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Poetry in the UK Through SJ Fowler

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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.

FLM: What's the climate of poetry in the UK including certain kinds of aesthetics, politics, groups, styles, etc. concerning or indirectly relevant to poetry in the UK?

SJ Fowler: A huge issue with UK poetry is factionalism. I think anyone who surrounds themselves with acolytes, whether it is their doing or not, no matter how socially engaged or artistically vital and their work may be, is, in some fundamental way, intellectually bankrupt. This urge to reject factions and social cliques is, on my part, from my 20 years practicing martial arts I think.

The world is full of martial arts masters who chop blocks of wood and teach from behind a green curtain. Whenever we are protecting our egos we become less than we need be, because as soon as a situation becomes live, becomes battle-tested as it were (here it is vital to remember avant garde is a military term) that which has not been really considered and modified through contrast, confrontation and difference becomes flaccid and useless, and falls away.

We spend more time protecting ourselves than thinking through what it is we're doing. So it is with writing, with thinking through writing. To believe one style of writing, one approach, one turn of language is the right one, solely, at the expense of others, is myopic. It is our taste, and a taste which should be fluctuating, should be growing, and should allow for the great appreciation of others, and what their own learning and experience has brought them too. People are too precious about their ideas in poetry. They seem not be able to have flexible tastes, as they seem to in music, film and so forth. To follow a poetry mode, to proudly defend the ramparts of that mode as a cadre, patting your fellows on the back while not really reading other work and then denigrating it -- it is a corrosive, incestual practice.

I believe a poet should be somewhat constituted by the voraciousness of their reading habits and broad in the company they keep, to learn, to be challenged and to grow. And frankly, if someone is really reading what is being written at the moment, for there is so much good new poetry and prose and theory and philosophy etc., they shouldn't have so much time to fling shit at each other. Of course I'm not saying there shouldn't be a space for disagreement -- that is fundamental. But it is 'disagreement' that many hide behind in order to build their castles and hurl stones from behind their walls. So many ivory towers have been built on the rubble of other ivory towers. So often the most elite group of poets are constituted solely by those who share an interest in sneering at another 'elite' group of poets. It has become preposterous at times, and disagreements or debate have nothing to do with this, because there is no dialogue with the factionality in the UK.

How can anything in poetry, in culture, or in society, change without dialogue (without it being fascistic)? There are only, often toothless, divisions speaking to themselves, in a language only they understand, conceited in the pretense they are doing something important -- which they might be, but it isn't for them to say. Change is not a proud thing, nor a grand process -- it seems to me to be dirty, often as slow as sudden, and quite unpretentious, requiring mediation and conciliation. As in poetry, as in society.

I personally go a step further, and I'm not advocating this for anyone else, because I see the advantage of criticism, but I won't write reviews of work I don't like, not even on commission. I don't style myself a critic, not yet anyway -- I feel I haven't developed the faculties or the education, but just personally to spread bile, even if it is deserved or necessary, when there is so much good, exciting, inspiring work in existence which very few people seem to know about, seems to be perverse. To have to mull over that which I dislike, it is like responding to a fool's insult. Again this is another luxury I choose to exploit. And so often shit work is so palpably shit it critiques itself. Well, perhaps not. I initially agreed with Eugene Ionesco's pronouncement that 'criticism is valuable only in so far as it is a battle. Criticism when it is calm, serious and self assured is neither useful or important.' As time has passed, and I read criticism avidly, the more I realize that his notion of 'battle' is a grand term, and this is not the kind of battle that predominates current criticism in London; it is of the smaller, measlier variety.

