Organising literary events is a creative practise unto itself. The field of live literature is central to my work, and I aim to break new ground and establish new potentialities for the act. I’ve organised over 250 events since 2011, with over 600 poets and artists, and I’ve been supported by 23 funding bodies including Arts Council England, Jerwood Charitable Foundation, British Council, Arts Council Wales, Creative Scotland, Conaculta, Creative Ireland & more, and been commissioned by numerous institutions including Wellcome Collection, Austrian Cultural Forum, The British Museum, working in over 20 countries around the world.
My project, Enemies, seeks to use collaboration as a means of building new global communities of writers and encouraging fundamentally new, and relevant, ways of writing. It also aims to overturn the historical mode of the poetry reading, which is rarely innovated. I have also worked to pioneer commission-based readings, innovative touring programs and have explored the wider arts field in curating multiple exhibitions and extended projects in the field of neuroscience and neuroaesthetics.
Since 2012 the Enemies project and it's many international variations, has pioneered poetry in collaboration - across the arts, across languages & nations, across form, style & content - a multifarious, multidisciplinary but essentially cogent program of events, exhibitions, tours & publications that provide the grounding to comprehensively explore the notion of collaboration in a contemporary, active, innovative realm of poetry.
Enemies emerged from The Maintenant series, which tried to explore how Britain could look outside its island mentality in literature, and I have also worked as an independent curator of events and exhibitions. These varied happenings range from Kakania, supported by the Austrian Cultural Forum, exploring Habsburg Vienna with contemporary London artists, to a World without Words, exploring neuroscience and aesthetics, supported by Arts Council England, to Howl, an event of new, contemporary poetry to celebrate the celebrate of the motion picture of the same name commissioned by Soda pictures, to Cabaret Hrabal, for the Czech Centre London, where I curated multiple artists and poets to write and perform new works in response to the great Czech avant gardist Bohumil Hrabal.
All in all I have had the privilege to run events consistently in venues across London but also in cities around the world, with hundreds of writers, poets and artists and as a curator, I have worked with major festivals like the Rest is Noise and Poetry Parnassus at the Southbank centre, as well as with major institutions like British Museum and the Arnolfini.
My events have become known for their innovative, energy and community. They are wholly orientated around originality and accessibility while maintaining a fundamental engagement with literary or avant garde sensibilities. They are a symbiotic part of my practise as a writer and artist.
“It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that SJ Fowler has charged the poetry scene in London (and elsewhere) with a fresh vitality. Since he entered the ring of writing, editing and, particularly, event-organising some years ago, the diverse factions that poetry habitually splinters into seem to have converged. The scene(s) have rightened that little bit. It's probably for his relentless curatorial efforts that he is known best - for Steven a worthy and totally alid way to grapple with poetry. The byproduct being that he has created fertile ground for those working under the umbrella of avant-garde and literary writing to begin conversing anew... Steven's nonlinear and outward-looking pproach offers a route out of the insularity typifying much of contemporary poetry, punching a hole through its preciousness. His commitment to collaborative practices is also a way out: out of the poetic ego - as he writes in his introduction to Enemies, "a testament to my refusing to be alone in the creative act." It's also a "record of friendships." Steven refuses to see writing as a way of separating himself from other people, whether these people are fellow artists or readers/audience.”
From an interview with Feliz Lucia Molina for the Huffington Post
FLM: I'm enamored by your relentless poetic activities in the UK. Can you talk about your well-balanced and holistic hats as a poet, editor, scholar, interviewer, curator, and whatever else you do that contributes to poetry making and doing in the UK?
SJ Fowler: I am active in London, organizing. Everything I've done has been focused around poetry, and readings, and what can be done to make them conceptually, and structurally, and I suppose theoretically or politically vibrant. It was clear to me that the typical model of a poetry reading, in the UK at least, is one that is suited to certain type of poetry, which is valid, but simply does not translate to the best possible experience for poets with experimental methods or an audience with an interest in the possibilities of what poetry can be when it is challenging and innovative. Events with a large volume of poets, collaborations, installations, DIY poetry fairs, quick reading times, cross-medium work -- all this has been vital to the growth of the Maintenant events.
The motivation behind my taking on so many projects has always been a source of uncertainty for me. I feel very much in two minds about what I've done and I've come to realize this reluctance (I began running events by accident and continued doing so at others' askance) is extremely important. It's becoming clearer with time that I do so many events and projects 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 the events themselves I try pursue the notion of a community, and bring together the vast number of brilliant writers working in this city who don't seem to know of each other, if not artistically, then communicatively. It seems trite to say I am trying to create a space that offers a synthesis of styles, or factions, because I never over-design this element of the events, but it seems to happen, and the events do create new relationships and a dialogue. Paulo Friere's notion of organization as the has become increasingly important to me, the idea that organization presents the antagonistic opposite of manipulation, that it is a natural development of unity, and ties in to the idea that my activities in promoting innovative, politically engaged poetry is founded on a central turn, a paradox of dismissiveness and legitimacy about the poetical act and the poetical group and the nature of poetry's power.
If we are to envision poetry in the service of social agency it should be more complex in its constitution than that which it serves to overthrow. In fact, perhaps it is just the concept of complexity over simplicity. I think that my involvement in the Occupy movement and the marches against government cuts in the UK and as a member of the trade union PCS and against the pope's visit to London was, and is, very much removed, but nonetheless palpable, because it is mediated with a reasonable sense of doubt. Not a crippling sense of doubt, but one that has made me active in what I do, and what I do not do. This sense of doubt should be innate, but my experience is that people involved in both sides of the divide -- the cynics and the true believers -- are both erroneously convinced of absolutes. In fact, to speak optimistically, I found the Occupy movement in St. Paul's to be peopled by primarily learned, reflexive and engaged writers and thinkers. That being said my involvement was minor indeed, so I may very well be wrong.
To maintain this sense of doubt from the outset is to acknowledge that poetry is very unlikely to change anything concrete in social terms. In a sense, to cut to the quick, to even expect this change is to begin to fail, to set oneself up for disappointment and cynicism beyond that. By accepting limitations and getting on with it, with doubt (and, it must be stressed, humour) activity continues and blooms, and draws in new minds and new energy. This is true of readings as it is of activism, and this is what I've tried to do, while not being embedded in these protests to the extreme physical lengths others are, I've taken the concepts to those who have often not heard them, and related them in a way so that they might be heard. But perhaps I am just retrospectively theorizing what has happened to me over the last three years over and again, which is a gentle, but forceful, questioning at almost every juncture of my activities. The answer has become stripped of such bloated aspirations as social change, legacy etc... and it has become about simpler things - stimulation of ideas, humour, energy, bringing people into one space and that is a joy, and more than enough, and so the events continue.