I’ve cajoled them into trying it, most have been fine.

Will Barrett: Some messiness is always inherent, but you always hope natural order will prevail.

Jim Hinks: It’s sort of hard knowing what success is going to look like. Just proof of concept isn’t enough, but at the same time you need to be realistic. I do believe that if we can get some momentum, it will be a fun and useful tool for readers and writers. The best thing about working on it so far has been the moments when I’ve used it myself – on my commute or on a train journey – and lost myself in a story or poem, then thought, ‘yeah, actually, this thing’s pretty good!’ It’s not a case of ‘build it and they will come.’ Success will probably 75% about marketing and press

I think the ingredients of MacGuffin – audio, content discovery, self-publishing, analytics – will all play an ever-larger role in publishing in future (and therefore contemporary literature).

Will Barrett: What do you think the bigger long term potential for Macguffin is, particularly on the wider industry. You mentioned Arvon earlier. How do you think it’s going to fit into the literary ecosystem among the readers, writers, agents, schools, universities, reviews, media, festivals, fairs…

Jim Hinks: We drew up a list of all the reading and writing communities who might MacGuffin: published poets and short story writers promoting their books, aspiring writers finding a new audience, creative writing students and teachers, publishers showcasing work (you can link back to point of sale), reading commuters, spoken word performers and audiences, blind and visually impaired readers (who often only get access to audiobook versions of books by best-selling authors, not emerging authors), reading groups, writer-development agencies. We need to reach each of these groups through press, direct marketing, social media, etc., and make sure they know the proposition – what MacGuffin offers. Within each of these groups there are also of course genre divisions – we need to reach out to the SF writers, the crime writers, etc etc. That’s how you do it, I think. You hope for some really good, impactful press, but inevitably a lot of it is piecemeal. It’s a numbers game, and an absolutely endless job. I doubt there’ll be a moment when we can sit back and think we’ve cracked it. There’ll always be more to do.

*use MacGuffin*

Will Barrett: Ha! There was one question I should have asked earlier I’ll quickly drop in. It’s about copyright! Everyone’s favourite topic. What’s the position with original work published on Macguffin?

Jim Hinks: Writers retain copyright, and can publish under a variety of licenses: All Rights Reserved, one of a range of Creative Commons Licences, or release into the Public Domain if they wish. They have to agree to the Terms of Use when they sign up, and Content Rules when they publish, which include taking responsibility for the content and not infringing anyone else’s content. As much as I think DMCAs are imperfect, you can report content and request a take-down.

Will Barrett: Ok, so big final question – what does Comma Press get out of all this? Be as honest as you’re prepared to be…

Jim Hinks: I think the ingredients of MacGuffin – audio, content discovery, self-publishing, analytics – will all play an ever-larger role in publishing in future (and therefore contemporary literature). Strategically (*bleurgh*), it makes sense to try to be at the vanguard of innovating in these areas. I of course love hardcopy books – we’re a publishing house, after all. On the other hand, I get slightly exasperated by people who claim to love books, but not in a digital format. If the best thing your favourite book has going for it is the feel and smell of the pages, Literature is in trouble. At essence, MacGuffin is just experimenting with new ways of doing what publishing has always done – connecting writers with a readership.

Will Barrett: Cheers Jim. It’s been really nice chatting to you and have a good election night!

Jim Hinks: You too. Let’s wake up to a better England.

Appendix: after this conversation we did not wake up to a better England.

“It’s all one enormous blancmange” – an interview with S J Fowler

-interviewed by Will Barrett-

8 Mar 2015 22:10:44

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.


the fog
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.

Interview with Lysiane Rakotoson

with Claire Trévien-

Pour une version française de l’entretien, voir ci-dessous.


Claire Trévien You might only be 26 years old but you are among the rising stars of poetry in France with a well-received first collection, published by Cheyne, which won the prestigious Prix de la Vocation in 2010. What made you choose the slightly odd path of a poet?

