-Interviewed by Claire Trévien–
Dan Holloway is the author of several novels and poetry collections, the ringmaster of New Libertines, a touring band of poets. He has set up a new publishing imprint 79 Rat Press to publish his conceptual work, including Evie and Guy a novel in numbers, and curate conceptual literature shows, such as NOTHING TO SAY. As if that weren’t enough, Dan is a prolific blogger, writing among other things about self-publishing, and regularly writes for The Guardian.
CT: You’ve just launched 79 rat press as part of the literary exhibition Nothing to Say, can you tell me a little bit more about what inspired both these things?
DH: 79 rat press has grown organically out of eight cuts gallery, which I have run since 2010, and under which umbrella I’ve published some wonderful books that have had remarkable critical success for such a tiny outfit, such as Penny Goring’s The Zoom Zoom and Cody James’ The Dead Beat. It also hosts The New Libertines and all sorts of other events.
I think I have become aware though that I can make most of a difference through very sharply focussed, very small events and editions. I also wanted to get back to my original intention with eight cuts gallery of something literary based on a model from the art world. As you probably know, I am obsessed with both Modernism and 20th century art, culminating in the Young British Art movement. Tracey Emin is the biggest influence on my own writing, and what I have felt for a long time is that to get people truly talking about what literature can do, we need more events like art’s Freeze and Sensation, and more figures like Jay Jopling and Nick Serota to push challenging literature into the public consciousness. I think the last time that really happened was in the 60s and 70s when Carmen Callil launched Virago and Lawrence Ferlinghetti brought the Beats to the world through City Lights. I’ve always thought of myself as some kind of very weak shadow of Ferlinghetti, the guy behind the scenes who writes himself but whose pleasure is bringing other people to the world.
79 rat press is a body through which to do that – my White Cube as it were – and NOTHING TO SAY is my first installation.
I am also endlessly infuriated by the lack of ambition in contemporary literature. It is very rare you will meet a writer who admits to wanting to change the world, or even wanting to leave the literary canon a richer and more beautiful thing for future generations. As a self-publisher, I’m used to people at events getting standing ovations for saying they want to get rich, but bustling me into a corner before I embarrass them any further if I start talking about wanting to chip away at patriarchy or wanting to unshackle the voices of the oppressed or provide a loom on which people’s voices can weave themselves into a glorious tapestry or, in fact, pretty much anything that has to do with wanting to create great art (apparently that’s arrogant – or intellectual snobbery – or even worse “rather sweet and we love that we know someone like you but can we get on and talk the grown up talk of how to sell now please” – whereas wanting to sell a stackload of books is “being a savvy entrepreneur”).
So I wanted a place that was unashamedly uncommercial (the exception being that unlike a lot of poetry presses I am paying all contributors an upfront fee) and where the sole focus was on the art. That’s probably enough for now or I’ll have nothing to say (see what I did there?) for question 3.
CT: You’ve written Evie and Guy, a novel written entirely in numbers. What prompted this idea and how did it end up in its final format?
DH: I just noticed I’ve already had 500 words and answering this in full would take twice that. Right, here goes at proving self-publishers can be concise. I’ve wanted to write a novel in numbers for about 3 years. It’s a bit like my Mount Everest – I wanted to do it because it was there. And despite a fair bit of hunting around, I don’t think anyone’s done it yet – which I have to say I find extraordinary.
The project started life as #twentyfoursevendigitalwonderland and was going to be a representation of a day in someone’s life through all the numbers they encountered. It was going to be about the digital world and how we construct our identity in it. But it wouldn’t work. I think the problem was that once I’d explained the idea, I’d kind of done it, so it’s more suitable for something once of my characters might do in a short story (I’m obsessed with writing about conceptual artists – largely because I’d like to have been one and have a whole wardrobe full of ideas for installations I haven’t the skill to make, so I write characters who make them instead – what readers will never pick up is that as I was writing the “longhand” for Evie and Guy, I actually created – in minute detail – seven separate conceptual art exhibitions that they staged between them). For all I am probably known best as the endlessly theoretical/political bar bore of independent literature who will never say “narrative arc” when he could cry false consciousness instead, I am actually a complete sentimentalist. My overriding artistic imperative is the freeing of each individual human spirit to enjoy its own sensuality and experience and express itself sensually in a world full of equally subjective, sensual spirits.
