Interview for the European Poetry Forum project

Led by Ars Poetica curators out of Bratislava, Martin Solotruk and Zuzana Husarova, the European Poetry Forum is a really admirable new resource of critical discussion and interviews. The questions to the many respondents are uniform, which is quite revealing to the essential view of poetry of those answering, who include some great figures in contemporary poetry like Jorg Piringer, Heike Feidler, Jan Wagner, Andras Gerevich, Jeff Hilson, Ian Davidson. You can read the project's mission statement here and my interview is here or belooow:
1. Poetry, a little alien? Why care about it?
The asking of the question is the important moment. The why of poetry is the ethical moment, to actually lay into the body of the thing, to see its worth before you, and to understand that it must always be amorphous and subjective. This is the vital realisation, in my opinion, we cannot ever draw wider conclusions about the value of poetry, this is not objective ground. It’s becoming clearer with time that I am active in writing and curating and organising in poetry precisely because, at heart, I believe less than many of my peers in the transformative power of poetry. That isn’t to say I believe poetry isn’t transformative at all, of course I do ascribe it such potential (to me personally, naturally, it is utterly and immensely transformative), but I refuse it the power to go beyond my own personal subjectivity.
I refuse the idea that poetry is improving in and of itself. There is a tension here, maybe even a paradox. I have both feelings at once, that poetry is both nothing and everything. Yet I do believe, somehow, without articulation, in the Brodskyite notion of poetry being the most important art form because of its relationship to the profundity of language, because of its engagement with what fundamentally constitutes all other creativity and discussion. It is impossible for me to escape the feeling that this relationship is wholly individuated, and so at the very same moment — poetry is nothing, a game for the initiated, the distraction of a select.
My poetry, academic research, and my efforts in organizing events are about stripping away a glib assumption that poetry is profound. I suppose to get to the private profundity, which I do believe is utterly closed and personal. My activities are about not overvaluing poetry because poetry is nothing next to people, to health, to life — it is a component of a well-lived life, for me — a component of humility — but only alongside, or below, a mindful and constant engagement with emotional erudition — love, courtesy, care and respect for other people in the most immediate, difficult and practical circumstances. What is poetry next to that? A luxury, and thus we should celebrate it for that, as often as we can, because we are lucky to have the facility to even consider it. I am at pains to stress too that I’m speaking only for my personal experience in my place, in my time. This not supposed as a general rule; that is precisely the point I am trying to make.
In my writing, in my organising, I try to always focus on a notion of process. Is the process making me feel satisfied / joyful / contented? If it is, the result will follow without overanalysis and I will know, always, why I care to spend my time thusly.
2. Who are (is) you as a poet?
I hope to never be still enough to know. I’ve published prolifically in order to not be known for one book, one effort, one form or style. Every book I’ve written has been subject led, not collected as a series of independent poetic bodies. I write to task, write quickly, in volume. This means, by and large, no one knows me for the same body of work. With my performances, experiments, collaborations and many other distinct facets of my practise, each new person who encounters me has an individualised, incorrect notion of my output, and this is what I seek.
3. What kind of literary tradition, particular authors or modes of literary thinking have you found inspirational for your work?
The avant garde, the vanguard, the experimental, the innovative. It is not a mode, not a stance, not a philosophy of theory, to break ground, to renew, recreate, innovative. It is a necessity. To keep pace with your own world you must rip from the past but always be at service to the future, otherwise you are simply an echo. We are all echoes in this way, of course, but to pay homage to those who ripped up the floorboards in language and begun again, if one is really listening, is to want to do the same for your own time. I feel my experimentation is a conviction, without it, I wouldn’t write at all. I don’t even real feel I am experimental. So many have influenced me, it’s impossible to cover it – British modernism, the British poetry revival, Dada, Surrealism, Oulipo, Nouveau Roman, CoBrA, Gruppe 47, Austrian postwar modernism, Absurdism, performance arts… I read as much as I can and everything I can.
