Keston Sutherland & John Tamplin:
Transcription of a conversation
in Princeton, U.S.A., 7th December 2015.
[The interview concludes with an account of a reading, which can be heard here: https://soundcloud.com/keston-sutherland/sinking-feeling-sections-1-and-2-plus-an-excerpt-from-the-proxy-inhumanity-of-forklifts]
Q: How did you start writing poetry? What was your relationship with the poet J. H. Prynne? Was he your mentor would you say?
A: I have a very intimate friendship with J.H. Prynne. I think the term ‘mentor’ really doesn’t do justice to the kind of generosity with which he nourishes the thinking and writing of those students who grow close to him at Cambridge. He would not give me any sort of direct instruction or feedback of the kind that might be accommodated in a creative writing classroom. He wouldn’t read my poems and point out faults with them or do any kind of informal workshopping with me. But he would give extraordinary, inexhaustibly generous encouragement to conceive poetry and the life of the poet as fateful, as a destiny, a necessity. He made it possible to feel and to believe that poetry really could be the most important thing I could do. It was startling to encounter that idiom and that power of conviction in the university environment.
For Prynne himself, and I think in his mind also for some other poets who might come along now and then, writing poetry is a kind of traumatic destiny that announces itself quite early on in life, almost a kind of inescapable bondage. He would, all the time, ask me deeply searching questions about my writing practice: what did it feel like, why was I doing it, what did it do to me to feel as though truth had been made to appear in poetic language, why did I think I had to do it, and I would ask him similar questions. And we would sometimes, at first gingerly, because of my embarrassment, talk about his work, about which he had been famously reticent for a very long time. I think this was really how our friendship first began to blossom. One night at a party I was unabashedly direct in asking him some questions about his poetry. From then on, occasionally we would talk about some of my poems, but more often we would have very long, ardent, intimate conversations about the nature of writing itself, what it was we were doing, what kind of truth might be at stake, what was the relation of this practice to history, to politics, to what was going on in the world.
Prynne is an extremely fierce, principled and adamant critic of capital and of western capitalist societies. For a time, much of our conversation was absorbed in discussion of the Iraq War, the consequences of that catastrophe, and earlier still, the war in Bosnia. Then the question of poetry would find its way into these conversations; and it didn’t feel as though we were making a great leap, but it felt as though what essentially had to be done by poets and in poetry was that we should somehow—with the genuine ambition of a John Milton—rise up as poets to confront these disasters. So: mentor, yes, of a kind, but certainly he wasn’t my tutor in any conventional sense. He has made me the gift over the years of a number of very instructive, generous, and powerfully insightful letters about my poetry, from which I’ve benefited indescribably and for which I’ll forever be grateful. I think Prynne always was, and still is, too generous, essentially too un-egotistical and essentially too youthful in his soul really to want to have the kind of relationship with another poet that would be top-down, or in which he would be the venerable instructor with a cluster of novices at his feet, open wide for edification. For us it was a friendship from the start, and from the start the friendship was invaluable to me. A friendship. It felt like we just walked straight out of the pages of Plato’s Symposium into the catastrophe of capital, and it still sometimes feels like that right now. We’re still and always will be very close.
I started writing poetry when I was sixteen, I think, and as I’m sure must be a very common experience, it happened when I fell in love and thought I had to express this otherwise inexpressible great explosion of desire and passion or else I would just disintegrate under the pressure. So I tried to put it into poems. I had very little formal instruction. I went to an impoverished state school where we never studied any poetry, not a word, and up to the age of sixteen I don’t think I actually had encountered any poetry. And then suddenly I had put into my hands a copy of Wordsworth’s Prelude, quite by chance. I remember staring at only the first page of it, fixated on those first lines, with no idea even how to construe the syntax. It was such an exotic object. Despite feeling in that moment almost completely impotent and paralytic in the face of language that made no sense to me, I remember I felt somehow intoxicated by the environment of meaning that I had stumbled into, or that for a second at least I had swerved through. I began to try to imitate it. That and Eliot. I’m sure Eliot is a very common first point of contact for a budding poet figuring out how to be aspiring—even just the cadences of ‘Prufrock’ and the poems of that earlier period of Eliot’s writing. I wanted to be able to reproduce what felt to me then like the magic of those cadences.
Q: Could you describe Prynne’s status in the world of British letters? I never encountered his work in my education. My experience in trying to find the most interesting recent and contemporary poetry was that I immediately came upon the Language poets. I have only recently learned that much of the reason for their virtual omnipresence is their own history of indefatigable self-promotion, of a kind which has (it seems to me) obscured the field of contemporary poetry. How does Prynne fit in?