So, my novel would be in numbers, but it also had to be emotionally satisfying. It had to have characters and those characters had to have meaningful, fully-rounded experiences that would trigger readers to discover their own sensuality free from the confines of language. I came to realise more and more that I wanted to use number not language not just because I wanted to create a watercooler moment – in fact, not even to create one – but because actually there was more experiential truth for both character and reader in avoiding language. And those thoughts, combined with the academic work I’m doing at the moment, led me back to feminist interpretations of Lacan, and the fall from sensuality into language, and the desire to create something (what I rather grandiosely tend to call a “poetics of hope”) that would take some tentative steps towards enabling people to experience themselves not conceptually through a language that boxes them, putting them in this category or that category, every single one of them a fiction, but sensually, directly, by jarring them out of the myth that you “have to” or “can only” think of yourself linguistically.
Anyway, Lacan, with his notion of jouissance, the semi-orgasmic purely sensual experience of the self as self, was what gave me the lightbulb moment to make the book a list of two people’s experience of masturbation. And the more I explored the idea, the more it became obvious just how fruitful that could be as an indicator for life events and relationship events – in other words, I’d found a way to create the emotional core I wanted but to squirrel it away safely out of the clutches of language, waiting for each reader to unearth it anew as they read, and offering the possibility of reading as genuinely sensual and pre-linguistic, the first tiny step towards a poetics of hope.
CT: What do you hope people will go away thinking after attending Nothing to Say?
DH: The short and very simple answer is I want people to go away feeling what people felt after they’d been to Sensation. Or what I’d felt after I saw Tracey Emin’s and Steve McQueen’s installations at the 1999 Turner Prize exhibition. Both those exhibits slapped me in the face. Steve McQueen’s Deadpan was my first introduction in the flesh to the power of the Modernist project, and has influenced my own recent conceptual works like “All of These Taxonomies are Political”, a series of 512 almost identical limericks using just the words cock and cunt (what people forget about McQueen’s piece is its roots in comedy – a Buster Keaton sketch – and I loved that playfulness as well as the seriousness, and the way that the combination jarred me, kept pulling me up short, made me think about the structure – so using a limerick as the skeleton for a very serious linguistic exercise in repetition made perfect sense). Tracey Emin smacked me in the gut with a punch that’s left me bruised to this day. What I got from it was very simple – the most ordinary life has a transcendent quality, not because it is transformed into something greater than itself but precisely when it is not transformed – because life in all its messy minutiae IS what is transcendently important. Any art that seeks “the universal” or the general, or to make the everyday eternal is fundamentally deleterious to the human spirit. We give true voice to everything that is most important about each individual human life precisely when we burrow right down to the most insignificant and particular. It’s one reason I positively detest things like the Great American Novel.
I don’t know that I was aware of these aims as I sifted the submissions, but I was aware that certain pieces hit me viscerally, and those were the ones I clung onto.
The shortest answer of all, though would be this – I want people to go away with a heightened sense of their own sensuality. I want people’s lives after NOTHING TO SAY to contain more of their true selves than their lives before. And whilst the title may appear flippant (it was conceived as a response to poets like Geoffrey Hill who think the current generation of underground poets has nothing to say, and also references John Cage’s dictum “I have nothing to say and I am saying it”) but it’s become clearer and clearer that it is also very serious – a life lived experientially really should, in the deepest sense, have no words, just sensuality.
CT: You organize a poetry troupe called the New Libertines, and when I think of your poetry, the image of a flâneur pops up, possibly because of the organic and damaged nature of it. So I was wondering how big an influence symbolist writers, such as Rimbaud, are in your work? I’m thinking especially of poems like Baudelaire’s ‘The Swan’ and its uneasy relationship with urban renewal, in relation to your pamphlet i cannot bring myself to look at walls in case you have graffitied them with love poetry.
DH: Ha! I guess having said I want to be literature’s Jay Jopling I can’t really worm my way out of it when someone thinks about me as a flâneur.
I’m not sure how many of my influences (consciously) ever come from literature. I certainly feel an affinity for Symbolism, but I have always felt more of a conscious influence from art. I love Abstract Expressionism (my first real “artistic moment” was sitting in the Tate in the middle of a room full of Rothko canvases as an eight year old), which I would call a first cousin of Symbolism – though I think I have too much Lacan in my blood to ditch the Abstract Expressionists’ insistence on true expression coming non-verbally, o language as something we have to get around. I guess I’d say Symbolism says that when it comes to language we have to look out of the corner of our peripheral vision, whereas Abstract Expression says that to see we have to close our eyes (there might be a tiny crossover in Expressionist silent film in the 1920s, with directors like F W Murnau). I see Abstract Expressionism as a recent avatar of a form of Neoplatonism that has cropped up through history in the form of the ecstatic mystics and the via negative. There’s a long history that sees language as a hindrance rather than a help to understanding.
