an interview with Will Barrett at Sabotage reviews - a turning point

I decided in this interview to be more direct about my aesthetic opinions than I had ever done before. Why that is so is extremely complex. All I will say is this is result of years of considered thought, many missteps, much doubt and a constant desire to pressure test my ideas. I have finally reached the point that I believe firmly in these notions and that I can stand by them, they have been mettled. Of course revisions will come, but this seems the truth, as far as my opinion goes.

I have received a remarkable volume of heartfelt messages of support from people after the interview, and to those people I am exceedingly grateful. And I am grateful to Will too, and to Sabotage. And to everyone who has disagreed, and who has done so acknowledging, as I hope I have, that people are more than poetry.

The interview runs over 5000 words, so I won't post it all. In fact just the first question. It can be found in full Please do check it out.


WB I think for this interview we should stick mostly to your collection The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner, which came out last year on Eyewear. For anyone completely new to your work, and this book, what advice would you give them as readers? Let’s assume they’re not very familiar with 20th or 21st century poetry.

SJF Okay, so I’m going to hit you with a deluge. Do forgive me, please take it as me taking your questions seriously. The advice I can give is theoretical rather than contextual, in that if you have what is a traditional, or shall we say dominant, notion of what poetry is, my poetry won’t mean much to you.

There is a profound error made about what poetry is, that pre-dominates in the UK, and beyond, but definitely in the UK right now in 2015. Poetry is made of language, not of emotions. Its building blocks are letters and words and the often fractious relationships to the meanings we attribute to these materials. This is the starting point of any poem, any text. Moreover, the poem exists as a physical thing, first seen, then read. Its context and its appearance, has great power, alongside its meaning. Language is the material of conversation, and of thought (perhaps, somewhat), and poetry, unlike music, has to work within the material of its own consideration and concept. What I mean by this is that poetry uses the thing we use to conceive and express all things. Music, visual art, sculpture – they do not. That is, unfortunately, their advantage in our time.

Therefore, very simply, poetry is, to me, the thing we do that uses this language material for something other than conversation or declaration. How is it, then, that the majority of poetry, or what most people know poetry to be, is essentially a conversation with oneself? Most poetry is first person ‘I’, narrative, subjective, descriptive, anecdotal and sentimental. It enforces a singular, limited notion of self-hood (one authorial voice) and employs language for its everyday function. It conceives emotional expressiveness, or ‘insight’, as the last moment of poetry, the crowning moment. Whereas, in reality, it is the first moment – an adolescent urge to express one’s feeling, one’s emotions and experiences, directly, often quite literally. Assuming a myriad of things, perhaps worse of all, the assumption that is interesting to other people. It brooks no ambiguity of meaning in its content, and it mistakes realism, or descriptive narrative (with occasional adjective flourish or familiar metaphor) for reality. It emphasises the romantic notion that the poet has a god given gift, that they are inspired by a muse, an essentially theological aesthetics (the poet alone with their god). It is Calvinist, the lucky few are born chosen. Moreover is represents a bizarrely specific type of writing, one we have come to know as ‘poetic’, one that is of a very certain time, and world of language, and that is now, horrifically retrograde.

For me, poetry is about the human animal in wonderment about the very possibility of language at all. It should be about refracting and reflecting and mulching the endless and idiosyncratic world of language, its materials, its meaning and the expression of that which surround us all differently. The poet’s ‘gift’ is the skill, attention and uniqueness of this refraction. This then is a poetry that reflects our world. It is one that keeps pace. It allows for a poetry that takes in data, algorithms, the changing nature of speech, the changes in our very cognition due to technology and so on. It is a poetry that allows us to be the multiple people we are, from our varying moods, to our varying languages, to our feelings in and out, and at the edges of expression. It does not hoot the same horn for forty years. And it is a poetry where the meaning is not closed. The reader should complete a poem with their world of meaning and language and understanding. The poet confronts the material of all conception and displaces and displays it for others to understand.

This is probably reads as shrill, but it is not a myth. If the situation we have in poetry was applied to other artistic fields it would be as though painters in 2015 could really only be known for painting pastoral landscapes, or contemporary composers could only write melodies in order to gain widespread acclaim. Of course they could toil away in obscurity, trying to respond to the actual world around them and not the romantic tradition hundreds of years deep, but we’d call them ‘experimental’, and gently shift them to the margins. This first-person anecdotal mode of poetry is the absolutely dominant in prizes and festivals in the UK. The fact is, there are thousands of poets in this country and around the world that have reacted to the same stimulus as those in the art world, the developments of thought, and of life, in the post-war era. They are just not known. They certainly have not been lauded or recognised here.

This comes down to a few simple factors, and this is the best way to introduce my work, through its aspiration. Rich aesthetic experience, be it poetry, music, art – requires attention. It requires context, theory and concentration to engage with it, to appreciate it, to develop a taste for it. It requires investment. A Rothko takes time to understand, to reflect itself back onto you, to represent the majesty of the non-literal – the moods that escape description in conversational language. A Schoenberg piece requires multiple listens, to attune oneself to the layering, the brilliance that sits in between the complex sounds that lie outside of our ordinary ear. Why is a poem expected to offer gratification immediately? I am attracted to that which requires me to work toward understanding, and that requires me to grow in perception. How have we come to value reduction? To mistake a flowery speech or an anecdote broken into lines as a poem?

To my eyes, most poems are bad speeches, and this is where spoken word sits even further beyond what I take poetry to be. It is most often a speech, given in exhortation, performed in a contrived rhythm. It allows for no misunderstanding of meaning, brooks no ideological inquiry and tells its readers or listeners what they already know, and by and large agree with. It takes for granted that language has situated, static meanings and it mistakes speech without rigour for poetry, and couches this in affectation. If I asked what differentiates a dominant/traditional or spoken word poem from a sentimental anecdote or a banal political speech you could perhaps point to the former being in lines and the latter being a block of words. There is no difference, generally speaking, otherwise.

And before you think this is just aesthetic malingering, all of this is underpinned by a fundamental, ethical choice about how we see existence. When confronted with the unknowable, adversarial, immensity of life – just take mortality itself, that everything is permeated on our absolute certainty of aging towards expiry – you can either admit your limitations and be grateful for life itself, a life lived in confusion, or you can try and make up an answer to all, and pretend you have control. The traditional, dominant mode of poetry is founded upon the notion that the poet can control language to represent the profound experiences of life. In so doing they employ means which are less than the things they wish to represent. In anecdotes, observation and conversation, and with sentiment, they reduce the world onto their pages. They transfuse life. Faced with overwhelming complexity, the response is assuredness. This is disingenuous at best, ignorant at worst. The contemporary, or what is called experimental poet, is making what is immensely complex in existence equally complex in language. This is what my work is about.