Lysiane Rakotoson I fell instantaneously in love with poetry when I discovered it in college. I was very lucky that my literature teacher at the time was such an attentive reader. I haven’t stopped writing since. So it’s difficult to say what made me choose this ‘path’, if not love for writing. That answer will probably seem a bit simple, but there’s nothing else I can say. I wasn’t filled by a desire to get published; I wasn’t projecting into the future.

CT How does one become a poet in France today? Do you get the feeling that there are certain obligatory rites of passage towards that status?

LR I don’t think there are obligatory rites of passage in poetry. But if by ‘poet’ you mean being recognized as one by fellow poets, readers, and publishers, then I’ll say that even if there aren’t necessary steps, there are certain special places that allow you to be read: you have to find the publishers, read the magazines, read contemporary collections of poetry, attend public readings. On his blog, Poésie Maintenant, Pierre Maubé gives lots of great advice to those who would like to get their poems published. The general idea of this open letter to poets is this: to get your poems published, you must read and know the poetry of your contemporaries. You must also encourage poetic endeavours, by supporting audacious initiatives such as the creation of new zines for instance.

CT I agree completely, before being an author, you must be a reader! You seem to have poetic links with Paris, but also the regions beyond it. Do you find poetry well distributed and represented in France?

LR Yes, poetry seems well represented in France to me. Even if our country is well known for its centralised system and the predominance of Paris, many poets live outside of the capital and cultivate that distance. Poetry festivals also flourish far away from the Eiffel Tower: Les Lectures sous l’arbre in Haute-Loire, les Voix Vives in Sète, les Voix de la Méditerranée in Lodève… Poetry is thus represented by those who write it, but also by the publishers who deliberately install themselves in the countryside (this is the case with Cheyne for instance).

Poetry is everywhere in France, initiatives like the Printemps des Poètes prove it, but it also remains at the same time quite clandestine. I have noticed however that it still struggles to make room for young people, as well as female voices. Festivals flourish, publishers too. It seems to me that something doesn’t always circulate beyond. An undeniable spirit of seriousness continues in poetry and sadly segregation persists.

CT That’s a problem we encounter on this side of the Channel too sadly. One of the ways of democratising poetry I find is through YouTube for instance, which is playing a stronger role in the diffusion of Anglophone poetry. This seems to also be the case in France, with poets such as Laura Vasquez. Is that a fair comment? What do you think about the role of technology for communicating poetry?

LR YouTube, SoundCloud are indeed being increasingly used to share poetry. Many of us believe that orality is the body of the text. The book as an object remains still very sacred in France but poets are starting to invest in new territories. A new initiative, Appelle-moi poésie has, for instance seen the light of day. François Bon on the other hand has published online his backlist on Publie.net. It’s about creating a space of living poetry where texts are read and interpreted (I insist on that word) by poets and performers. The Internet can be a formidable bridge for poetry as she can make it live and be heard. A poem pounds, it vibrates, it sings, it rages! YouTube is a great medium to allow a poem to be heard, to offer it to the world. It’s not just about sharing poetry, but also transforming the poetic object.

As far as I’m concerned, I feel that new technologies must be used to invent new forms of communicating poetry. We can’t let the digital replace books. Instead we should invent a way of using it. Having said that, I don’t think new technologies should replace the page. A text on a page slows you down, lets you wander. It offers itself naked, without interpretation. The reader creates the poem too by reading it. It’s necessary to protect that site of freedom.

CT If you could change one thing in the world of poetry (whether the content, or the mode of publication,…) what would it be, and why ?

LR The most interesting thing for me is to improve the transmission of poetry. My passion is to make people discover poetry who are unfamiliar with it, who don’t read it. It’s vital to work at the emancipation and awakening of young people and poetry plays an important role in this. It’s a way to conquer your freedom as a reader, to approach a less linear way of reading, to feel the less intellectual dimensions of literature…. Poetry in France shouldn’t be just the domain of intellectuals and academics, and those wanting to renovate our language. Poetry can let in more people. School is where that battle is decided.

