What I've tried to do, with this play, is fulfil the dictum that a good work of art can only create the opposite effect of its intention - that is I set out to lie based on truth, so that the audience would feel truth based on lies. It was a generous process - ground up, collective, energetic, exciting. And I think, amidst the obvious density of the play, people to get the gist.
The experience of writing and directing Mayakovsky (for the Land of Scoundrels night of theatre, at Rich Mix Cultural Foundation, for the Revolution 17 season, which opened this past Friday June 9th) has been a privilege, especially to be commissioned to do so. And It has not yet worn off, the experience of having good actors perform words I’ve mangled, and there is something undoubtedly intoxicating about theatre, as a practise, way beyond poetry and something before performance. It is so fundamentally collaborative, reactive, uncontrollable, inaccurate … it’s entirely alive and human, and the smallest change or development or gesture – be it physical or linguistic or intellectual – can shift entire narratives of meaning. It is a playground in that sense, in begins in failure and needs trust. These are things I am attracted to.
This play is modernist in its dialogue, it uses poetry and found text and slight disjunctions, but has a more theatrical, playful, physical tone - its definitely the most accessible thing I've written for the stage.. It’s about death, a very certain kind of nostalgic, faux romantic death, the death of a poet, who like the martyr he became, might not have needed to actually exist to serve his purpose. I’m always sure of what kind of writing I want to do for theatre, I feel confident in my purpose, but every time I do notice some in the audience sag under the weight and intricacy of what I'm trying to do, I do feel conflicted, if not saddened. There's something not quite there yet, I've not yet written anything brilliant. I just find realism and exaggeration and melodrama so offputting, so frightening, that I suppose at times I must be overcompensating.
Petra Freimund, a very experienced dramaturg has been a great person to share a double bill with, her experience invaluable, and my old friend Thomas Duggan has produced the most incredible set. His work has made my play. It is a spectacular sight, fitting for any theatre in the world.
The actors have been amazing, all of them generous and insightful, all of them taking the characters to the point I imagined and often beyond. Really it’s one the very best experiences I’ve had with a group of actors – they have worked so hard, so mindfully, with a real energy and dedication. Simon Christian, Edie Deffebach, Rebecca Dunn, Alec Bennie. They all have engaged with my text with great respect and on the final night, which was the best of three very good performances, I felt a sure sense of comfort that the characters had reached past what might’ve been expected. That perhaps there was some moments of brilliance in this work, and it was thanks to them.
Overall a grand thing, these three days of performances, and the short time in preparation, no more than a few meetings really, in what has been a production of extremely limited resource. Perhaps it has been so resonant because of this fact. Everyone is in it because they wish to be.
Very pleased to be deep in rehearsals for my new play Mayakovsky, with Tickets: June 9th / 10th / 11th available now, to be on at the Rich Mix Theatre : 35-47 Bethnal Green Rd, London E1 6LA.
There's more information on the production here www.stevenjfowler.com/mayakovsky
And a wee blurb - a new play exploring the life and death of one of Russia's greatest poets. Mayakovsky was commissioned by Rich Mix Arts Centre as part of their centenary commemoration of the Russian Revolution, #Revolution17, in cahoots with the brilliant Dash Arts. Mayakovsky is part of a night of new theatre entitled Land of Scoundrels which features a unique sculptural set design by Thomas Duggan and new music by The Dirty Three.
A brilliant project by Dash Arts, to erect a moveable Dasha outside the British Library, something they've done a fair few times and for this occasion, as part of the #Revolution17 season, I had the chance to be Velimir Khlebnikov for an hour, talking about my peer Vladimir Mayakovsky, in the summer of 1917, between the revolution's Russia faced that year. A really remarkable setting and atmosphere, the playful dictum that we were all from one hundred years ago, experiencing the momentous events of 1917 was a lovely conceit, it lended itself perfectly to mixed tenses and humour. I followed a rendition of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, pictured below, and began my guided conversation with Josephine Burton with a reading of Mayakovsky, stomping about the dacha. We then settled in to a long and fruitful discussion about the poet and the period, much of my research for my upcoming play, Mayakovsky, also for the #Revolution17, stood me in good stead. As ever Dash Arts doing fascinating work.
Mayakovsky : a play - Tickets on Sale : Rich Mix Theatre - 35-47 Bethnal Green Rd, London E1 6LA
Tickets now on sale for Mayakovsky, a play commissioned as part of the Revolution 17 season, marking the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Mayakovsky is part of a night entitled Land of Scoundrels, which features new works of innovative and post-dramatic theatre, intertwined and overlapping across one evening, from the likes of Viennese theatremaker / director /dramaturg Petra Freimund and Belarus Free Theatre member and dramaturg Larry Lynch, amidst a stunning original set designed by material engineer and artist Thomas Duggan.
