A note on: Richard Marshall's epic review of The Wrestlers


the sacrifice throw: sj fowler’s the wrestlers

By Richard Marshall. - - - S.J. Fowler, The Wrestlers, KU Press 2008.

Poetry was born at a very young age, just like me. But there’s a very old consciousness here, one wanting to create his own metaphor for poetry. Torn between realism, wanting to reproduce things as they are – the conversations, asides, fragmentary sights, because they’re strong and necessary as metaphors – and invention, via dislocation or substitution of materials or shape, or contrasts which by themselves take the object as it were away from both itself and the originals, there’s a sense of pushing and pulling both ways from all directions. And everything tends towards yielding materials that are being pushed around like this, and pulled, which are the very strong subjectivities in play but also a subjectivity you and I can have  and share in, so this is push and pull, or fancy dialectics where ‘being clever is not armour’, as Fowler has it early on, where his ‘…  hill of necessity turns to taste’, shows ‘taste’ as just this, you fighting with your other selves, or something like that. Sometimes nothing intrudes on other people’s rearrangements, making substitutions metaphors and nothing something. It’s all wrestling.

And in wrestling we’re conscious of rigid objects falling apart. The whole solid thing – perhaps we’re meant to think of this as society or culture or maybe just poetry or art or more likely just ourselves – it’s grasped as a sense of eerie collapse and sublime disintegration, something that we won’t be able to catch with just words printed out. And then the idea of putting that idea up in print and wondering whether we can actually have a sense of what it all meant. To do that. That too becomes wrestling.

Language has a habit – or maybe it’s its very nature – of reverberating back to its original image or sense, yielding a prejudice towards naturalism that is inevitable. This is where poetry disappears and you see the original, and then remember or experience the tension between the original and this, whatever we’re reading or hearing, and the poetry reappears. It’s very realistic, you can imagine it as a certain language, as English. As being spoken or rubbed. Fowler shows us this, a thisthat’s been imagined in this state of high degree. Rilke was able to identify with the tree. Suzuki with a pencil. Cage with sounds, rocks, plants and people. Fowler with wrestling and poetry. Or better, one as the other, and vice versa.

Fowler’s interested in permutations and parts so that the shape, size and mannerisms – especially of the bodies, that’s what’s intriguing him. How the wrestlers in the relief can be taken from different angles and overlapping interests, and none of the things have a central point or vanishing point or any point even, obviously, but might be put one inside the other like Russian dolls, wondering what we might anticipate and what might result, or has already resulted. Fowler has a real interest in this, like it’s an interface with the soul, a ready-made, a proletarian quality that belies any suggestion that the more money you have the more abstraction can be laid on you. Here the degradation that is luxury isn’t the point. This is an art as mythology, as sexuality and as morality. But mainly it’s desire.

So the poems work with everything and everything we’re left to say afterwards is just to say whether we get a sense of life from them or not. That has to be what can’t be avoided, to ask not whether they’re contained somewhere somehow in our lives but rather, do they settle our lives? What gives them life is ‘life’ not the process of understanding the process, nor the poet working out of her skin to accomplish certain things. But the poems are by-products of an activity and Fowler is remarkable in his ability to understand that, delineate it and have them settle with life, real and expansive and rich. The wrestlers are perfect for him – he takes them so lightly because he’s so serious about them – wrestling that is, not so much the actual art work he’s pivoting off – and so there’s his ability to make the tension work in terms of the subject matter – the repeated tropes of wrestling and wrestling with and wrestling between and so on. Its not myth, or morality driving him though but it is desire. What this does is eliminate composition, form, arrangement, relationship, figure, well, not really, but you see what I mean; there is just this thing he wants to get hold of, stick it at the centre of the page, like an account of an anatomy, of a fight, of a gesture, of a position and not get distracted, flustered or even wonder whether or not that’s a great idea to do or not. Because when the hell did we rely on artists of any stripe to have a great idea? We don’t need their ideas – and Fowler gets this – we need their art. And Fowler here is fresh with desire for the Gaudier-Brzeska but he’s not spooling out ideas. What we’re getting is his desire to be inside and outside the work, happy to be alive now not anywhere else, not in ideas, not in showing us omens and philosophy and theory but, well, just being here in poetry. Or whatever bits of poetry might be left over after. Or to come.

The Gaudier-Brzeska is a relief, works its own plane, and Fowler’s matching it with a poetic plane, as mysterious and complex a thing as you can imagine. What can at times be frustrating and necessary and puzzling is this metaphysical plane, and what to do or what happens when its not quite maintained or it gets eliminated for a while, even for a moment, that’s what we’re getting when we face the relief and the poems. The plane gives a sense of resistance for the art, or else you vanish into meaning, clarity – and that’s the end of the business. Fowler works to maintain the plane so we can’t fall into that clarity, that finished, revealed meaning. And of course in doing so, in emphasizing the plane, there’s always the danger that you renounce the depth. That’s the other thing. Always this tension between surface and depth. The wrestling match going on, it’s between these. You see it in the frieze, the same contest. It’s what you see in David Caspar Friederich. The same play off between the skin of the canvas and the depth. It has to do with dreams about painting, dreams about poems, dreams about dreams really.

You listen to people telling stories when you’re not hearing them hearing themselves telling you. It’s at that point of freedom that you get the kind of freedom you’re looking for in the poet – its freedom weighed down with a lot of baggage. It’s the fascination of a torso wrestling the weight of an equal torso and seeing what gives. Let’s see a few rounds at least. It’s the opposite freedom of spontaneity, of imagination that just flies off. It can be joyful or tragic, no guessing which at the start, its compounded of so many elements, and really, you don’t want to think too much about it. You’re rather propelled into a kind of maniacal concentration and the real problem is then to work out how to keep that level of concentration going. You know the issue: how does the artist maintain that sort of pressured feeling and making over vast time? No doubt it’s too hard for us and is why modern stuff is so fragmentary and unsustained. Some days who doesn’t dream of Poussin, Mondrian, Pound, Dante, Beethoven, Joyce all pelagic, over warm tropical waters from inshore to offshore, flying over dolphins and yellowfin tuna, nesting on San Benedicto in burrows dug in compacted ash, calling  with eerie, drawn-out, rising and falling wailing moans, in series of two or three, flying typically unhurried with shallow and easy wingbeats, interspersed with buoyant glides, skittering on the vast waters, skittering on the surface, rarely if ever completely submerged, gull artists taking years.