4. Please give several examples of contemporary European or international poets that you believe are most significant (in any possible sense) and comment briefly on their merit.
Too many to list, but perhaps Tadeusz Rozewicz, for actually responding to the unfathomable experience of WWII in a form that somehow recounts it. Tom Raworth, for reinventing the speed and urgency needed in the English language in the 20th century. Tomaz Salamun, for showing experimentation in language is a graceful, dignified, necessary position. Eirikur Orn Norddahl for reigniting the possibilities of sound in poetry through a pure authenticity to his culture. There are too many for me to name, European poetry is why I am writing poetry.
5. If asked about transnational influences in today’s international or European poetry, what examples would most readily account for?
Depends what you mean by influences, whether individuals or ideas or social realities. I think change is what binds us together, its beauty and its difficulty. The world has increased in pace and knowledge and connectivity exponentially over the last century. This is often hidden in its admission, through buzzwords and certain technological misnomers. But it is happening, and it is providing us with a common ground. Moreover, we live in an era dominated by capitalism, and it’s social products, the brutality and dehumanising competitive materialism that pervades most societies when capitalism isn’t balanced by socialism. We all need to face these structures with our language, to insist upon a humanity against them, in poetry, for the human experience of the artform. What influences this generation, or the next, is the ever changing paradigm of their lives and the world they live in, and its language.
6. In all likelihood, some of the innovative patterns in contemporary poetics have not yet reached the acknowledgment of either the national or international literary canon. Can you provide some examples of specific authors or poetics that you believe are still undeservedly flying below the radar screen of broader critical community? What makes these patterns innovative and makes them supersede established modes of writing and/or reading?
I could write a list that would never end, I could go country to country and bring dozens and dozens of writers and artists who are poets, dynamic poets, to the fore, who have been unduly overlooked because of the complexity of their work. I mentioned Tom Raworth, he is one of an entire generation of English poets lost to many readers who deserved them, along with Allen Fisher, Bill Griffiths, Maggie O’Sullivan…
We could do a tour of contemporary Europe too, France (Fred Forte), Germany (Monika Rinck), Holland (Arnoud van Adrichem), Belgium (Lies van Gasse) Denmark (Morten Sondergaard), Sweden (Par Thorn), Norway (Jenny Hval), Finland (Pekko Kappi), Iceland (Eirikur Orn Norddahl), Poland (Grzegorz Wroblewski), Belarus (Volya Hapeyeva), Ukraine (Volodymyr Bilyk). I could go on and on…
Innovation in poetry does not supersede anything, it is the very thing, all poetry has been innovative, it all lasts but decades in the consciousness of writers, and then, naturally, a form comes to an end. We are witnessing the death of forms of writing as we speak, and what comes in its place is not better or worse, but a child, a sister to that previous form, and even that is a limited and truncated and naive way to describe the process. It is fluid, beyond analysis, held down only by the critical, analytical impulse of the last few hundred years of Western, Eurocentric academic culture, which is a bizarre anthropology at best. Poetry is language orientated around the infinitely complex experiences of individual humans on a planet of many billion humans – it is endlessly complex, and as Existence is complex, so poetry should be too. That is why this poetry is so necessary and powerful, and paradoxically, why it is also often ignored. People go to poetry to relax, and they shouldn’t bother, we have other artforms for that now. Poetry is growing, whether certain types of writers are with the growth or not, it is irrelevant, it is happening as it always has before.
7. Are there any influences or inspirations emanating from the poetries and poets from the former “communist countries” that you have been able to recognize as having an impact in the countries of “the West”? If yes, how would you describe this inspiration and the possible reasons for it receiving acclaim or resonance in certain artistic or social communities?
