Missing Slate published - an interview with Jacob Silkstone

http://themissingslate.com/A fascinating magazine, edited in part by the British poet Jacob Silkstone, emanating out of Pakistan has recently run an issue that features an extraordinary selection of British poets including many I admire like Luke Kennard, Ryan Van Winkle, Caleb Klaces, James Byrne and Anna Selby. The section has an introduction too, from Todd Swift. My contribution is two poems from the Museum of Debt, a collaboration with the photographer Alexander Kell. You can read the issue here http://themissingslate.com/digital-editions/interactive-digital-editions/

As well my poetry Jacob conducted an interview with me to be found in the issue, the text is below:

Q - In an interview with the Huffington Post, you mention that you ‘believe less than many of [your] peers in the transformative power of poetry.’ Is that a reiteration of Auden’s idea that ‘if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted nor a bar of music composed, the history of man would be materially unchanged’? Is poetry of any importance?

A - I think this notion centres around two ideas; the first is a recognition that while poetry is a profound resource for engaging with the remarkable fact of our existence, and moreover our extraordinary ability to utilise language, it is not a matter of matter. It does not, and should not, ever be considered before our own sense of personal responsibility or ethical engagement in the world. It does not matter next to death, to injustice, to love, and while this may seem obvious (or not), there is much value in it being directly stated rather than implicit acknowledgement. The second thing is that when a poet states poetry is useless, or indefensible, as Hans Arp proclaimed, when one is affirming poetry in the most comprehensive way by being a poet, what is happening is an attempt to affirm an ethical selflessness, a refusal of solipsism, by engaging in a paradox. It is a poet’s way of saying poetry is private, it is for I, and if the reader chooses to engage with that poetry, that is beautiful, but it is never a relationship of entitlement – it is never the poet’s place to say his work is profound, it is never the poet’s place to say it is for the benefit of all. It is a reiteration of the private sphere, poetry as an act that, at its core, involves only one. I would suggest all ethical acts occur in this sphere, that they are constituted by a relationship one has with oneself, one made without witnesses. And I would further suggest the root of all ethics are subsumed in paradoxes, clearly in the Judaic tradition perhaps than our own post-Christian understanding of ethics. This is why I personally choose to write, and read so often, because it makes me happy, yes, because it improves my understanding, and thus my sense of humility, and thus makes me treat people better, with empathy and consideration, but fundamentally because all this happens alone, without any recourse to ambition in its being witnessed and at the expense of the question, is this worthwhile? So I think the reason some poets like Auden and Arp decry poetry somewhat is to emphasise the private nature of poetry and the paradox at its root. And this refutes the proselytising post-Christian, post-romantic mystical theory that surrounds the notion of poetry even now, throughout our education system. This notion that poetry in and of itself is improving and beneficial is absurd, and arrogant. A legacy of victorian educational theory and colonial asininity that alienates children from poetry. Fundamentally, poetry does not improve one by the mere act of its encounter or its objective content. It only offers something to the individual who makes the private and personal decision to engage with it, to make a sacrifice to it, to remove themselves from the public sphere of learning and into the private sphere of knowledge and creativity.

Q - Staying with the Huffington Post interview for one more question, you mention the ‘factionalism’ of the current British poetry scene. How would you characterise those competing factions? Would you say that the emerging generation is more eclectic, more capable of transcending the barriers between mediums and styles?

A - Perhaps it’s better to answer this question by speaking about how I believe the major factionalism of the recent past seems to be changing, and how I firmly believe the dualistic landscape of British poetry is not, and will not, be so categorical in its divisions in the future. Of course, there will always be factions in poetry, and there will always be those who define themselves as independent not because of a method or a strongly held belief but just because they gain status they otherwise would not have. And I must stress the true avant-garde, as I see it, has nothing to do with opposing a ‘mainstream.’ That would be a blindfolded exercise. The avant-garde is defined by its commitment to the new, the original, to philosophically important ideas and engagements, and these need not oppress or combat, inherently, the ideas of others. There will always be those who try to ignore what is new, and push it aside because they perceive it as a threat. Just as there are those who don’t even know such innovative works exists! If the focus is on the work, there is much ground to be found between these unnamed factions, which I leave unnamed for good reason.

I come from an avant-garde tradition, both in my work, my education, my reading and my peers. Some within that fraternity have tried to continue the lame legacy of binary opposites between formal and experimental, mainstream and avantgarde, by passing on their grievances (perhaps valid ones) to our generation. They warned me of the exclusion I would face before ‘maintream’ poetry. It’s a myth. For one of the first Maintenant events I invited poets like Sam Riviere and Jack Underwood to read alongside avant gardists like Holly Pester and Eirikur Orn Norddahl. Not only were poets associated with the mainstream because of the Faber young poets pamphlets extremely well versed in experimental work they were extremely receptive to avant garde poets. Concerns are shared between these battlelines, and I find there is much more that binds these traditions than divides them, in the work anyway. Difference does not mean dislike. If I was a musician, could I appreciate styles other than the one I play? Of course, why is not so with poetry? I think that a global reading taste has for the first time, thrown up ubiquitous points of reference that at some point bind everyone even if they are not direct influences – Joyce, Beckett, O’Hara, Ginsberg, Bukowski...Moreover there is a sure sense that many contemporary poets refuse the model of the disengaged lackadaisical writer and are organising, making their own events, publishing houses, and criticism, which reflects this wider sense of what poetry can be. I am very proud to be part of a peer group that is thus engaged, with people like Tom Chivers, Nathan Jones, Alec Newman, Chris McCabe, James Byrne, Sasha Dugdale, Ryan Van Winkle, Nathan Hamilton, Linus Slug, Alex Davies, Steve Willey, Sophie Mayer and many others. They all write and instigate, they are refusing to allow the future to be dictated from the outside. This is so important in my opinion.