As for the content, diversity is what makes literature so rich. I would never wish that poetry were just this or that. However, I do like making a plea for more joy and lyricism in poetry, free of embarrassment. I think we confuse too often profundity and gravity, seriousness and quality. A poetry of celebration can sometimes seem naïve, can exasperate. It’s not about flat sentimentalism or wearing a stupid smile. I think that joy in poetry is still finding its place, as if one has to constantly confirm and feed its neurosis to write something of value.

CT You’ve previously mentioned Albert Camus, Clément Rosset and Michel Serres as influences. Do you have other voices, less well-known in the UK, that you would like to recommend?

LR Really hard to choose, there is a multitude of voices! I would recommend reading Déborah Heissler (some of her works have been translated into English: Près d’eux, la nuit sous la neige, Cheyne, 2005). Her website gives a beautiful glimpse of her poetry and even features some recordings of some of her texts. I would also recommend reading Franck André Jammes, especially Récitation de l’Oubli, a collection written while he was recovering from a serious accident in India.

CT In reverse now, I’d be interested to know what Anglophone poets have crossed the language barriers and are well-known in France (if any!)

LR Numerous Anglophone poets are known to French readers. Keats, Blake, Milton, Walt Whitman are amongst the most famous. Amidst the more contemporary ones, Sylvia Plath is especially well-known here. Dylan Thomas too, and Kenneth White. We have the tendency to think foreign poetry is more difficult as the original text will always be a little lost in translation. But reading English-language poets is much more frequently done today, whether in translation or in the original language. On my bookshelves, the Anglophone poet that counts the most is without a doubt Sylvia Plath. She’s left behind an incredible body of work.

Some organizations or journals such as Double Change, try to make French and American poetry meet. But these initiatives are not well known to what we call the ‘general public’.

CT At Sabotage Reviews, we are very interested in poetry magazines, I wonder if you have French magazines to recommend. What makes them special to you?

LR I particularly love two magazines. The first is called A Verse: it was created by two young women studying at the Sorbonne. This magazine is unusual because it’s been founded and edited by young people, especially women. They particularly want to publish young authors and introduce new voices to readers. It’s one of the only magazines that I know that concentrates on young authors.

The second magazine is called Aka. It’s magnificent, only 70 copies get printed and it’s hand-sewn. To subscribe you have to sign up on tumblr. Each issue of Aka is built around a theme: a phrase, a word, a reflexion.

CT Your poems often speak of frontiers, and of spatial negotiations in your descriptions of the external world… As a woman in an environment that still seems quite masculine, do you think that this is in part a way of reclaiming poetic space?

LR Personally, I always have the feeling that writing is a way of reclaiming poetic space. I sometimes feel it’s a fight. I don’t know if that’s specific to being a woman. I think of those lines by René Char, who wrote in ‘Commune Présence’:

‘You are in a rush to write
as if you were late to life
indeed, you are late to life
the inexpressible life
the only one in fact that you’ve signed up to
the one that is refused to you every day by beings and by things
from which you obtain here and there small skeletal fragments
at the end of a merciless fight.’

To answer your question, if you look at those editing or being edited it is indeed quite a masculine environment. Yet, the majority of audiences at festivals, at reading and writing workshops are women! Things are fortunately changing. Poetic heavyweights like Marie-Claire Bancquart could bear witness to being a woman and a poet in France in a different age. Today, the poetic space is open. You mentioned Laura Vasquez, I could also speak of Déborah Heissler or Blandine Merle, both edited by Cheyne. Similarly, the magazine A Verse was founded by enlightened amateurs in love with poetry!

CT What advice would you give to a poet just starting out?

LR I feel like a beginner myself in the sense that when I write I am in the state of mind of a beginner. I don’t feel more experienced as time goes on. Let’s just say I’m getting more refined! I therefore don’t feel capable of giving advice!

CT Finally, if you had to give an identity or a definition to contemporary poetry in France, what would it be to you?