The blurb collects it all up. “Wrestling, the world’s oldest sport, has been used by artists, poets and sculptors as a metaphor for the internal struggle of the human mind for millennia. In the poems of SJ Fowler it becomes an action verb, a metaphorical crux which reflects not only upon the contradictions of our interior selves, but also the endless proliferation of entrenched argumentation in our contemporary world. Finding its origin in a commission from Tate Britain, where Fowler’s poetry responded to Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s extraordinary eponymous relief, The Wrestlers is an accomplished collection from one the UK’s most thought-provoking poets, often playful, surreal, satirical and ambitious.’

The Tate elaborates: ‘The large plaster relief Wrestlers was made in London by the French artist Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891–1915) at a time when he was forging a reputation as one of the most radical and innovative sculptors of his generation. Gaudier-Brzeska was killed fighting in the First World War, and his achievements slipped from view in subsequent decades. In the mid-1960s, however, curator Jim Ede had the relief cast in an edition of nine to help make Gaudier-Brzeska’s work better known, and he gave a cast to Tate. This project explores the circumstances of the making of the relief and the posthumous cast, and asks new questions about representations of sport and physicality in modern art and poetry at the beginning of the twentieth century’.

Wrestlers and poets must be permitted and forced to steer. A wrestler/poet is a person out of her own direction. There’s a mix of passionate control and unreasonable severity. There’s a desired end but something kept off by supposed, supposing invaded, invading authority. At times the wrestler/poet sits, ‘squat like a toad, close to the ear of Eve’, at others she ‘stalks with fiery glare’, now the Miltonic lion supplanting – or supplementing, the toadish. All through there’s a ‘communicative temper’, better than ‘knowledge, civilitie, yea religion.’ The wrestler/poet struggles against the ‘huge quaggy carcass’ of unjust rule, seeks to spring the trap in history in the face of lies, secrecy and the official manipulation of truth. The wrestler is a free Commonwealth creature – again the Miltonic allusion persists – just as Richardson in his ‘Clarissa’ is nothing but a devout Puritan ruling out monarchical – tyrannical- options – Henry VIII the ‘tyrant Tudor’, Rochester, Jacobite Thomas Wharton, Bolinbroke – and a warning: ‘Beware, Peru, beware of your Peru/Beware the healthy/beware the hapless victim/beware the three denials/ beware the skulls with tibias/ and of tibias without skulls..’ which in the rude mouth of Fowler’s new collection is the ‘iron glaive’ of, oppositional, dissenting poetry living with Rousseau’s intent ‘to overturn the French Monarchy by the force of style.’ By which we mean:   Fowler wrestles dissent into poetry – roundhead wrestling cavalier – erasing easy meanings, and clear sense of self.

Fowler takes his dashing poetic style to the verge of flat prose but never falls over. It’s a reversal of Hazlitt’s reflection on the prose style of Burke. Recall: ‘Burke’s style is airy, flighty, adventurous but it never loses sight of the subject; nay, is always in contact with, and derives its increased or varying impulse from it. It may be said to pass yawnng gulfs ‘on the unstedfast footing of a spear’: still it has an actual resting-place and tangible support under it – it is not suspended on nothing.’ Fowler is on the brink from the other side of this equation: his poetry hangs suspended like the bird on nothing – which is breath and poetry – but hovers at times so close to prose it grazes the ground’s intricate ways, and almost becomes something.

[The wrestlers, George Benjamin Luks]

In ‘The wrestlers wrestle George Benjamin Luks’ he writes:

‘ Criticised for his poor handling of the human anatomy, Luks answered his detractors by rendering this complex scene of two nude wrestlers. The artist’s perspective was radical for the time.

Luks’ composition effectively presses the viewer to the edge of the wrestling pit, thereby emphasizing the down-at-heel setting.

The jarring vantage point also evokes the sweaty underbelly of modern urban life, a theme for which he and fellow members of the Ashcan School would become known. Luks’s scene of entangled human flesh under duress is reminiscent.’

Here is the self-wrestling moment – this new collection is full of them -where there’s a dare being enacted, a hair’s breadth in talent that’ll make all the difference, where in that last line ‘Luk’s scene of entangled human flesh under duress is reminiscent’ is itself the bearer of all the duress, the sound poet screaming from overhead and pressing down nothing, and where the huge dumb heap of prose matter that seems to end in vanity, littleness jarring, is called out and up with those very last four syllables, ‘reminiscent’, minding us of the mind ‘hovering over mysteries deeper than the abyss at our feet; its speculations soar to a height beyond the visible forms it sees around it,’ to continue to mine Hazlitt’s steer point. We will not be told what it is reminiscent of.  The allusive imagination of Fowler is constantly finding the mysteries overhead whilst he keeps his ear to the ground, close enough to sometimes threaten to tumble into the worthy, heavy immovable rocks. This is the drama of this collection, its working a way through allusions and mediation, breaking open various material things to find in each yawning gulf the imagainative life living palpy and juiced up inside it. He’s a writer who reckons that the power of the mind is as dangerous as any gun. We are left with the strange aura of an uncanny mystery that the more we peer into it becomes more like a cloudy mirror.

‘ This the best one can hope for./Ringing alps with tape, as though they were city squares./The hearts of geologists as purple lumps, but at least pumping, something arises to the surface…’ he writes in ‘The alpine wrestles orogeny’ which ends ‘ This is the place where Lazarus dug.’ Again we’re in Hazlitt territory, and with it the compounding resonance of the republican resurrectionist Revolutionary moment in Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’; ‘ The sounding cataract/ haunted me like a passion: the tall rock,/The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood’ – the rock an image of the guillotine, the mountain Montagne, the Jacobins in the National Assembly, as Tom Paulin taught us all some time ago. In Fowler the moral grossness of our days is imagined still gross but with the imagination able to rescue, despite everything, long-cherished dreams of the imagination on the senses where ‘something arises to the surface’. Fowler is resisting the dire and the dismal, the constant assault on imagination, hope and dream, the drear sensual Lockean epistemology that limits us to whatever we can see now. Poetry here is a never ending mind wrestling with dead rubbish. It contains both despair and hope, and ourselves whatever haunts us.