I'm to write a new short play, called Mayakovsky, as part of a night of theatre at Rich Mix, commissioned for their Revolution 17 season, on the centenary of the Russian Revolution. It will be staged with an amazing set design by Thomas Duggan, who has designed for Vesterport's theatre's Faust recently amongst other things, and placed alongside new works by Austrian playwright Petra Freimund and Larry Lynch, who often works for the Belarus Free Theatre. We began our production proper this week and already the project is inspiring, I'm learning immensely from the experience of these three deeply intelligent people. Actors will be cast soon, a score written, and then we'll build to June 9th 10th 11th, which will be intense. www.stevenjfowler.com/mayakovsky
A nice little chat with the Rich Mix folk, chatting about some of the new plans I've got with the amazing arts institution coming this 2017! https://www.richmix.org.uk/blog/rich-mix-access-all-areas-sj-fowler
SJ Fowler is a poet and artist whose accomplishments could outweigh those of most artists double his age. His work has been translated into 21 languages; he has been commissioned to create work for BBC3 Radio, Somerset House and The British Council, and has taught at Kingston University, Tate Modern and The Poetry School, but name but a few. With so many events lined up for 2017 at Rich Mix, we felt it was only right we caught up with him to find out more about the man himself and his work.
In your own words…who are you, and how would you describe you work?
I’m a writer and artist. I’m interested in what I take to be the truly contemporary, that is often called experimental, and I’m an associate artist of Rich Mix, having performed and curated events here since 2010. It has been my home in many ways, I’ve had so many beautiful nights in Venue 2!
What’s your favourite part of working at Rich Mix?
Maybe the staff. Sounds trite but I’ve performed or put on well over 300 events, worked with a lot of venues and very few can match the level of personal investment, hospitality and unpretentious industry of people working at Rich Mix. I’m always treated with such gentle respect, nothing is too much.
What was your favourite song of 2016?
I didn’t expect that question. I think it came out at the end of 2015, but maybe John Grant – Black Blizzard. I don’t have one really.
What was your favourite film of 2016?
Again I don’t tend to have favourites but maybe, off the top of my head, I liked Embrace of the Serpent. Jungle Book was pretty great too, Fred the Pig and The Pangolin live long in my memory.
What was your highlight of 2016?
The most satisfying personally was the first English PEN Modern Literature Festival which I curated at Rich Mix on April 2nd 2016. I asked 30 writers to each write about a fellow writer, but one supported by English PEN, currently at risk in their own nations. English PEN are the writers’ charity and for such a long time I had wracked my brain as to how my skills could be of any use to their genuinely extraordinary work. This, in a tiny way, was such a magnificent day, so full of energy, reflection and heartfelt solidarity, that I felt sure, for perhaps one day, I wasn’t completely wasting my time. It was so good it’ll happen again on April 1st 2017, at Rich Mix.
What are you looking forward to in 2017?
Aside from the above, I’m happy to be presenting a new short play for Rich Mix’s centenary of the Russian Revolution program. It’ll be alongside 3 other playwrights, four mini-plays in one night, over three evenings in June. It’s about the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, a hero of mine. It’ll be very weird.
2017: Some new books / plays / courses / exhibitions / events for the first half of the year upcoming.
The Guide to Being Bear Aware : a new poetry collection published by Shearsman Books. Launched at York Literature Festival on March 29th, Kingston Writing School April 5th, Arnolfini in Bristol on April 6th and in London, at Swedenborg Hall in Bloomsbury, on April 11th www.stevenjfowler.com/bearaware
I fear my best work behind me : my debut art book - art brut portraiture, abstract illustration and handwritten poems, published by Stranger Press. May 2017. www.stevenjfowler.com/ifear
Subcritical Tests with Ailbhe Darcy - A full length collaborative collection of poetry and one of the first titles, and the very first poetry book, to be published by Gorse. Summer 2017. www.stevenjfowler.com/subcriticaltests
The Words Moving : poems on cinema - Limited edition poetry collection, each poem responding to a film, from The Devils to Angel Heart, from Salo to Jurassic Park, published by Pyramid Editions. Summer 2017 www.stevenjfowler.com/wordsmoving
Mayakovsky As part of Rich Mix’s programme exploring the centenary of the Russian Revolution, a new experimental play on Vladimir Mayakovsky. Performed alongside new works by playwrights Petra Freimund, Larry Lynch and others. www.stevenjfowler.com/mayakovsky
Inventing Rauschenberg at Tate Modern - Exploring the life and legacy of Robert Rauschenberg, with a course following his innovative and wide ranging practise connected to the exhibition ongoing. 20 Feb – 20 March - Monday evenings : 18.45–20.45, in the galleries at Tate Modern. Booking here.