LR That’s the hardest question as the poetry is so varied and diverse! From experimental poetry to lovers of poetic art-books, from minimalism to flamboyant lyricism, French poetry doesn’t have just one face.


Entretien avec Lysiane Rakotoson

Claire Trévien A seulement 26 ans, vous avez déjà un beau parcours derrière vous, avec un premier recueil avec Cheyne qui a été très bien reçue (notamment avec un prix de la vocation). Qu’est qui vous a poussé à suivre cette voie hors-norme ?

Lysiane Rakotoson La découverte de la poésie au lycée a aussi été un coup de foudre. J’ai eu la chance de trouver un lecteur attentif en mon professeur de Lettres de l’époque. Je n’ai pas cessé d’écrire depuis. Difficile donc de dire ce qui m’a poussé à suivre cette “voie”, si ce n’est l’amour de l’écriture. Cette réponse semblera probablement un peu simple, mais je ne peux dire autre chose que cela. Je n’ai été habitée par aucun désir de publication au départ, je n’ai rien projeté.

CT D’après vous, comment devient-on poète en France aujourd’hui ? Avez-vous un sentiment d’échelons et de passage obligatoire?

LR Je crois qu’il n’y a pas de passage obligatoire en poésie. Mais si par devenir poète vous entendez être reconnu comme tel par des pairs, des lecteurs et des éditeurs, alors je dirais que s’il n’y a pas d’échelons à gravir, il y a des lieux privilégiés qui permettent de se faire lire : il faut aller chercher les éditeurs, lire les revues, lire les ouvrages de poésie contemporaine, se rendre à des lectures publiques. Sur son blog Poésie Maintenant, Pierre Maubé donne de très bons conseils à ceux qui voudraient publier des poèmes. L’idée générale de cette lettre ouverte aux poètes est la suivante: pour faire publier ses poèmes, il faut lire et connaître la poésie de ses contemporains. Il faut aussi faire vivre la création poétique en soutenant les initiatives audacieuses que sont les créations de revues par exemple.

CT Je suis complètement d’accord, avant d’être auteur, il faut être lecteur ! Vous semblez avoir des liens poétiques avec Paris, mais également les régions. Trouvez-vous que la poésie est bien représentée en France ?

LR Oui, la poésie  me semble bien représentée en France. Même si notre pays est bien connu pour son fonctionnement centralisé et la prédominance de Paris, de nombreux poètes vivent en région et cultivent cette distance. Les festivals de poésie eux aussi fleurissent bien loin de la Tour Eiffel: Les Lectures sous l’arbre en Haute-Loire, les Voix Vives à Sète, les Voix de la Meditéranée à Lodève… La poésie est ainsi représentée par ceux qui l’écrivent, mais aussi par les éditeurs qui choisissent de s’installer délibérément à la campagne (comme ce fut le cas de Cheyne).

En France, la poésie est partout comme l’attestent les manifestations du Printemps des Poètes par exemple, mais reste en même temps très confidentielle. J’observe cependant qu’il peine à faire la part belle aux jeunes gens ainsi qu’aux voix féminines.  Les festivals fleurissent, les éditeurs aussi. Mais selon moi, quelque chose ne circule pas toujours bien. Un indéniable esprit de sérieux subsiste en poésie et malheureusement l’entre-soi prédomine encore.

CT C’est un problème qu’on rencontre aussi hélas de ce côté de la manche. Une des manières de démocratiser la poésie je trouve, est à travers YouTube, qui a un rôle de plus en plus important pour diffuser la poésie dans le monde anglophone. J’ai remarqué que cela semble être aussi le cas en France, notamment avec des poètes comme Laura Vasquez. Est-ce une remarque juste ? Que pensez-vous du rôle de la technologie pour la distribution de poèmes ?