Fowlers’ imagination makes it possible to offer small things – oh, so many small things, and beauties –

‘ a blood red bird of the female representation on television… /Let’s hope there’s no need for dental records, antibiotics, antipathy./Let’s hope no broken bones from the eye down, looking away from the time soured,/Unable to recall the second name across the last broad century/ as dark as a heart is sensitive. Such a busy time.’

Such busy time sets up the contrast – it runs right through this collection – between the sense impressions out in the streets, on tv, in our black mirrors, in bed etc where intellect is unseen and then those great, central, visionary moments where the intellect becomes visible and the imagination active or reactivated, Lazarus- like . Hazlitt made the same contrast when he writes about entering Rouen cathedral. He sets the sublime mind, the lived, active, juiced up imagination, against any kind of empirical enquiry. Fowler’s poetry reminds us of the possibilities of what we might dare to imagine if we can unhook ourselves from the pressing realities of cabined, cribbed and walled in realities. The poet mind of the poet – the wrestler – is immortal, radical, critical and dissenting. It’s bell against chairs. But the wrestler sets one against the other, sets all against all, in order to squeeze the juice of sublime and sublimical vision. ‘Rock comes to market/but plaster comes to town./’ from ‘Relief VIII’ throws this in, and we get what excites Fowler in the next poem where he writes ‘… abandoned/ to fighting/free/is wrestling/ripped without formal   training/a filthy mock clawing/biteless, eyeful, throwing   rolling/staining green/no broken collar bone/no    of the mind, & death/he would have/like a brick falling…/

This is spirit and buoyancy, flesh and soul, small things capable of holding the vitality of the radical dissenting imagination, the restlessness of life looking to love life and towering over injustice and tyranny even as freedom, love and justice seem hardly anything real at all. Poetry here is a ‘Leg to try’. It’s a warning against superficial motion. It’s an attempt to find harmonious, flowing, varied stalemate. It’s a ‘Shot of below’. It’s a ‘Sacrifice throw.’ What’s that? Well, he explains it best it can be as a first go – ‘ drag into a void the vacuum of overeager forward motion.’ The gusto and energy press-stops any poetic prettiness or skill, blunts any chaotic sensationalisms but at the same time opens up against any sense of solidity, wooden, matter of factness that might be a faux comparison. And baulks against ideological posturing too, slogans and unearned crowd pleasers.  Fowler is a muscular advocate against stolid matter-of-factness, against propaganda and realism that inspects material qualities, inertness, impenetrability and finds them everything. The wrestler puts into motion a labour against such opposing weight, against a kind of English dour imagination that, as Hazlitt cunningly put it, does not  ‘…  care about the colour, taste, smell, the sense of luxury or pleasure: – [but] require the heavy, hard and tangible only, something for them to grapple with and resist, to try their strength and their unimpressibility upon. They do not like to smell a rose, or to taste of made-dishes, or to listen to soft music, or to look at fine pictures, or to make or hear fine speeches, or to enjoy themselves or amuse others; but they will knock down any man who tells them so, and their sole delight is to be as uncomfortable and disagreeable as possible.’

This version of the dry spirit , the philistine prejudice, is what requires Fowler’s push from the other direction. His wrestlers account for the fight, the complex locking together in the poet of the poet and the philistine. The series of epiphanic moments in much of Fowler’s performance gives us the jutty texture of the constant fight, the tenacious momentum determined to stop us all being turned to stone. How? By ‘Always finishing, always driving, always finding an angle.’ That’s what the poetry is for. It’s what it does and what its good natured sprawl has – as slopped up by Fowler in pitchy, fluxy, scalding, greasy lines that remind me of Hazlitt on Titian’s handling of paint – ‘ heavy, dingy, slimy effect of various oils and megilps.’

Fowler can cut back and cut back further with ‘have you ever held a human brain?/ Let’s not talk about when you were younger…/’ which has the interior comic snap overlayed with metaphysical pitch – later we get ‘ I guess the child molester should have listened when he told him to be quiet’ which , after a few lines is concluded with the ‘To the late are left the bones’ which captures again the speechy vernacular of lived words, slimy with the heavy, dripping and unctuous sheen of aliveness and threat running to promise, and dark dark comedy. What might have been pressed into stone, into a fixed and deadening series of worthy lines that end time, end life, Fowler has redeemed. He’s remarkably brilliant in keeping the poetry a living, healthy, sweaty, smelly, breathing body. He finds the pulses of what Hazlitt praises in the other English, the English dissenting Shagspearean imagination, which Hazlitt contrasts with the French.

‘The long (and to us tiresome) speeches in French tragedy consist of a string of emphatic and well-balanced lines, announcing general maxims and indefinite sentiments applicable to human life. The poet seldom commits any excesses by giving away his own imagination, or identifying himself with individual situations and sufferings. We are not now raised to the height of passion, now plunged into its lowest depth; the whole finds its level, like water, in the liquid….’

Fowler can be read as working against this, wrestling himself and poetry back towards a commitment. He’s a modern thing knowing modern things have ‘Death without/ the concept of glory’ and has always been one for a history – ‘singing so much/your forgivenesses/go to bed’, and those obscure crowns ‘Gold shoes/Bottomless thorn slippers./Crusades,’ where he mixes lost times and objects and people to unfix his poetry from both English sulleness and French levity.  His mind becomes an antiquity, ‘a sad miracle’ that now, … ‘Being saved from the earth/by the ability/to speak of tomorrow. We can be not friends.’