Worm Wood with Tereza Stehlikova - A collaborative exhibition at Kensal Green Cemetery Dissenter’s Chapel and Gallery running 100 days from May to September 2017. Featuring new works of video, text art and installation, the exhibition will feature an event programme, including guided walks and workshops, exploring disappearing west London. www.stevenjfowler.com/wormwood
Visual Poetry at Museum of Futures : February 18th to March 5th. A group show of new visual and concrete poetry, text art and avant-garde sculpture, drawing in artists and poets from South West London for the exhibition in Surbiton. http://www.theenemiesproject.com/futures
North x North West Poetry Tour : Visiting six cities across January and February, this tour of collaborative 'Camarade' events will draw in dozens of poets from across the region, endemic of the resurgence of avant-garde and literary poetry in the north of England in the last decade plus. New collaborations between myself and Chris McCabe, Amy Cutler, Nathan Walker & more. Curated with Tom Jenks. Supported by Arts Council England. www.theenemiesproject.com/northwest
Fiender: Swedish Enemies - January 28th at Rich Mix: Free
20 poets present 10 brand new collaborations to celebrate the visit of some of Sweden's, and Europe's most interesting writers. A new collaboration with Aase Berg, alongside poets including Elis Burrau & Holly Corfield Carr, Kathryn Maris & Patrick Mackie, Annie Katchinska & Mark Waldron. Curated with Harry Man. Supported by Arts Council Sweden. www.theenemiesproject.com/fiender
University Camarade II - February 25th at Rich Mix: Free
The University Camarade asks pairs of creative writing students from different Universities in the UK to collaborate on short new works of poetry or text, for performance. The second event in the series features students from Kingston University, Oxford Brookes, York St John, Kent, Essex, York and Royal Holloway www.theenemiesproject.com/unicamarade
English PEN Modern Literature Festival - April 1st at Rich Mix : Free
30 contemporary UK-based writers present new works in tribute to writers at risk around the world. The festival continues English PEN's relationship with innovative contemporary literature over an extraordinary day. The 2017 festival will feature Denise Riley, Hannah Silva, Sandeep Parmar, Vahni Capildeo, Luke Kennard, Nathan Jones, Tony White, Matthew Welton, Elizabeth-Jane Burnett, Sasha Dugdale & many others. www.theenemiesproject.com/englishpen
Thanks for reading and happy new year, Steven.
Vladimir Mayakovsky, Volodya: Selected Works, edited by Rosy Patience Carrick (Enitharmon Press)
I’ve been reading Mayakovsky my whole poetry life, which isn’t that long, but he’s always been important to me, but this volume, well I suppose it did what it was supposed to do – crystallise, refocus, intensify appreciation. It blew me away. I read it cover to cover, twice over, and dipped further. I bought copies for friends who don’t read poetry. It’s artfully edited, beautifully produced, and just the man’s energy, his range, his deep innovation, it sings from the pages. Huge credit to Enitharmon, always a great list – just look to David Gascoyne, Lee Harwood, UA Fanthorpe etc.. – the last few years have been especially exciting times from the Bloomsbury based press.
Vahni Capildeo, Measures of Expatriation (Carcanet)
The significance of Vahni Capildeo’s book doing so amazingly well with prizes and critics is that it is deeply, resonantly complex, intellectual and innovative. It is multifaceted and challenging, insightful but never cloy. This is the modern poetry I have been moaning has not been receiving its due for years. It is a brilliant book, like her last book from Shearsman Books, and the one before that from Eggbox. Suddenly it caught alight in people. I will now shut up about prizes overlooking the actually contemporary / modern / avant-garde. For a few months. Credit to Carcanet too.
Stephen Emmerson, Family Portraits (If P Then Q)
Emmerson is criminally underrated, he should be seen as a major, pioneering figure of the British avant garde and his work from publisher If P Then Q furthers that reputation. It’s a gesture in a book, an austere refusal of the indulgent lyric.
Harry Man, Finders Keepers (Sidekick Books)
A true collaboration with the artist Sophie (which places it close to my heart from the off), this is poetry that is actually mindful of its engagement with ecological themes. As ever with Harry Man the poems are hard to pin down into one literary tradition, he is an original, never obtuse but neither overtly complex. It’s a beautiful book and a real achievement as a project.