A: It’s complicated, his reception history and his status in a series of different public worlds. In England, he is, in a broader public—maybe the 10,000 or however many people who might read the Times Literary Supplement—he’s an infamous figure, infamous for the difficulty of his work. You can’t avoid this word in the reception of his poetry. It’s forever being repeated that Prynne is difficult, or even impossibly difficult, for preference. This is the myth, the tag on this poet. Then there’s a narrower circle of people who read his work extremely ardently. We might want to make a distinction between Prynne and some other poets whose reputations are similarly well established and whose work may be just as widely circulated, but has not really been read with a great deal of passion. Prynne’s work has been for many decades, in the UK, the body of poetry that has arguably most deeply informed subsequent and lateral developments in any number of directions within English poetry. There are certainly poets in the UK who are better known than he is, because—and in the sense that—they have agents and careers and they are promoted and stuck in retail chain windows. But in terms of the sculpture and shaping and determination of the future direction of poetry at the far limits of its expressive capacities, there are not many poets who come close to Prynne. There are other poets of his generation who are in different ways just as important and are similarly beloved, but I think it is now broadly recognized—there is a growing consensus that Prynne has been the most influential poet of his generation.
Over here, I think that his work has just begun to infiltrate culture through a couple of cracks. The comparison with the Language poets might be an instructive one, because it might help us toward understanding something about the content of the work, as well as this kind of superstructure of promotion. One of my formative suspicions back when I was more negatively disposed toward Language poetry than I am today was that its theoretical lessons, which seemed to be the fixed pillars of its practice, were of a kind that could be consumed in comfort without danger of indigestion within the regulation two hour slot of a university seminar. They seemed to have a kind of spontaneous conformity with the pedagogical schedule. Prynne’s poetry—he has never written theory in quite the sense that they did—and his criticism, his critical writings—which are extraordinary and voluminous—always seemed to me to have been conceived and written in a spirit of defiance of just those kinds of pedagogical schedules. I did my Ph.D. on Prynne’s work, and when I first started teaching as a lecturer in 2004, I unthinkingly imagined that it would be the easiest thing for me to teach Prynne, because I knew Prynne in such great detail. Actually it turned out to be the most difficult thing I tried to do as a teacher. I could teach anything else—I could teach Language poetry, indeed—more easily than I could teach Prynne, I think because Prynne’s work has always been written in an intransigent spirit of opposition to own its potential reducibility to any kind of consumable, or simplified, determination. His work has neither been addressed to the Academy, nor has it enjoyed the kind of dissemination within the Academy, which sometimes seems to be virtually the only dissemination on offer to serious poets. If you’re not being read by university students, who are you being read by? Prynne’s work is spread in the context of the universities, but usually through deep and erratic channels, among small numbers of individuals who fall in love with it and can become sometimes nearly apostolic in their mission to proclaim the teaching. Indeed Prynne has been mocked for this reason, because of the ardour of his readers. It’s a phenomenon that has been observed sneeringly and from on high by a number of poets—at Oxford University, for example—who are comfortable with the little administered culture that securitizes the mainstream career. Prynne doesn’t have readers, it is alleged, he has acolytes, or votaries, or some other train of evangelical persons. There is a crumb of truth stuck to that sneer, insofar as people who read Prynne’s work with dedication often grow to love it with a virtually devotional intensity. But I suppose he’s never going to be the kind of poet who appears on university syllabi regularly, because his work is just not digestible within that kind of institutional frame, except in little snatches and glimpses. It requires, and I think it was consciously written to require, a lifelong—not a lifelong investment, but a lifelong engagement.
Q: Isn’t that what all great poetry requires? Isn’t all great poetry basically indigestible in the confines of the university? Shouldn’t the classroom situation serve as a spark for further and more authentic engagement?
A: Fundamentally I agree with you, but it presents a kind of irony—after all it’s my job, and more than my job. I’m ardently committed to teaching poetry and it makes me happy as nothing else does if I am able to think that I’ve done a good job as a teacher. So I think that something does happen in a classroom that is truly a substantial transmission. A substantial communication, a construction and examination of community, happens there. Yes, it’s a spark, as you say, it gets things going, but I think that particularly in the twentieth century with the widespread growth of the universities, the growth of the humanities, the growth of the recognition and then profitability of a certain kind of theoretical idiom, and also the gradual cultural displacement of some of the great modernist projects of writing by theoretical projects of writing... I mean, whereas in the 20’s and 30’s the names on the most animated lips would be writers like James Joyce, today in the universities, the names tend to be names like Zižek, Rancière, Badiou. There has been a kind of displacement of literature by theory, of the great poetic project by the great theoretical project. This means that the logic internal to cultural production itself is progressively adapted so that we are served up writing that from the beginning is somehow more pedagogically overdetermined or pedagogically oriented.