Which is not the same as not being friends. And there’s a toughness, a requirement as the world seems to disintegrate and pessimism haunts the transactions and strangeness. Tenderness is compromised in the juvescence: his terse ‘Emigrants wrestle immigrants’ works a meiosis across a spectre of justice, of the bad peace that we’re living out and into the ‘dreadful torpor’ where

‘… Arrests have stopped like moons in the sea./The ferry becomes addicted to sympathy./ Trying to be a friend to all things./That’s not possible,/even good people have enemies./They’re called bad people.’ Fowler’s pared-back language, the utter simplicity of the poem that at first glance seems too well-balanced, too general and indefinite belies the dereliction inside the moment. It is an answer to Eliot’s ‘Who are these hooded hordes swarming/Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth/Ringed by the flat horizon only…’ and so on in the ‘Wasteland’, a poem written at a time of unrest in India, Ireland and Egypt, growing resistance to the British colonial rule, a government in retreat, an economic depression beginning and Europe diminishing as the USA, USSR and China asserted themselves.  Conrad becomes the source of the poem’s title – it’s found in ‘Nostromo’ – and Eliot wanted a paragraph from ‘Heart of Darkness’ as the poem’s epigraph:

‘Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that supreme moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision, – he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath – “the horror! The horror!”’

Fowler’s imagination is cosmopolitan and spacious like the modernist Eliot’s who ends of course on the wrong side of the argument, regretting emperors and hating democracy as he did. And in this collection it’s Ezra Pound’s genius, Eliot’s editor and insane fascist sinologist, that Fowler channels , taking the fragmentary monumentalism of the Cantos as the breathing blocks for his own writing torso.

Vigilance, wisdom, fragility. Our context now is one of Trump, Brexit and the rule of plutocratic capital. No one cares or talks or looks at poor people, except to insult them or treat them kindly. Constantly submerged and forbidden, there are temptations of Neo-Realist conceits and social issues floating around in the air for we lefties. But our artist finds astonishments and knows nothing of resentment. He builds an image of beauty against poverty and anxiety and despair, the secrets of desire and war and violence and the erotic, not technique but spontaneity, minds, feelings, momentousness of living, psychology and an ability to get inside without getting close up. Here’s what I mean. In ‘frenczi wrestles Freud’ we are given a brilliant eroticism, held in a small dazzling array of images held at a distance and obscure in that we’re given no sense of what else is happening beyond the scenes given via the severed lines. It’s as if we’re watching a film – maybe one by Antonioni -, where we see a character from a distance looking away at something off screen but we are not given the usual reverse shot revealing what is being observed. The object of the gaze is therefore something unknowable to us and yet the scene remains intimate, loaded with a psychology, even though the object of the gaze remains a puzzle. And also, the face is not being filmed from close up but rather the camera remains held at middle distance, so we see much more than the face. It’s a remarkable thing. An intimacy through distance. And psychological depth through obscuring the object of attention.

‘Sunday becomes Saturday.      White dress is black dress./ Holes scissored off around      the pits and pubis./The motionless yawn     of luxury.’ It seems we are moving round a scene, framing everything to one side and with character, agent, whoever, looking elsewhere. It’s left open at what. Maybe there is particular stuff we’re not seeing or else perhaps there’s just simply the rest of the world. So if we think of the poem as a gaze then it can only reflect back on itself. The emotional problems are those of the restrained, restricted, denied – perhaps by money, opportunity, education – the limitations of living and of the meaning we seek. In another sense Fowler leaves us with everything, hides nothing of significance and yet we end feeling that no meaning is decided or finished. As we move through the collection, and as we move through each poem, meaning is being constantly opened out until there is no way we can see it all clearly. There’s some kind of ideological commitment but what he does with it is to refuse to accommodate any idea of completion, or a finished statement.

Meanings continually become stated squarely and then beautifully, gently, sensually opened up until they’re gone. He says at the end of the Freud poem : ‘ I am desperate to get back into the bath/synchronizing confusion with dissatisfaction.’ Note it’s exactly the dissatisfaction and confusion that he desires here. But this is only as literally the case as you can piece together from the other fragments that have preceded it, lines like ‘ the thought of sex is enough,   as though the wortgenie appeared’ and ‘a ballet of venal sessions,    of pointed toes, cunning,/of cynical people,    telling others what’s ok for them.’ He’s creating cabinets of drama, voices and characters and situations dividing and reforming, working at an art that is about inner selves as well as politics and social stresses and those realities. It is a poetry utterly cinematic in this sense: he doesn’t focus out but sticks to loneliness and incommunicativeness. He cuts and splices. He tracks lives and situations but inventively, like playing golf with paper balls.

It’s as pictorial as a Rothko painting is. It shows what seeing might be, the feelings, landscapes, zones of vanishing people, their suffocating chemicals and waters, their zero places in a neurotic almost psychopathic pictorialism. These moments of crisis show difference from inside the way we normally see things, like painting colours onto reality, green paint onto grass say,  to express certain minds as more vivid and hectic. Prophetic relationships, anticipations of relationships with women, environmentalism, genderlessness or gender fusion, London– what we read is a free atmosphere in words, where we’re allowed to abandon our ideas about things and discover other experiences, or experience old ones from a new perspective where elimination and manipulation transform or at least fight back. Sites. People. Images. We rediscover what we never discovered in the first place. Re-feel what we never felt, never knew. Reality and perception know ‘there’s always room for less.’ So we get experimentation in content and form with no single totalitarian meaning but a changing meaning because of contradictions in us and between us where ‘The victory of yourself is a racket,/statistically not actually necessary, or desirable…’ as Fowler memorably puts it in ‘Self-help wrestles motivational speech.’  There’s a constant search for images and lines that get mixed up with politics today and our chaos – something new coming ie ‘ Beneath the title is the slogan do you like boats? And do you deserve this money? And do you like virgins? /On it goes’ (from the same poem). On it goes.

The 60’s had this and we’re there now again. There’s so much happening and so many conflicting new structures – what do you pick? This is part of the sub-text if there is one. Matisse sought to paint the empty spaces and there’s that in Fowler too, a growing confidence in escorting readers into mysteries that are suspect and incomprehensible. He’s reporting from an ambiguity delivered as a fable about us or nature. The crisis is understood when the camera is turned onto the interviewer, if you like. The close and insistent gaze of the poet is this fragile ‘…lifetime spent sharing lights, fairly and in square rubber blocks, giving them to people,/ neatly, carefully, caring how they are stacked up .’