Diane Williams, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine (CB Editions)
Charles Boyle Editions are a list I follow just on previous form (look to David Markson, JO Morgan, Will Eaves, Francis Ponge etc..) and I have to admit I hadn’t come across Diane Williams before I picked this up. Now I am in deep, her work is everything I look for, and this book really impacted my writing, it’s fiction but it’s poetry too, as I’d deem it – full of expert twists on banal detail, mishearing, disjunction and play. Sophisticated and really funny.
Jen Calleja, Serious Justice (Test Centre)
A great debut, another great book from Test Centre. Her poetry is a intricate, subtle, conversational fusion of Calleja’s expertise, without being reductive, which is punk music and the European high literary tradition. It’s original, vital, memorable, get it.
Tom Jenks, Sublunar (Oystercatcher Press)
Oystercatcher is one of those British presses poets know, and follow, their backlist is a resource and Sublunar from Tom Jenks is a 2016 highlight for me. Jenks is the most exciting conceptual poet I know, but his range is like his prolificism, to be admired. Still the rarified nonsense of publishing once every 7 years lingers around British poetry, just so romantic dinosaurs can insist on their genius as though their poems were faberge eggs made better by their scarcity. Jenks is doing the work to unpick this, publishing brilliantly and frequently. Get everything he’s done.
Luke Kennard, Cain (Penned in the Margins)
A wonderful book, beautiful to behold, dark in its way, witty too, of course, as Kennard’s work has long been lauded – he’s been a feature on the British poetry scene for a decade, massively to his credit traversing many different spaces and practises. This book is really so striking – conceptually clever, and gorgeously designed, as usual, from Penned in the Margins. It won a prize for design in fact. It should win for that which lies within the covers too.
Gabriele Tinti, Last Words (Skira)
Tinti’s book is a service – the project, to record and repatriate suicide notes, and one best received by poetry readers looking for insight often where it resides least, in the thoughts of those who think themselves professionally insightful. Tinti removes the barrier, it’s a difficult read because things are difficult.
Mark Waldron, Meanwhile, Trees (Bloodaxe Books)
Waldron is not underrated, as he’s properly well known, but I have this suspicion he is misunderstood, portrayed as casually, observationally misanthropic almost as though that’s token in a dayglow world of poetry about bees and mushrooms, written while the world burns. His work is intimidatingly poised, beautifully crafted, engaging, thoughtful, wears its intelligence in its technique, lightly and completely absorbing. A highlight from Bloodaxe this year.
I'm very lucky to be in poetry magazine this month and they ask the poets in the issue to provide a small writeup of a reading list (where everyone presents their fancypants list in the month they happen to be published). I am no different. I'm down there past ken chen and between calvin forbes and daisy fried. americans have good poetry names apparently.
Offering me the chance to write this has made me realize I barely finish books anymore. I read chunks and snippets of lots of things at once. I mostly read non-fiction but no one here wants to hear about that I’d imagine. With poetry and text I’d consider poetry I’m always sniffing around for things to nab, so that’s a very different kind of reading, often splicing and lifting, robbing the tombs of the dead and snaffling the aesthetic of contemporaries. It’s a great moment for British modern poetry (what others might call avant-garde), I think, and I’m deep in Tom Jenks’s Spruce (Blart Books) and The Tome of Commencement(Stranger Press), Vahni Capildeo’s Measures of Expatriation(Carcanet), Stephen Emmerson’s Family Portraits (If P Then Q), and Denise Riley’s Say Something Back (Picador).
Beyond the U.K., I tend to look to mainland Europe, and I’ve gotArchitectures of Chance by Christodoulos Makris (Wurm Press), Zuzana Husarova’s Liminal (Ars Poetica), and Max Höfler’s wies is is(Ritter) on the go.
I’ve also been at Enitharmon Press’s new selected Mayakovsky, entitledVolodya, edited by Rosy Patience Carrick. It’s extraordinary, and has led me back to a load of Russians I’d been given years ago, Fyodor Sologub’s The Little Demon, A Novel Without Lies by Anatoly Mariengof—a memoir about Sergei Esenin and how loopy he was,Leonid Andreyev’s The Red Laugh, poems by Gumilyov, Khlebnikov, I’ve been trying to pick up threads all over.
I’m also putting final touches to a book of asemic poems and artworks due out next year and that’s thrown me back into Henri Michaux’s amazing Untitled Passages (Merrell), as well as Christian Dotremont, Constant and Asger Jorn, supreme poets all, huge for me anyway, all were in the CoBrA group. That’ll do. Thanks for asking."