I bring this up because of your mention of Language poetry. It seems to me, from my personal engagement with that formation as a general whole, that its most influential contribution to poetical history may have been its theoretical account of how literary expression may be complicit with a culture of mass deception and what poets might do to try to obstruct or overturn or disrupt the proper functioning of that culture. The uses of structuralist/Marxist accounts of linguistics etc. propose a fantasy of what is to be done with signifiers to combat a certain pathology of capitalist relations—the poem as cultural clinic. Much of this is delivered, for better or worse, in ways that are actually pretty well adapted to assimilation within the space of a two-hour seminar.
It’s evident that I feel ambivalent about that, but I can see how people would feel very positive about it, because they’d think it’s actually a practical and effective sort of thinking about what pedagogy is. Who doesn’t want a kind of Marxism which is transmissible in a context like that, and isn’t it perverse of a figure like Prynne to be so intractable. I don’t think so, because what’s important to me as a teacher and a poet is the potential of the thinking and the substance of the thought and I don’t want any of that potential to be paralyzed for the sake of expediting the transmission.
Q: I find that I am able to profit from a reading of the essays of, say, Charles Bernstein, but that his poetry often fails to engage me. The reason is that I feel the poetry has somehow been made transparent by the theory (and I am fully aware of Bernstein’s explicit discomfort with the rigidity of these conventional generic distinctions, and his desire to unsettle them). This sort of transparency is epitomized for me in the work of Kenneth Goldsmith, who has even suggested that no one need read his work at all; all you need to do is “think” about the ideas brought up by the concept demonstrated by the work. It is a refined charlatanry, that provokes you by predicting just such an outraged reaction. It is extremely unsatisfactory.
A: I’d be curious to hear what he means by the verb “think”. With Kenny Goldsmith not only is the theoretical idea perfectly conformable with the schedule of a university seminar, but there’s probably an hour and 45 minutes left over for discussion at the end. As for the theoretical essays making the work transparent, I do think that’s a problem. I don’t think it’s necessary for poets to be great critics. I don’t think it’s essential that poets should have a good critical or theoretical account of their own practice. What does perhaps feel essential to me is that the poetry written by those poets should be powerful enough in some way or another to resist simply being captured by whatever theoretical account may be used to prop it up. Poetry should escape definition in terms imposed from outside its own interior development.
I think of poets like Veronica Forrest-Thomson, from earlier in the 20th century, whose theory is probably just as well known as her poetry, and who like the Language poets was very much interested in Saussurean linguistics and the French structuralism of the 50’s and 60’s. Her theory has been quite influential, and I think there are parts of it that are memorable and brilliant, but for me it doesn’t capture what happens in her poetry. If we had first read her poetry we might even say that her theory had been virtually made redundant by the poems it had been used to incubate, because at its best the poetry militates, pushes back against the theory. And I suppose that relationship of antagonism might be what I had looked for and missed in some of the Language poets. But here we’re talking very generally. There are works by some of those poets I admire greatly, Lyn Hejinian’s My Life for example, and also—I’m mortified to admit—I’ve become much less angry about this question than I used to be. The energy I used to get from being angry about poetic careers or theories I don’t believe in I now get from finding things to love. But then I am now a much more serious Marxist.
Q: They make me feel extremely conservative, and that makes me angry. I am annoyed by their critique of absorption in the aesthetic object. I think it’s naive to conflate the mode of my absorption in, say, Indiana Jones, and my absorption in certain poetry that has totally knocked me out and overpowered me. They might also object to my vocabulary of power or mastery in describing the experience; I don’t think we should be embarrassed if we swoon at something.
A: And there’s an argument at another level: How much of the uninterrupted smooth functioning of the capitalist economy are we ready to attribute to the fact that people are absorbed in Indiana Jones in the first place? I think there’s a kind of hyperbolic account of the toxicity of absorption in bad or stupefying culture in some of that thinking. I think it can be pretty directly traced back to Brecht, whose critique of absorption was pressing, urgent and vital. I don’t mean to cast doubt on the value of that inheritance. I hold with a great deal of it myself, sometimes, and I still want culture to be revitalizing, electrifying and to shock me awake, but I don’t think it can be pretended any longer that most people are simply sleepwalking through their lives and that we need to be slapped around with a more material signifier to achieve modes or levels of attention that would at last be revolutionary.