To look a moment longer at each is to look a moment too long. To speak longer, to shape more, well, we lose the poetry. Following poetry – prose, cinema, tv all now dead and new literacies are on line inside our leaching black mirrors that trace all our frailties, loneliness and unconsciousness to suck them dry and price them  – Fowler’s poetry is neither homesick nor celebrating this. Poetry is in a new moment and requires a new poetics of incommunicability and aloneness outside any fashionable version. Everything is falling out from that. More communication platforms, ubiquitous, inescapable, their vertiginous noise and white neediness, buy us, drain us, sell and complete us. But poetry. How?

‘How to practice listening to the city,/were it not now a ledger of badges being lowered/and detonations of impulses/from the throats of idiots./ It’s noise, like birth with a cord,/is not sad, it would be said, instead, to be massive./ A sound all the more enormous as it has grown from a tiny thing./ The city is the sound of dying/ when it’s citizens are merely tired.’

Here’s a clue to how. The poet listens, and listening becomes an uneasy, ambiguous and foggy self-identification. Fowler’s poems stop dead in their tracks again and again – we’re drawn to the great pauses between the words, the jutty silences that by listening we hear, so we can ask – what is communication?, what is listening? What is speaking? Elizabeth Bishop does this kind of thing with her ‘… Click. Click. Goes the dredge, and brings up a dripping jawful of marl./All the untidy activity continues,/awful but cheerful’ but Fowler is darker, less cheerful with the awfulness  if you like. Where Bishop deals with the quotidian ugly and utile activity, Fowler remains uneasy, which reflects our present moment where nothing seems right enough anywhere and threats are still, so it seems, just over the horizon if they’re not already squatting on our shoulders. The foreign and the foreigner – and Fowler is sensitive to their many instantiations and forms – immigrant, gay, fem, animal etc won’t wash clean even at moments of pure feeling or improvised cubist shape. Fowler identifies the conflict’s as beginning inside us but shows them growing out. ‘The more the instance, having so many, giving so much, for so long, the further the mis-/giving, the wider the cover of cultivation. But misgiving isn’t doubt.’

‘Is this right?                                 But neither do you.                        I don’t know.’ (The bully wrestles his/her pain)

What is happening in between the words, in those capacious white silences? Everything else, detached from cause. have an uncanny chill, are out of proportion and rendered disjunctive, oppressive and brooding.

Fowler does this. There are 46 wrestling matches in this collection, plus the seven he connects with Pablo Neruda plus 10 directly on Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s relief.  63 in all. The strongest poem I reckon is ‘A Knife wrestles the bubble’ which ends:

‘And the last knife
That slips into water
Learns to instead seek the bubble
For up onto a rock of their shoulders
Before flooding into the war
There will not soon be return to relief.
We’re reached the sea
All can be drunk now and clean again.
Knife in bubble,
Knife in side.’

If you can explain a poem in words then it isn’t a poem. And you can’t hum it neither…

A note on: Mondo for Poetry School - Autumn Term 2018

Mondo Monda Mondu Monde Mondi https://poetryschool.com/courses/mondo-the-global-avant-garde/ Saturday 3 November and Sunday 4 November. Two-day workshop, 10.30am – 4.30pm.


I am pumped to do another weekend course for the Poetry School, I had such a positive experience earlier this year, sharing European work (you can about that here http://www.stevenjfowler.com/poetryschool) and this November, I hope to repeat the trick. Mondo draws on a personal interest of mine, attempting a global vision of what poetry has gone through on the last 70 years or so - how individual cultures, languages, seismic political changes have shaped fundamental modes of writing. Not just content that is, which translates and then sits across nations through that translation, but actually context too. How poetry itself has shifted, and what we can glean from that. I've followed quite a few hundred rabbit holes thanks to friends across the world and the fact this isn't the most popular area of research. I will make this weekend quite open, explorative, using examples from many nations - Nigeria, Japan, Russia, Peru, China, Syria, Canada, etc... - so it won't be built around geography so much as ideas. Come and join me if you please

Mondo: The Global Avant-Garde Face-To-Face Course
Journey through a world of avant-garde poetry over this jam-packed weekend with SJ Fowler.
Explore a world of avant-garde poetry and discover how remarkable explorations in the written word often compliment, rather than antagonise, more formal writing practice. Using examples from Canada to Nigeria, from Syria to Japan, from Latvia to Brazil, the course will focus on methods of original poetry practise that have emanated from some of the 20th centuries most exciting experimental poetry groups of the post-war period. Rooted in making, this course – with the energy, dynamism and invention of the writing it explores – will enrich anyone’s poetry horizons. Mondo is not intended as representative of anything but an idiosyncratic selection of international avant-garde movements, all presented as a gateway to new writing methodologies for contemporary poets. Examples include:

  • Japan: The ASA group to the VOU: Kitasono Katue & more – Logogrammatic poetry: The abstract illustration of language
  • Canada: The Four Horseman: bp Nichol, Paul Dutton & more – Sound poetry: Language as Sound, resonant, non-lingual, vocal.
  • Nigeria: The Mbari Club: Amos Tutuola, John Pepper Clark & more – Experimental mythology: Mythic tropes as paths to the new.
  • Brazil: Noigandres: Haroldo de Campos, Augusto de Campos & more – Concrete poetry: The visuality of the poem as its meaning
  • Syria & Iraq: The Tammūzī Poets: Badr Shākir al-Sayyāb, Adonis & more – The ancient as modern: Free verse as liberation.

This workshop will be in our new offices at 1 Dock Offices, Surrey Quays Road, Canada Water, SE16 2XU. The venue is a 2-minute walk from Canada Water Station. Take the ‘Lower Road’ exit from the station onto Surrey Quays Road, then walk straight ahead, crossing over Deal Porters Way, and the Dock Offices come up on the left. The door for the school is at the far end of the building.

The Autumn Term is open for booking! Have a read through our fantastic quick guide, which you can find here and below, to see all of the courses - online and face-to-face - we're running this autumn! There really is something for everyone. 