The fundamental realization for me was that there are many poets whose practice is, and was, so wide and so fluid that such myopia is unnecessary. It is happening more and more in our generation, in London anyhow, poets are writing across mediums, collaborating and showing different methods and styles. Those who laid down the road map for this change, their work evolved, it changed as they changed. This seems immensely desirable to me. I am often shocked that the opposite seems to be de rigeur. Poet's work barely changes over three or four decades and their themes become narrower and narrower, their language too. That I find extremely disconcerting, especially when I turn over and again to poets like (and I could name a thousand names) Tom Raworth, Henri Michaux, Jack Spicer, Yannos Ritsos, Mario de Andrade, Pablo Neruda, Velimir Khlebnikov etc. ... and find so much depth and such superb shifts in tone, style and register, and this, in a wholly subjective way, becomes a huge influence -- the perceived narrative of change in their work, the transmutations, the evolutions. This excites me, and undoubtedly influences much of what I write and curate, and I believe, should shape the nature of the poetry community in the UK in the future.

FLM: Can you talk about your work with Maintenant series and the upcoming events at Poetry Parnassus in London?

SJ Fowler: My work with the Poetry Parnassus is an interesting topic to discuss. From the outset there have been many assuming because it is thematically tied to the London Olympics, that it is somehow ideologically connected to the games. This assumption is made I think because a project this size requires large sums of money and the collusion of supposedly 'mainstream' institutions and poets who are commercially successful (if this is not an oxymoron). This assumption is a fallacy.

I am not a proponent of the Olympics in London, and there is no need to write a thesis on why. It seems pretty evident the games are a product of capital; its excesses and its need to find use for itself at the cost of real people, and real experience. It is another example of simple concepts smothering the uncontainable complexity of real life. The Olympic machine spews pseudo-philosophies like the promotion of 'cultural diversity' etc.... but how, in the wake of the riots and the savage economic cutbacks and increased wealth disparity does a Roman circus with enormous stadia, a grotesque monstrosity of a shopping centre and elite athletes playing beach volleyball help grassroots communities and contrasting cultures integrate is never really explained. That the 9.3 or 11 billion pounds (depending on who you believe) that have been spent on this project could have been put to better use for Londoners is so overwhelmingly true is it physically arresting.

In the face of this pretense, I would suggest poetry does not eschew the complexity of real life, it increases it, albeit, as discussed previously, in a subjective and perhaps minor way. It requires something significant of those who would give to it, and it teaches them to do this in a mode that extends beyond poetry. More than that, it can speak directly of culture in a manner that is beyond didactics and mawkish biography -- the culture of the person, the writer, the witness are communicated to expose what seems like the deliberate ambiguity and misinformation that surrounds the language of the Olympics and similar projects. And if poets happen to come from a background of many or divergent cultures from that of the reader then it truly begins to enter into to what I assume is meant by the unnecessarily glib terminology of 'cultural diversity.'

The Parnassus has been conceived as a space to discuss, to exchange, to share ideas, and protests, from poets of 204 nations. It has been inherently designed to be representative of genuine opinion, not just bloated cultural terminology or anti-establishment fury -- it runs the gamut, exactly as it should. I've had the fortune to interview 100 of the poets attending on commission from the Southbank. So many are in exile, so many have dirtied their hands in real political struggle, they have risked their lives for change for their people and their country. Many have faced unmitigated violence for the very act of their writing poetry and the extent and vehemence of the values within that poetry. Is the cynical criticism of the Parnassus supposing that these poets are coming to London to pay lip service to Seb Coe and the great Olympic industry of comp tickets and corporate sponsorship? It's a convenient, if ugly, fiction. The Parnassus is arguably the best opportunity for global dialogue between poets for decades. All who attend will be free to speak their minds, and though many in attendance will be moderate, I can assure you that many more come from nations where oppression is not oblique but direct and violent and all encompassing, and where the capitalist machine that splurges out shiny golden eggs like the Olympics in the UK, squeezes real people into destitution and death.


SJ Fowler
is a British poet, theorist and activist working in the London poetry scene. He is a member of Contemporary Poetics Research Centre at Birkbeck college, University of London, and the founder of Maintenant. He is the poetry editor of 3am magazine, and the UK editor of Lyrikline and VLAK, and he curates the Camarade and the Covers projects. His work is concerned with poetry and ethics, and the avant garde poetry movements of contemporary Europe.

photo courtesy by SJ Fowler