Q: What do you mean by “material”?
A: Well, for example, there’s an influential essay by Ron Silliman, where the emphasis is on the material practice of signification, where, in other words, a material signifier would not be transparent in the way in which, according to the argument, the signifiers of mainstream fiction are transparent, because they slide you into a fantasy.
Q: Because of the realism of mainstream fiction?
A: Not necessarily realism as a genre. The idea was that the signifier, the word on the page, should be made to obstruct rather than induce the corrupt transmission of the reader into a state of absorption and fantasy. This transmission should be prevented, we shouldn’t experience it. The role of a materialist poetry should be to stop its readers from getting there, and the material signifier would be what does that. So that in essence poetry is negative work whose basic form is the quod erat demonstrandum: you are sick and this is how.
One brief note about the word material. Evidently it was intended by the choice of this word to invoke and to suggest solidarity with historical materialism and thereby to assert the Marxist credentials of the position. I think actually that the decades-long preoccupation with the concept of materialism in the discussion of Marxism has in some ways been a distraction. Early in his life, Marx was determined to assert a materialism against what he called the ‘Critical Critical idealism’ of a specific group of philosophers and social critics, his friends the young Hegelians. But by the time you get to the mature critique of political economy begun in the notes now published as the Grundrisse and completed in Capital, the argument about materialism versus idealism is scarcely to be seen. Marx is no longer very interested in staging altercations between one philosophical position and another, the one unimpeachable and the other a so-called ideology pure and simple. In Capital he’s no longer arguing against Hegelians, he’s fighting factory owners, judges, and political economists who are the ‘sycophants of capital.’ Materialism is not actually all that important for Marx when it comes to the critique of capital and capitalist relations. It’s a surprising fact but the word ‘Materialismus’ [materialism] actually only appears once in Das Kapital, in a dilatory footnote on the Spinning Jenny. And it seems to me that the more overtly Marxist bits of Language Poetry’s critical project put a lot of chips on the square called materialism. Apparently it was very important to be able to assert Language writing as a materialist practice. But I’m not persuaded that they ever produced a coherent account of what material signification is, or what materialism means in that case, because depending on the attitude and the inclination of the head as you look at it, a page covered in language by Ron Silliman on the left hand side and covered in language by Dan Brown on the right hand side is absolutely material all over. I would rather read the Silliman side, but not because the materiality of its signifiers is a more effective obstacle to false consciousness.
Q: Do you mean that both pages are products of a functioning capitalist economy? That they are both material objects? Or that there are referents for their words that are material given a kind of representational word/object metaphysics? I know nothing about Marxism, and although I’ve absorbed a diluted idea of Marxism, I’m confused about the status of the term “material”. Does “materiality” have to do with complicity in a consumerist capitalist economy?
A: No. Material here is a term of valor. Material is the good. Material is what the heroes of Marxist culture are and do, according to the lights of this account. We need to do a bit of unpacking. Materialism is a type of philosophy. It’s not a cultural practice. We don’t mutate into ‘material’ when we go shopping, at least not in this sense. The idea that was adapted by the Language poets and their readers was that poets ought to be materialists in something like the philosophical sense espoused in Marx’s early writing, and what that would mean in cultural effect would be roughly a kind of revision and updating of a Brechtian recalcitrance pitted against the cognitive invasions of the capitalist spectacle. This comes back to your term absorption. If we retain for a moment the classical Marxist opposition between idealism and materialism, which in a moment we’ll need to question, then the opposition would line up in the following way: those people who just watch Indiana Jones or read trashy fiction or go to the cinema without focusing their attention on the materiality and constructedness of the spectacle would be like idealists in the philosophical sense, because they don’t see through the mechanisms of transparency themselves, they don’t peel the lid off of culture and stare into the reality underneath, they’re happy to be shipped away to fantasies, they’re happy to ignore the historical logic that underlies the superficial aspects of culture, they’re stuck in a kind of dream state—all those metaphors about sleep, which Brecht recycled but which go back of course all the way to St. Paul, Plato and beyond: the reader is asleep, the reader needs waking up. So a materialist poetic practice would be one that wakes people up, abolishes dream, forces contact with reality, including the reality of language which is at bottom the material signifier—a negative poetry in the sense that it aims to seize control of the means of illusion, to strip language bare.