A note on: WormWood film collaboration with Tereza Stehlikova continues


after a beautiful summer in kensal green cemetery in 2017, tereza stehlikova and i have continued collaborating on our overall longterm project - a film that explores the hidden corners of industrial west london and its oncoming disappearance beneath the old oak development thing. we've been shooting extended scenes in certain locales on the grand union canal and ive been writing texts. the new films, chapters, will be screened later in the year, as the first was at the garden museum and other venues over the last 12 months. http://terezast.com/

Willesden Junction is the same. Goodbye ozone layer.
One bridge, a concentration on small vanishing places.
An example is the bridge over the canal, the grand union canal. that leads to the hythe road estate. they have 300 cctv cameras roaming, 24 hours a day.

A note on: performing at the opening of How Like a Leaf

I had the pleasure to present a modest performance work at the opening event of a new ambitious interdisciplinary project "How Like a Leaf" which brings together thinkers, artists, academics from a group of uni's in London, including my own, Kingston. The event was chaired by Nick Foxton and I spoke alongside Patricia Phillippy and Tim Chamberlain. It was an intimate, considered, generous few hours, exploring encountering and thinking through human beings and nature, the Anthropocene,  aiming to create new ways to relate to the idea of the natural world. Nick's chairing was really grand, passionate, concise and accessiblem and both Tim and Patricia were engaging. https://www.howlikealeaf.com/

For my performance I first read a new poem, riffing on the phrase How Like a Leaf, switching out the final word of that four words, expressionistically, then I buried some leaves about the room, in my shoe, in the door, under a bottle, then I played a Ween song while blutacking leaves onto the wall into the shape of the word HELP. Then I finished reading another new poem, this time riffing on what might follow the words How Like a Leaf. I was trying to create metaphorical gestures around recitations, to show a concern for concentration, material, space, without at all being cynical or too self-referential. I likely failed but it was an uplifting, honest few hours and the most pleasure came after the presentations, chatting with everyone who came along. Do follow the project as it develops, more info on the site and below.


🍃 "This TECHNE Conflux will bring together students from across different disciplines - including literary studies, philosophy, visual arts, music, history, classics, dance and theatre - to assess, adapt and develop interdisciplinary approaches to the relationships between art, nature and the world, with the assistance of world-renowned practitioners and theorists. The Conflux has three main aims: To examine the relationship between aesthetic theories of nature and twenty-first century artistic practice. / To consider the ways in which historical accounts of the relationships between art, nature and world might be re-purposed in order to address the contemporary world. / To provide a space, in the form of both events and a final exhibition, in which these conversations between artistic products and aesthetic theories, will reach a wider audience. 🍃 The Conflux will run across two years, from June 2018 - June 2020 and will consist of four themes: Encountering; Writing; Performing; and Thinking." 

A note on: The Oldest Sports

A strange, balmy, intimate and fun night. A chance to celebrate fight sports, something ive always been around, very passionate about, with other poets and writers who share that love. It felt very much like a disparate but unified group of artists playing with the same material, often tangential and weird, and so really beautiful for that. A wee bit quiet, being world cup and summer times, but perhaps better for that, being notably ours. Some great performances worth watching up here http://www.theenemiesproject.com/pugilistica/ 

and a couple of my photos below, ive been spending lots of my summer learning to shoot on film


A note on: triple launch at burley fisher books july 12th

Triple launch: Vahni Capildeo, Steven J Fowler and Zaffar Kunial
12 July @ 7:00 pm - 9:00 pm at Burley Fisher Books (400 Kingsland Road, E8 4AA, London) Full details http://burleyfisherbooks.com/event/triple-launch-vahni-capildeo-steven-j-fowler-and-zaffar-kunial/

"Join us on 12 July for a Burley Fisher first: the triple launch of Vahni Capildeo’s Venus as a Bear, Steven J Fowler’s The Wrestlers and Zaffar Kunial’s Us. There will be readings and signings and drinks. 

The Wrestlers - from Kingston University Press, is available to purchase here The Wrestlers

A note on: new articles commissioned for Versopolis

The European Review of Poetry, Books and Culture is an online literary journal, funded by the European Union, aiming to create an anglophone publication platform with a focus on continental Europe and world beyond. www.versopolis.com

A sample of the articles I've commissioned recently.

A note on: new Poem Brut publications on 3am magazine

Some extraordinary work being sent in for this series, from all over the world. It feels a proof of concept, it's gratifying. Lots more in the barrel https://www.poembrut.com/3am/

Kon Markogiannis poem brut #38 – vessel published 28/06/2018
Linda Black poem brut #37 – borne coloring found published
Chris Kohler poem brut #36 – architectural drawings published 12/06/2018
Kenneth Cale poem brut #35 – picture consequences published 27/05/2018
Stephen Nelson poem brut #34 – three asemic poems published 12/05/2018
Penny Newell poem brut #33 – drummers wanted published 05/05/2018
Frances Revel poem brut #32 – the angel-wing shell and its inhabitantpublished 27/04/2018

A note on: Wretched Strangers anthology


JT Welsch and Ágnes Lehóczky have assembled an anthology to mark the vital contribution of non-UK-born writers to this country’s poetry culture. Wretched Strangers brings together innovative writing from around the globe, celebrating the irreducible diversity such work brings to ‘British’ poetry. While documenting the challenges faced by writers from elsewhere, these pieces offer hopeful re-conceptions of ‘shared foreignness’.

The book is published by Boiler House Press to commemorate the anniversary of the June 2016 EU Referendum and in solidarity through struggles ongoing and to come. Proceeds will be donated to charities fighting for the rights of refugees.


My poem in this anthology is taken from my new book The Wrestlers, entitled Loneliness wrestles Xmas.

Published : The Wrestlers


I'm happy to announce the release of my latest poetry collection - The Wrestlers - from Kingston University Press, is available to purchase here The Wrestlers

From the publisher "Wrestling, the world’s oldest sport, has been used by artists, poets and sculptors as a metaphor for the internal struggle of the human mind for millennia. In the poems of SJ Fowler it becomes an action verb, a metaphorical crux which reflects not only upon the contradictions of our interior selves, but also the endless proliferation of entrenched argumentation in our contemporary world. Finding its origin in a commission from Tate Britain, where Fowler’s poetry responded to Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s extraordinary eponymous relief, The Wrestlers is an accomplished collection from one the UK’s most thought-provoking poets, often playful, surreal, satirical and ambitious." www.stevenjfowler.com/thewrestlers

The book will be launched in London on July 12th at Burley Fisher Books http://burleyfisherbooks.com/event/triple-launch-vahni-capildeo-steven-j-fowler-and-zaffar-kunial/ A further launch to follow at Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, in September 2018.