Q - As the founder of Maintenant, the UK editor of Lyrikline and the interviewer for this summer’s Poetry Parnassus, you’ve established yourself as perhaps the most internationally-minded of all contemporary British poets. Where did that interest in poetry from other cultures and other languages originate? Do you support the idea that the poetic ‘mainstream’ is prone to insularity?

A - It’s clearly very important for me to engage with poets from beyond the UK, and this is because my interests are not confined to my own nation, and I would suggest, nor should they be. I am a human being and share that fact beyond citizenship, with other human beings, and I would always hope that my writing and my interests reflect an open, reflexive, inclusive notion of humanity. I have been distinctly influenced by global poetic traditions, I read as much as I can from whatever sources I can and allow that work to permeate throughout my own writings. It might be that this began from travelling, but I hope not, I hope it is just an approach to other human beings which has been channelled through this specific interest at this specific time.

Whether mainstream poets are prone to insularity is very difficult to say, primarily because I wouldn’t quite know who to call mainstream. Without that definition I am on rather shaky ground to make any criticisms. I would suggest perhaps that there will always be people who are prone to insularity in any cross section of society because they are essentially fearful and conservative, and thus insecure. It strikes me that few British poets are keen to have their work translated, and that’s certainly a difference between some of the more innovative poets I know, who, like myself, are active is sourcing foreign language versions of their own work.

Q - Does parochialism preclude a writer from being a major poet? Should Larkin’s contempt of all things ‘abroad’ be regarded as a significant weakness?

A- I’m hardly a Larkin scholar, so I have to venture forward with some caution, but essentially my answer is no, a poet can still be great if they are parochial within a given historical context, but in this case yes, I don’t consider Larkin to be a major poet because his parochialism is often specifically actualised within his poetry and the historical context of his writing and its intrinsic links to his views are in no way justifiable.  Undoubtedly there is much to be taken from his work and there are moments of profundity amidst his writing, but to me, just in my opinion, he is primarily a poet interested in making smug observations about the middle class, flirting with the banal as much as the insightful. It’s not his fault that his poetry has become the defining, somewhat oppressive, style of the day, and his conscious influence has borne a thousand bastard sons, imitators of lesser poet, that continue to exercise their primacy over the current poetical landscape. Just to me perhaps, but it is a surprise his racism and the occasionally fey, bitter whimsy, given over through the litany of writers who have aped him, has not even proven decisive in lessening his influence on every classroom and conspicuous coffee table. I do recognise the reason for people’s love of his work, and do admire elements of his oeuvre, but his presence also blotted out so many other writers who were far more brilliant in their understanding of the world around them through the medium of poetry.

I would suggest that retrospective historical judgement of a poet by modern ethical standards should not impede our appreciation of their work, unless it is implicit in that work to a degree that cannot be separated. But realistically, of course, it affects our understanding of that work in question. If Pound suffers in retrospect, if Hamsun suffers, if D’Annunzio suffers, why is TS Eliot’s anti-semitism not so prevalent in discussions of his work?  And why is Larkin’s racism oft ignored? The letters published in 93 contain some repulsive passages that can’t be excused. We have a responsibility to take poetry in its honest context and not to sweep inconvenient truths under the rug. And Larkin’s racism and right wing leanings and misogyny were part of a general snobbery against translated poetry, poetry from cultures other than his own, that defined a formalism which sought not only to be dominant but to occlude others. This is the real crime to me, as a British poet, that a wholly unnecessary dualism was fashioned out of this conservative enclave of post war ‘major’ poets, which alienated if not buried, the appreciation for the great British modernists of his era like Tom Raworth, Bill Griffiths, Lee Harwood, Anselm Hollo, Alex Trocchi. When you hold Larkin up to those considered the major figures of the European tradition of his time - Brecht, Beckett, Amichai, Brodsky, Milosz, Sachs, Celan, Ekelof, Rozewicz - how does he stand? When he is held up against Ginsberg, O’Hara, Neruda, Paz, Seferis...? I could make a very long list. He wouldn’t be on it, and those who would from the UK, are not known by most.

Q - Do you agree that online magazines have transformed the poetry scene? It seems to be widely accepted that the Internet has democratised poetry, and encouraged experimentalism, but — looking solely at prize-winners and publishing lists at the bigger houses — you could be forgiven for thinking that old hierarchies remain firmly in place. Are we perhaps in the early stages of a long-term shift?

A - I’m not sure if that’s true, there certainly is a shift taking place, but it is not something unique to poetry. The internet changes the means by which we communicate, it opens boundaries at a speed never before possible, but I think it is possibly a misnomer to associate the prevalence of online poetry journals with a rise in experimentalism. We are less tolerant, as a poetic culture, of the new now than we were one hundred years ago. The internet is so democratic that it is almost endless, and thus, while it has the potential to fashion new modes of the poetic, and make dynamic new poets well known, is that really the case? Has any poet become well received because of their presence online? The potential may remain just that. I do think though that there is a change afoot, but that the presence of internet magazines is simply one part of a larger progression. The main reason for the change is probably because the status quo simply isn’t that popular with a new generation of poetry readers. I don’t know anyone of my age, who is interested in poetry, who buys up the latest book by the major prize winners they are already long familiar with. There is undoubtedly the climate for change, if we are active in making it happen and do so without sabre rattling. No doubt the online poetry community will play a part in that change.