One of its touchstones might be the Marxist thought that religion is the opiate of the masses. If culture is essentially stupefying, a kind of opiate, then the people who consume it need to have this opiate taken away, and poetry is their cold turkey. The end, responsibility or duty of poetry will be to insert between the stupefied reader and the dreamy reality a text of pure obstruction that blocks the transmission, so that nobody can float off, but everybody will at last be stuck with this thing that stares back at them and says, I am in your way, I am the material. I am in your way because really I am your way.
Q: This kind of radical disillusionment is extremely dissatisfying to me. They seem to substitute a form of negative, critical certainty about the world (through demystification or disillusionment) for a more positive, naive form of certainty (almost like superstition). But this position seems not to live up to the audacity of its own skepticism. There is no self-reflexive questioning or even acknowledgment of the smug certainty implicit in their criticism of the certainty of superseded models of thought. And what’s worse, there is an insidious self-satisfaction or narcissism in thinking you have all the answers. It’s a failure of negative capability.
A: You’ve hit on one point that’s crucial for me when you talk about reflexiveness. I would say, to be just a little more circumspect, that those poets should be honestly admired and commended for having involved Marxist critical theory in poetics in the 60’s and 70’s at a time when a great number of other poets were content to ponder the art in far cruder or more openly complicit, conservative and reactionary ways. So the fact that I might challenge their particular uses of Marxism, or that I might think that the concept of material signification is not coherent yet, I don’t mean that to be damning. The history of the interpretation of Marx is necessarily filled with variations on his categories, excursuses that go out of their way to stretch his meaning, fallings out and squeezings back in, for the obvious reason that it is interpretation. I’m sure my own interpretation of Marx is just as problematic, and certainly it has not been anything like so influential. When I was a student at Cambridge, I probably would have produced some largely pro forma version of this same argument against the Language poets with the proud intention of actually damning them; I wouldn’t do that now, not only because I know more about Marx, but also from humility and gratitude: I don’t know that the contribution that I’m making will, in 20 years’ time, seem any more coherent, and I am grateful to be made to think and read more. In any case, the poetry and theory of that moment was an important part of the current history of Marxist poetics. More important and valuable than the recent anti-Marxist conceptual poetry gimmick that pretends to have superseded it.
But what you say about reflection is very important. This idea, which I find schematic—and I do mean that in a pejorative sense—that simply by depriving people of what you identify as illusions, you will drive them into a state of alertness that will in and of itself drag them into contact with reality or make them understand politics better or be more enlightened in some way... there’s a kind of Kantian myth involved in this, that simply by preventing people from malingering in what Kant called their ‘self-incurred immaturity’, you will set them on the path of reason and enlightenment, or wake them up to the priorities of the world. This doesn’t seem to me to be a conception of the maturational process that bears very directly on the realities of the distribution of power. What we need is development, not maturation. Second, it’s simply not how subjectivity or consciousness really works: that once you put away childish things whose utility is to deceive you into happiness or which allow you to be absorbed or luxuriate in fantasies, suddenly you’re staring down the barrel of the world, with your social senses exposed at last. I think that self-consciousness is far more complicated than that. Together with Marx we need both Hegel and psychoanalysis.
Perhaps there wasn’t an account of self-consciousness in this theory about the material signifier. Self-consciousness is endlessly re-inventive. Self-consciousness fashions other refuges, finds ways, under the pressure of the unconscious and of the world, to produce transitional environments and edifices for itself whose status as fantasy is never quite secure—what seem like fantasies at one moment might not seem like they’re fantasies any longer the next, and of course the subject is perfectly capable of growing more hyperbolically inflated and vengeful and philistine in its self-protections precisely when it starts to operate under the illusion that it is not under any illusions any more. Poetry is more complicated than that model can capture. Poetry is intrinsically not reducible to reality in that way, not even to a test case of what we think we ought to know about reality once the spectacle is sucked out. Maybe one thing that was lacking theoretically was a steady enough engagement with psychoanalysis. But then that’s lacking everywhere in poetry; people don’t think about psychoanalysis anywhere near enough in any poetical formation in the world that I know. I don’t think about it enough, and I think about it all the time just in order to stay sane. So that’s a lot of work that still has to be done. You seem very hostile to the Language poets. Where does that come from for you?