Produced to a remarkable standard by KU Press, it collects together poems from a five year period, including poems published in Gorse Magazine, Test Centre magazine, 3am magazine, The Wolf, Poems in Which, The Honest Ulsterman, The Bohemyth, and the anthologies The Long White Thread: poems for John Berger (Smokestack Books), Millets (Zeno Press), Dear World and Everything In It (Bloodaxe Books), Hwaet: Ledbury Poetry Festival (Bloodaxe Books) and Shifting Ground (J&L Gibbons) alongside commissions by The Hay Festival : Arequipa, Peru and Tate Modern.

A note on: Illumations - Thomas Bernhard at Austrian Cultural Forum

]another grand entry into this event series i'm lucky to be curating for the austrian cultural forum, this time celebrating thomas bernhard, an author who has always been important to me, seeing the world as it is, and not the plastic rendition of optimism that creates an opposite feeling in the hearts of those with their bloody eyes open. 

The lineup was really stellar, I got to work with the amazing Maja Jantar once more, and the equally inspiring Tereza Stehlikova, and discover two visiting austrian poets, Raphaela Edelbauer and Sophie-Carolin Wagner, who i had naturally researched but never seen perform live.

as ever what the artists do in these events, recreating the authors in question through such innovative means, is inspiring, and the ACF couldnt be cooler to work for http://www.theenemiesproject.com/illuminations

Published: an interview with HIPOGLOTE

This was really fun, i had a blast chatting with portuguese sound poetry achivers / activists / investigators tiago swabl and nuno nevers who have been part of the Hipoglote interview series for 87 issues, up to mine. Everytime I get asked to mark my contribution to sound poetry is feels special, as I do feel a sense of great respect for those who created and lead the practise, it's always something on the frontline, and to be a little part of it, and to be recognised as such in europe, means something special

Nuno and Tiago have created a great route in to discussing sonic and sound poetry, with some brilliant conversations in the past. we got on like a house on fire, really a privilege to be part of the project for me, we chatted about loads of stuff, and they seemed to enjoy my notion that sound poetry is what we do the moment we are born and in the last moments before we die

listen in here https://www.mixcloud.com/Hipoglote/87o-hipoglote_2018-06-18_interview_-steven-j-fowler/

A note on: Poem Brut at National Poetry Library

Fun was had in the wonder library of london. I love this library. It is a pure space. A space of generosity and discovery. I had the pleasure too to work with my friend pascal o'loughlin and the lovely jessica atkinson, librarians, in developing a special edition event. This time the event was part of my poem brut series, which asks poets often on the margins of what people think poetry is, to produce works that entirely concerned with liveness and material. Liveness in time, in language, in motion. Proper performance. Organically weird then, weird in a way that the world is weird. But also weird in such a range of ways. Saradha Soobrayen, Chrissy Williams, Patrick Cosgrove, Maja Jantar, Harry Man. They were all magic. And we had a packed out house, a nice audience of people, some of whom were suspicious, but in a way that made me trust them all the more.

My performance was a little naff, but something playing with ideas Ive had for awhile. I used a friend of mine, a chatimal, to repeat back words that I had said, to undercut the pompous tone of the recital. I read from in the stacks. I tried to asphyxiate myself. It was a good time.

A note on : The end of the Other Room

The Other Room has come to an end. Ten years of remarkable events that have led the way in a resurgence of decidedly contemporary forward thinking poetry in the North West have wrapped themselves up as of April 2018. The trio of curators, all markedly influential poets, publishers and educators themselves – Scott Thurston, James Davies, Tom Jenks – have worked together in putting on dozens of poets in dozens of events, publishing 10 anthologies and posting hundreds of updates online for events and publications across the UK. They have done the kind of work that acts as an invisible inspiration to generations that come up behind them, that create concrete connections between writers and happenings that influence the future of poetry in the UK, especially outside of London, and I for one have often made it known their very specific way of working events has been a massive influence upon me. https://otherroom.org/

I would say my experience reading at The Other Room in 2011 was the singular influence on the nascent Enemies Project then and has concentrated my focus ever since. What I discovered was that there isn’t a contradiction between a warm, welcoming, hospitable, funny, unpretentious atmosphere and poetry that is challenging, complex, oblique, idiosyncratic and strange. In fact, these two things are complimentary. This discovery made me realise the often experienced distance, coolness and hierarchy of many readings was a deliberate imposition fashioned in order to create for themselves a sense of exclusivity. The Other Room showed this to me, this vital realisation and in so doing eliminated any instinct I might’ve had for utopian projects in poetry, allowing me to focus on each night at a time, to be present with the poets on those nights, enjoy their company, listen concentratedly to their work and then have a laugh whenever possible. This is very likely the reason my events are still going, 8 years after they began. 

images (2).jpg

The Other Room also showed me that the superstition some poets have as a legacy from the last century, that organising too successfully blots out appreciation of your own poetry, a spectre of conflicting interests somewhere in the poetry ether (being a poet and editor is fine though apparently, and anthologising, and teaching) is also a myth. Scott, James and Tom are some of the most interesting poets writing in the UK, each with their own markedly original oeuvre and intellectual concerns, rendered in a multitude of forms and spaces, each with their own influence over many of their peers. Scott was one of the very first poets I met, and I listened to him carefully then, as I do now - his work offered me great possibility. James has done as much as anyone to make conceptual poetry in the UK its own separate exploration with its own decidedly British concerns, separate from the humourless aggrandisement that can be indicative of people’s understanding of that area of poetry. And Tom’s prolific invention, insight and deep erudition worn lightly has been a huge influence on my use of satire, humour and the balance between lyricism and found language. Tom, like Scott and James too, is such a clear thinker about poetry, has such a mind for the art, but carries this knowledge with great humility, always in a mode of learning, always open to new ideas.