There is an obvious influence through American academia, which is continued even now through the brilliance of poets like Ilya Kaminsky and Eugene Ostashevsky. And the great migrations of the 20th century have indelibly fused Eastern European sensibilities to the American and so forth, if we can make such limited and blunt assumptions about an endlessly complex thing. And again, of course, there is a fetishising in the West, of poetry written against direct oppression, which is harmful to the pretensions of many Western poets, who are not under direct oppression. Like all things, if there is an influence, it isn’t always positive. It is based on a notion of inherent meaning, that poetry that was the voice of the repressed, that was the very vehicle of hope, of rebellion, in the most sophisticated of forms, that was against a totalitarian repressive government system needs no search to find its purpose. It is inherently imbued with a meaning that poetry in the West must search for. That is not to see that horrific injustice does not take place in the West, that needs speaking of in poetry, but that the fundamental roots of existence are not held together by that oppression. Therefore, often, poets in the West have tried to adopt the tone of that necessary poetry from the oppressed Eastern bloc, to lift its sincerity, and in so doing, in my opinion, made themselves all the more insincere in their reflection and whimsy.
8. How do you see the poet–reader relationship’s current state and its evolution in the contemporary cultural landscape? Please share any possible examples of that very relationship as being alienated, or, on the opposite side enlivened, re-energized, or newly franchised.
I can only know my own relationship with reading, and thus only make a generalisation that each relationship to poetry, from an individual, is just that, subjective and individualised, and a product of their ever changing experiences of literature. In the most facile sense, taking the question as a ‘book fair’ kind of question, my opinion is that nothing has changed with readers reading poetry, and all who say the relationship is alienated assume more people were reading poetry than actually were. Certainly in England, which is the only place I should speak of, there used to be a system in which the majority of the country were illiterate and oppressed and would never read a poem their whole lives, and so only an elite could engage with literature. Now when culture is a democracy and working class people also have a stake in the book market, and in poetry, of course there will be a massive rise in poetry that is accessible, or is ‘slam’ or mainstream wistful pap, or whatever other simplified version of the possibilities of the art happens to be around, making it seem like high art poetry is almost hidden. It always was in terms of volumes or readers or reception or appreciation. It’s just the world has changed around it. Thankfully, it has.
9. What kinds of fresh genres or types of poetry do you see emerging in today’s international landscape? Can you see any identifiable new kinds of “ars poetica”?
In an obvious sense, there is the emergence of poetries that respond to the specific newness of the ‘international landscape’ and its language. Wherever language generates itself into a new shape, new poetry is responsive to it. Otherwise I don’t believe enough in my own powers of perception to see such newness. Perhaps that’s because I hope I’m in the middle of it, and not on the outside, looking in, analysing.
10. Both the discourses of poetry and politics seem to carry an aspiration to win human hearts and minds, or even change lives. What examples do you see of fruitful interaction between political and poetic discourses and agenda?
I really hope my poetry doesn’t try to win hearts, there is at least three of four ethereal stages between a poem and its experience and a new vision of the world, new perspectives, which might change an individual’s life. I’m not sure there is fruitful interaction between political and poetical discourses in the modern age. I can’t speak of the past, I wasn’t alive. But now, politics is obviously about the lowest common denominator, about deceiving well, perhaps as a result of massive population booms and the fright of essential human nature in a world where everyone just assumes that sex, violence, greed and power shouldn’t be the predominate characteristic of our species (?). Whereas poetry is an art, a language art, probably. The two exist in separate realms in my world, and where they intercede it is perhaps antagonistic. I’m not sure I’d even go this far, or be able to locate an understanding of either which is concrete enough to do so. Certainly, there is some truth, to me, that poetry should be against formalised politics to be poetry in the same way any true philosophy has to be atheist.
11. How would you envisage an optimal cohabitation of the two “pos” (poetry & politics) that would be beneficial to your co-citizens?