LR Youtube, SoundCloud sont de plus en plus utilisés pour diffuser la poésie, effectivement. Nous sommes nombreux à penser que l’oralité reste le corps même du texte. L’objet livre reste toujours très sacré en France mais des poètes comment à investir un nouveau terrain. Une nouvelle initiative a par exemple vu le jour : Appelle-moi poésie. François Bon a quant à lui ouvert son catalogue à la publication numérique sur Publie.net.  Il s’agit de créer un lieu de poésie vivante où les textes sont dits et interprétés (j’insiste sur ce mot) par des poètes et des performeurs. Internet peut devenir une formidable passerelle pour la poésie car elle peut la faire vivre, entendre. Un poème, ça palpite, ça vibre, ça chante, ça tonne! Youtube est un média merveilleux pour donner à entendre un poème, pour l’offrir au monde. Il ne s’agit donc pas seulement de diffuser la poésie, mais de transformer l’objet poétique.

Je pense pour ma part que les nouvelles technologies doivent être utilisées pour inventer de nouvelles formes de diffusion du texte. D’ailleurs, on ne peut pas laisser le numérique remplacer le livre. Il est plutôt temps d’inventer une manière de l’utiliser. Cela étant dit, je ne pense pas que les nouvelles technologies doivent remplacer le texte. Le texte permet plus de lenteur, d’errance. Il se livre nu, sans aucune interprétation. Le lecteur crée aussi le poème en le lisant. Il est nécessaire de protéger cet espace de liberté là.

CT Si vous pouviez changer une chose dans le monde de la poésie (que ce soit le contenu, ou le mode de publication,…) qu’est-ce que ça serait, et pourquoi ?

LR Ce qui est le plus intéressant est pour moi de travailler à la transmission de la poésie. Ce qui me passionne, c’est avant tout de faire entendre la poésie à ceux qui ne la connaissent pas, ne la lisent pas. Il est vital de travailler à l’émancipation et à l’éveil des jeunes gens et la poésie a un rôle très important à jouer en la matière. C’est un moyen de conquérir sa liberté de lecteur, d’approcher une forme de lecture moins linéaire, de toucher à la dimension moins intellectuelle de la littérature… La poésie en France ne doit pas se cantonner aux intellectuels, aux universitaires, aux férus de recherche qui voudraient rénover la langue. Elle peut s’ouvrir encore plus. Là où la bataille se joue, c’est à l’école.

Pour ce qui est du contenu, la diversité est ce qui fait la richesse de la littérature, il ne me viendrait pas à l’esprit de souhaiter que la poésie soit ceci ou cela. En revanche, j’aime plaider pour la joie et un lyrisme assumé. Je crois qu’on confond trop souvent profondeur et gravité, sérieux et qualité. Une poésie de la célébration peut passer pour naïve, peut exaspérer. Il ne s’agit pas d’être un lyrique bêta ni d’arborer un sourire niais. Je trouve que la joie en poésie trouve encore peu sa place, comme s’il fallait constamment confirmer et nourrir ses névroses pour écrire quelque chose de valable.

CT Vous avez auparavant citée Albert Camus, Clément Rosset et Michel Serres en tant qu’influences. Auriez-vous des nouvelles voix, moins connus outre-manche, à conseiller à nos lecteurs ?

LR Difficile de choisir parmi la multitude de voix! Je conseillerai la lecture de Déborah Heissler (certains de ses textes ont d’ores et déjà été traduits en anglais: Près d’eux, la nuit sous la neige, Cheyne, 2005). Son site donne un très bel aperçu de sa poésie et elle propose même des enregistrements sonores de certains de ses textes. Je conseillerai aussi la lecture de Franck André Jammes et plus particulièrement de la Récitation de l’Oubli, ouvrage écrit pendant sa convalescence suite à un grave accident en Inde.

CT Inversement, je serais curieuse de savoir quels poètes anglophones et d’ailleurs ont traversé les langues et sont connus en France (si il y en a) !