CT: We’ve talked in the past of the challenges of being both a live literature producer and a writer, sometimes one leads to neglect of the other. As an outsider you seem to have managed the balancing act: you have two major creative projects recently out (your novel and your show some of these things are beautiful), while also publishing other people’s works and curating events in Festivals nationwide. What’s your secret?
DH: I remember seeing an interview with Alexander McCall Smith in which he was asked exactly that, and his answer was very simple – keep walking the tightrope never look down. I find that a superb philosophy for life (it’s no coincidence that in researching recent works I’ve read a lot about parkour, and Philippe Petit the infamous high wire walker who walked between the Twin Towers). In fact it pretty much exactly sums up everything I’ve been saying about not conceptualising but experiencing yourself. Doing it, of course, is another matter – which is why I’ve also had two major breakdowns since getting into the literature game.
CT: You’re militant about the self-publishing cause, and have rejected publishing deals in the past, why is it so important to you?
DH: In part it’s a result of my own quirky mental state. I get claustrophobic sweats at the thought of a publisher telling me what to write. I had an inkling of it a year or so back when I self-published a thriller that did reasonably well, and all of a sudden people only wanted to talk about me as a thriller writer and I was trying to explain that I wanted to talk about conceptual poetry, slams, lyrical literary novels, post-communist identity politics, pretty much something different every day.
I’ve also sat the other side of the fence, and felt my authors’ pain – but also felt my own at their response to it. That’s one reason I don’t want to be a traditional publisher again but a curator of one-offs – handling the emotional rollercoaster an author goes on over the long term was too emotionally damaging for me – I can’t do it again, and I know I’d do the same to a publisher.
I also believe in self-publishing as a way to bring genuine innovation to readers, and I am deeply disillusioned with a lot of contemporary self-publishing, which is about how authors can make money. Which is fine, and I love popular fiction as much as I love the avant garde, but that’s not really widening readers’ access to life-transforming experiences. So I sort of see it as my duty to be the thorn in the side of self-publishing, reminding people of the amazing things it can do that the mainstream can’t, not for authors but for readers, and in turn I hope that will do a small part to help genuinely innovative writers to keep self-publishing. I have a feeling it makes me deeply unpopular, because it must seem like I’m always sniping form the sidelines. Fortunately in this regard I’ve got a very thick skin because I think it really is important. Readers have to come first, more than even that people and the effect culture can have on their lives has to come first and I hope I will never tire of calling people out when they bleat on about how we should publicise self-publishing as being “as good as” traditional publishing or some other form of stuffing the genuinely revolutionary back into its box. Fortunately also I started self-publishing early, and have been gobby enough for long enough that whilst I’m fully aware a lot of writers’ groups see me as a token artsy guy and are as acutely embarrassed by my presence during “serious” debate as they are rather exhilarated by having someone who does whacky things (though when it comes to it they will still always say “an important self-published book? Hmm, you should try this one, it’s just like 573 books published by Harper Collins you know”), they can’t quite push me out altogether because my tentacles are slightly too long. It makes me feel like the character you always get in an Agatha Christie novel, the black sheep child, usually a woman who does something shady like works in theatre, and drives a sports car and wears trousers who is simultaneously the family’s dark secret and the one everyone looks forward to turning up at the party because they know she’ll say what they always wanted to. That’s a role I can live with very happily.
CT: Finally, what’s next?
Well, to paraphrase Lord Flasheart, what isn’t next? Obviously the NOTHING TO SAY launch is looming (that’s at Stoke Newington Literary Festival on June 8th, followed by a week long exhibition at the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford that will include an updated mystery play stationed around Oxford, and I will be papering the walls with pages from Evie and Guy), though I have a poetry slam final even before that for which I need two new poems. Then The New Libertines 2013-14 tour is already taking shape.
For me, creatively, the next thing is a novel that interweaves all the characters whose stories I’ve been working on separately for the past 5 years. Ninety Nine Nights of Urban Dogging has all kinds of characters whose lives do (or don’t) overlap over the course of a summer around the death of a philanthropist who made his name delivering aid in the midst of the worst atrocities during the Kosovo crisis. There’s a policewoman who fled Kosovo as a child and has a second life as a dominatrix by night, a street poet who can sense when someone is about to die and tries to capture their last thoughts in poetry, an ageing feminist activist and novelist descending into dementia convinced that the plot of one of her earliest crime novels is actually real, and a group or private school students home for the holidays who discover their parents were part of a paedophile ring.