The end of The Other Room is a loss for the UK poetry scene. I had always hoped similarly organic homes for interesting poetry would pop up in cities across the country, that it would procreate into more rooms of otherness, so that we could build a circuit that would be exponential, that would serve as a link for new poets coming through everywhere, doing what they have done for a decade, leading a way, lighting a path, providing a space. Yet, after this time, after such selfless labour, one can’t help but understand why it should end, so neatly, so that it doesn’t just dissolve as often the best things in poetry do, into something lesser, to disappear unnoticed. For my part, I’m grateful to them, they’ve run something powerful for longer than I’ve been involved in writing at all, and I hope as the next years pass The Other Room is remembered as a real moment in 21st British poetry.

Published: Selected Scribbling and Scrawling : - ZimZalla

Available to buy here http://www.lulu.com/shop/http://www.lulu.com/shop/sj-fowler/selected-scribbling-and-scrawling/paperback/product-23659470.html

My new asemic writing / art-poetry collection is now available from Zimzalla Press. It contains over 50 works of writing art, pansemic poems, doodles and scrawls, celebrating poetry that harries semantic content and explores the possibilities of the handwritten and illegible. The book contains essays by Tom Jenks and myself, and will be launched on June 6th at National Poetry Library for Poem Brut.

From the publisher "The scrawl or doodle is not a by-product of distraction; it is an active production of the mind when concentration moves downwards in the brain. It is the poetry of the mind’s rearguard, and it is more often a product of writing, pen in hand, than it is a visual art. So why should poetry, the language art, not have held scribbling to its chest? This volume of SJ Fowler’s collected works in the line let loose tradition attempts to return the wandering shapes of letters and words back to the front. Selected from over 1300 works spanning 11 & ½ years and touching upon asemic and pansemic writing, widely varying in tone, density, form and character, this selection of poems shows SJ Fowler’s fundamental impatience and childishness."


A note on: Stablemates at Poetry Cafe, Shearsman Books reading

Jill Abram's Stablemates series brings together multiple authors who share a publisher, a list buddy reading for poets at the Poetry Cafe in central London. I had the chance to be part of a lovely evening thanks to Shearsman Books, who published my Guide to Being Bear Aware in 2017. The evening also featured Richard Georges and Geraldine Clarkson, who were both remarkable in their readings - Geraldine with a concentrated range of work, full of phenomenological detail and play with form, and Richard, visiting from the British Virgin Islands, whose poetry was intense, serious, sonorous and charismatic.

I talked a little about my suspicion of readings before I read, and how I've come to see them as valuable entirely for their sense of community and human exchange, that they are a live moment, edged, which is worthwhile as they are purely alive, and then I mentioned to the audience that I'd ask them after each poem I read, whether they liked it. Those that admitted they did were given the poem in question, torn from my book. It was great to begin some new friendships and see some old pals, and to be in an almost entirely 'poetry' environment, rare for me nowadays.

FotoJet (4).jpg

A note on : South of the River conference at Greenwich University


Thanks to Emily Critchley I got to premiere one of my new films made with Joshua Alexander (the animal series about london and menace - this one was Canalimal about the grand union canal around willesden junction and its soon disappearance at the hands of an ugly development) at the Uni of Greenwich for a conference entitled South of the River.

It was a lovely long afternoon with peers i respect in a little troupe - amy cutler, tom chivers, edmund hardy - speaking to each other and academics about south london. I admitted i had something against south london, half joking, and its a place that hasnt featured too much in my 11 years of walking miles upon miles of london streets. I learned a lot from everyone else through the day, it was communal and generous.

A note on: Undergoing Rorschach testing live at Illuminations launch...

The Austrian Illuminations Anthology launch was a surprisingly intense evening. Always with launches things are smaller, there's nothing to make, the book is done, it's a ship being pushed out, so the energy and often audiences are lower, but in this case that slight reduction created concentration. David Fried's reading was especially intense I felt, personal and direct, and Iris Colomb is a gifted performer.

I read my fiction made of quotations story from the anthology, for Peter Handke, giving a far longer intro than I would normally do, explaining my habit of collecting quotes from novels and poems, which are past 11000 in total now, and how I intend to shape these into a novel one day.

Then came David Rickard's rather remarkable work. He suggested to me, as his piece in the book was the ink of a squid he has crushed in his original illuminations performance rendered as a Rorschach type piece of artwork, that he would follow this theme down a rabbit hole. He discovered the importance Klecksography and poetry to Hermann Rorschach original idea and how this overlap was too much to resist, so he contacted Doctor Marc Desautel, clinical psychologist and director of Rorschach Society. He invited Marc to participate in the event by analysing me live, before the audience. All I wanted to do is commit with full verity to the test, to not try and game or perform, and though we met briefly before, it was genuinely under the auspices of analysis that we did the test. I thought his insights about me were mostly true, all told. You can watch the videos of this below

A note on: Illuminations celebrating Thomas Bernhard - June 7th

Illuminations IV : Thomas Bernhard
June 7th 2018 : 7pm = 
Austrian Cultural Forum in London

Free Entry but booking suggested = Austrian Cultural Forum London - 28 Rutland Gate, Knightsbridge, London SW7 1PQ, UK

New pieces of literary art and performance responding to the life and work of the great Thomas Bernhard.

Perhaps no 20th century European author expresses so vitriolically, so powerfully and so truthfully, an utter disdain for pretension, intellectual and emotional laziness, and stupidity. Thomas Bernhard's immense output of novels, theatre and poetry is often marked singularly by a tone of contempt, unapologetically against hypocrisy and pompousness. Fully realised in Bernhard’s work is the irony of an author who felt compelled to demean publicly the very idea of culture and thereby provocatively offend the public’s complacent sense of cultural identity, and in so doing provide his own output with a meaning based on its lack of meaning. Bernhard’s genius was that, at great artistic risk, he achieved his aims by undermining his achievements. 

Featuring Maja Jantar, Raphaela Edelbauer, Tereza Stehlikova, Oliver Evans, Christian Patracchini, SJ Fowler and more. www.theenemiesproject.com/illuminations