I’m not sure any cohabitation is necessary, or beneficial, necessarily. Perhaps a poetry that resonates deeply with individuals who through that experience become more familiar with new ideas and experiences and languages and emotions, which allows them to expand somewhat in their understanding of not understanding much about existence, and how this isn’t possible anyway, which allows them to take on more humble, more balanced, less protective, vindictive, egocentric views of other people and society and the world and existence, which makes them act with more kindness and generosity and creativity?
12. What kinds of values and qualities do you think media poetry (sound poetry, visual poetry, kinetic poetry, digital poetry and poetic performance) can offer in comparison with poetry conceived of as a traditional written fixed text form? Please exemplify.
The values of originality, to a certain extent, because they are perhaps newer forms? Perhaps that in and of itself brings a whole set of pioneering qualities, a desire for change, for newness, adaptation? I don’t know though, as the written fixed text form is also an endless playground for newness. I would never counterpoise the two ideas. They are not separate. Each idea for a poem has its form, the ideas are kin.
13. How would you describe the difference between the kinds of creative inspiration that you may experience as generated by your imagination as opposed to the potence emanating from the appropriative process of handling meaningful contexts and patterns already existing?
I’d probably answer this question with a series of questions, mainly about how one understands the inspiration of the imagination, what that means and how it differentiates itself from things that are already existing? All I’d say is that to me, everything the poet generates comes from without, and not within. There is no within that was not built by the without. We represent our endless experience on the earth, all the language, emotion, sense of existence is filtered back in a tiny, pinpoint sliver in our poems. So imagination is built of that which is already existing, they collide, they are mutually dependent.
14. Would it be fair to say that we have witnessed a gradual shift in a broader understanding of the very notion of (creative) writing due to the rise of the media and programming?
I don’t think so really, it’s the same apparatus used by the media as was by previously literate societies. It just reaches more people because we have more people on the planet. I don’t know what people once thought of writing, and don’t know either, so hard to compare.
15. What kind of unique experience does media/experimental poetry mediate to you (your mind and body) that you would not be able to find otherwise?
Any poetry which is authentic to a subjective experience allows me further perspectives on my own experience, and therefore allows me to grow, and allows me to attempt to be a more creative, enterprising, and I hope, generous, human being. This applies to all poetry, no matter it’s constitution as experimental or otherwise. The reiteration of this distinction is not really useful. It is either a product of the experimental wanting to be exclusive or the traditional wanting to fetishise difference. Work that is complex or original or lies beyond banal conversational language or method or form represents experience and is authentic to a life that is complex or original or lies beyond banal everyday experience. Some perceive themselves as attracted to such complexity, some don’t.
Media allows for technological experimentation which was not previously possible, for example the notion of digital recording allows for perfect repetitions of sound and voice modulation, but to a certain extent the most obvious modes of use of these technologies arise when they are born and then become used up and passe. I’ve heard many sound performers decry the use of loop pedals for example, finding them a cheap trick, easily mastered. The technology which is exciting is the technology that is new, brand new, or allows for the mastery of multiple levels of sense perception, things that are very difficult to wield. They can present new levels of aesthetic experience not previously accessible.
16. What do you think poetry stands for today? Has the recent advancement in the natural sciences and humanities influenced our very understanding and possibilities of poetry?
I don’t know what it stands for, and I don’t believe anyone can know. We represent a tiny sliver of experience, a tiny enclave of knowledge, and cannot valuably generalise about what an entire, amorphous, ambiguous artform stands for or means. We are left with only adding to the complication of the picture, from our own miniature bulwark.
17. What makes a poem a poem? Has this apparently notorious question been in any sense reinvigorated or revisited in the wake of the rise of the global and globalized civilizational experience?
An answer can only be given if the question is qualified beyond the question. What is a poem? The impossibility of an answer is no different after any moment in history. The answer is the posing of the question as much as anything else, or the question remaining unanswered. A poem is made and called a poem, it communicates. Only now, perhaps, it has the potential to travel farther than before, but that is irrelevant to its being.