LR Nombreux sont les poètes anglophones connus des lecteurs français. Keats, Blake, Milton, Walt Whitman comptent parmi les plus célèbres. Parmi les poètes anglophones plus proches de nous, Sylvia Plath est particulièrement connue ici. Dylan Thomas aussi, Kenneth White. On a toujours eu tendance à penser difficile la lecture de la poésie étrangère car la traduction fait perdre quelque chose du texte original. Mais la lecture de poètes de langue anglaise est bien plus fréquente aujourd’hui, que ce soit en traduction ou en langue d’origine. Dans ma bibliothèque, le poète anglophone qui compte le plus est sans aucun doute Sylvia Plath. Elle a laissé une oeuvre magnifique.

Certaines associations ou revues comme Double Change ont pour projet de faire se rencontrer la poésie française et la poésie américaine. Mais il s’agit là d’initiatives peu connues de ce que l’on appelle le “grand public”.

CT  A Sabotage Reviews, nous nous intéressons beaucoup aux revue de poésies, je me demande si vous avez des revues françaises favorites à nous conseiller. Qu’est ce qui les rend spéciales à vos yeux ?

LR J’aime particulièrement deux revues. La première s’appelle A Verse: elle a été créée par des jeunes femmes étudiantes à la Sorbonne. Cette revue est singulière d’abord parce qu’elle est fondée et dirigée par des jeunes gens, qui plus est des femmes. Elle entend publier de jeunes auteurs et faire lire de nouvelles voix. C’est une des seules revues à ma connaissance qui donne sa place aux jeunes gens.

La seconde revue s’appelle Aka. Magnifique, elle tire à 70 exemplaires et est cousue-main. Pour s’y abonner il suffit de s’inscrire sur Tumblr. Chacun des numéros d’Aka est construit à partir d’une proposition : une phrase, un mot, une réflexion.

CT Vos poèmes parlent souvent de frontières, de négociations d’espace dans vos descriptions du monde extérieures….  En tant que femme dans un environnement qui me semble toujours plutôt masculin, pensez-vous que cela est en partie un exercice de réclamation de l’espace poétique ?

LR Personnellement, j’ai en permanence le sentiment qu’écrire est une manière de réclamer l’espace poétique. J’ai même parfois l’impression d’une lutte. Je ne sais pas si elle est propre au fait d’être une femme. Je pense à ces vers de René Char qui dans “Commune Présence” écrivait:

“Tu es pressé d’écrire
comme si tu étais en retard sur la vie
effectivement, tu es en retard sur la vie
la vie inexprimable
la seule en fin de compte à laquelle tu acceptes de t’unir
celle qui t’est refusée chaque jour par les êtres et par les choses
dont tu obtiens péniblement de-ci de-là quelques fragments décharnés
au bout de combats sans merci.”

Pour en venir à votre question, il s’agit bien d’un environnement plutôt masculin si on se place du point de vue de ceux qui éditent ou sont édités. À l’inverse, le public des festivals, des ateliers de lecture et d’écriture est majoritairement féminin! Les choses changent fort heureusement. De grandes voix françaises comme celle de Marie-Claire Bancquart pourraient témoigner de la difficulté d’être poète et femme en France à une époque. Aujourd’hui, l’espace poétique est ouvert. Vous avez évoqué Laura Vasquez, je pourrais aussi vous citer Déborah Heissler ou Blandine Merle qui ont été éditées chez Cheyne. De la même manière, la revue A Verse a été fondée par des amatrices éclairées, amoureuses de poésie!

CT Quels conseils donneriez-vous à un poète débutant ?

LR Je me sens moi-même débutante au sens où lorsque j’écris je suis dans l’état d’esprit du débutant. Je n’ai pas l’impression d’être plus expérimenté avec le temps. Disons que je m’affine! Je me sens bien incapable de donner des conseils.

CT Si vous deviez donner une identité, une définition, à la poésie contemporaine en France, qu’est-ce que ça serait pour vous ?

LR Cette question est la plus difficile tant la poésie est variée, diverse! De la poésie expérimentale en passant par les amoureux du livre d’art, de l’écriture minimaliste au lyrisme assumé, la poésie française n’a pas un seul visage.