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 http://sabotagereviews.com/2015/03/10/its-all-one-enormous-blancmange-an-interview-with-s-j-fowler/ 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.

 

it remains sonic occultation - an interview with Will Alexander for 3am magazine

http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/interview-will-alexander/ Any lineage one might trace to the poetry of Will Alexander could only be made up of those who defied formal influences – originators – Will Alexander is firmly in the tradition of the pioneer. More than that, more than just being original, he is authentic. And more than just being a resonate, profound, distinct voice in American poetry over the late 20th and early 21st century, his poetics are so grand, exponential, luminous and visionary, that his singular voice, unmistakable as it is, is the all the more remarkable for its rootedness. No less than expanding beyond consciousness, beyond prosaic dimensions of language and understanding, his praxis is exploration – through art, physics, botany, history, astronomy, architecture, all becomes poetry, mulch for refraction through the poet, who is made up of the endlessness of language and experience. His is a poetry ever growing through the page, through the expectations of poet and reader and on into something else, which cannot be so easily defined or described, lest it not be poetry. To celebrate his visit to the Contemporary Poetics Research Centre, Birkbeck college, London, to share his work with European audiences, we present an interview with Will Alexander.

3:AM:A profound achievement of your work I think is to make an identity purely through your language and its content in flux, rather than the positing of your own authorial presence. Many achieve the occlusion of the authorial identity, but few are able to form something that takes its place through the sheerness of their work, through the language becoming its own identity. Is this an active process in your writing?

Will Alexander: To say it succinctly language is life and life being motion what follows is the intuitive understanding that creative language cannot be plotted by contiguous, or what I would call verbal architectural planning. For me it is suffused with explosive electrical motion, wayward, encyclopedic, seismic – alive by means of seeming disorder. Which does not allow for the controlling posture of “the author”, anchored as he or she is by extrinsic classification....

plus a poem, original to 3am magazine, a Nexus of Phantoms http://www.3ammagazine.com/3am/anexusofphantomswillalexander/

Will Alexander reading at Birkbeck, London - Dec 2nd

Birkbeck Contemporary Poetics Research Centre is delighted to welcome Will Alexander. A rare chance to hear him read in London. Monday 2 December, Keynes Library, 43 Gordon Square, WC1, 7pm. All welcome.
 
Los Angeles poet Will Alexander works in multiple genres: the novel, essay, aphorism, play, philosophy, visual art, and music (as pianist). His influences range from poetic practitioners, such as Aimé Césaire, Bob Kaufman, Andre Breton, Antonin Artaud, and Philip Lamantia, to the encompassing paradigm of Sri Aurobindo’s Integral Yoga, and the Egyptian worldview as understood by Cheikh Anta Diop and R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz. His work explores the fields of art, physics, botany, history, astronomy, architecture, and poetics, amongst others. Alexander’s books include Kaleidoscopic Omniscience, Asia and Haiti, The Sri Lankan Loxodrome, Compression and Purity, Sunrise In Armageddon, Diary As Sin, Inside the Earthquake Palace, Towards The Primeval Lightning Field, and Mirach Speaks To His Grammatical Transparents. His collected essays, Singing in Magnetic Hoofbeat (Essay Press, 2013) received an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. 
 
 

Will Rowe anthology by Veer books

To celebrate the reading which celebrates the career of Will Rowe on the eve of his retirement from Birkbeck college and the Contemporary Poetics Research Centre, Veer books, of which Will is one of the founders, have published a remarkable anthology of original work dedicated to Will and his achievements. The poets include Bruce Andrews, Allen Fisher, Peter Jaeger, Alan Halsey, Geraldine Monk, Sean Bonney, Maggie O'Sullivan, and many others, and my work, written specifically for Will, found, pictured, below. Go here and email them and buy a copy! http://www.veerbooks.com/

Will Rowe - the pre-eminent British Vanguard critic of the latter 20th century

I have the great privilege of being associated with Will Rowe in a number of ways. He edited my book Fights for Veer, he was pivotal in my early involvement with the Writers forum and he is my doctoral supervisor. I am perhaps biased when calling him the most considerable scholar of the avant garde in this country of the last half century, eye to eye with Eric Mottram. As Stephen Watts said so eloquently at this event, held for Will's retirement, and absolutely packed to the rafters with admirers, friends, colleagues, well wishers and some of the best poets of his generation and the two or three following, Will is the consummate witness - never disturbing the integrity of his subjects, the great avant gardists of our time, but complimenting them, growing an understanding of their work and their selves, always alongside. Integrity is the word I would associate with Will, integrity and responsibility. Will's vast career is a testament to a life spent in pursuit of an ideal, and one which has been wholly successful. It is humbling to be before it, so very much aware my own piffling journey is just
beginning. This was a great evening. A day of talks were rounded off with a three hour reading session which featured some of the finest and warmest and most intense readings I've witnessed. Often I believe the London avant garde community has elements of stand offishness which can create unfortunately tapered atmospheres, but not on this day, so far away was that feeling of defence. This was all about celebration, about a genuine feeling of respect. Sean Bonney, Martin Bakero, Carol Watts were just a few whose variant styles and performances genuinely captivated everyone. It was delightful to see people come from around the globe to celebrate Will and his work, and all the more so that we could all share it in one place at one time, in an environment that truly represented his achievement.