Q: Aside from the objections I have already made, I would say that their insistence on the political dimension of poetry is irksome. This is something I also found in reading your poetry. I think you have to water down the term "political" until it is almost unrecognizable, or at least too vague to be useful, for the political to have anything to do with the poetical. You get meaningless slogans like “the personal is the political”. Eliot Weinberger has written about this. He limits the scope of the term “political” to the infliction or alleviation by governments of pain on groups of people. Famine and war are political; identity politics involves a degradation of the term politics, and this imprecision in language on the part of poets I find extremely vexing. My experience of poetry has never had anything to do with politics, and has been much more personal.
A: It depends on your concept of politics. My feeling about politics is that we need to be very careful and nice in drawing a distinction between politics as its own semi-free-floating class structure, the political class, with its own system of social relations, one shared by those with a political career, and all of its machinations and ways of representing itself—all of that on the one hand; and on the other hand, social relations, things like how people treat each other on the street, what it means to have to go to work, what wage labor is, gender and sexual relations, all of these questions which I think can be both identified and misidentified as political. In a sense, of course, they are absolutely political, because they are the stuff of politics, and they make up the whole turmoil of the public conversation that ends up to some extent steering political discourse and vice versa. Yet these are not, in essence and substantially, political questions, or not at least at their points of origin; they are questions about social relationships, and I can dream at least until I am woken up by the material signifier of the moment when it won’t be politicians who are responsible for organizing those forms of relationship at all.
Politics in its present form is a contingency of capitalist economic relations. We won’t necessarily need politics as such forever. That said, you say that poetry for you has never had much or anything to do with politics. For me the opposite is true. Wordsworth for me would be a great, even a classic example of a supremely political poet, provided that we extend the concept of the political to include social relations, as I just provisionally did. At the first moment when Wordsworth seriously ventured into writing verse and prose polemic, he was a committed and ardent republican, determined that every word he wrote in poetry, however apparently innocuous or fictional, should be shaped to the end of transforming social relations in the light cast by the great cataclysm of the French revolution. I’ve written about how even moments in Wordsworth’s poetry which, on the face of it, seem to bear absolutely no relation whatsoever to any social question, can in fact quite readily be interpreted as, not even allegories, but direct social commands, that people should be made to confront their most stubborn forms of intellectual and emotional prejudice, which have immediate social repercussions. I mentioned John Milton earlier, again a supremely political (in that larger sense) poet, a poet who is—well, no great poet has been more directly involved in revolutionary politics in the history of English poetry at least.
To come back to Prynne, all of Prynne’s work is unimaginable outside of a history of a kind of Miltonic conception of the poet as one who must stand up against depraved and devastating forms of political authority, and that’s absolutely what Milton is doing from the start, and I think that that is what Prynne has been doing. All of his writing has been an assault on capital, on the mendacity of politics, even to the extent that it has set down specific names of a number of politicians there on the page and tried to assassinate them in poetry. Prynne’s work has responded directly to historical clashes as they have unfolded, since 2003 and long before then. In my experience, all of the poets that I love best, with very few exceptions, have been, not just casually political, but profoundly political poets, if we can define the concept of politics to include work to transform social relations. I don’t think that’s a big redefinition, it’s just an inescapable redefinition, for now.
When you say that poetry is personal and not political, for me that isn’t a coherent either/or. When I think of the person I am, I can’t understand the predicate ‘personal’ without thinking about the way in which personhood in general has been shaped and produced during the time that I have been alive, and then thinking about my individual case of personhood, the allocation of my person, how that’s been shaped, the pressures exerted on it from the outside world to which I have responded, to which I have tried to live up and against which I have tried to push back. I would be an entirely different person if I had grown up in a completely different society. All that seems obvious. For me, those pressures, whether or not they are directly political in the sense that they come from an origin within the political class structure, is almost irrelevant, because they are all so intricately mediated by systems of social relations that are inextricable from political power structures. I can only imagine thinking of myself as a person disconnected from those structures if I have a kind of fantasy of spiritual hermitage, which of course I do, occasionally, when emptying myself out. It would require the mythical inhabitation of a zone of rent-controlled transcendence for me to imagine that my personality was not in itself substantially political, every other atom. That doesn’t make me happy, I’m not proud of it. It’s just the truth.
Q: But I have reservations about our inability to specify with any precision the nature of these political forces and the extent of their effect on our lives. It is all so vague, and we risk speaking in meaningless generalities about things we could never hope to understand. And I hold out for the existence of some transcendent self that couldn't be accounted for even if we could specify the nature and extent of these pressures; and this self is the one I want poetry to engage.
A: What you describe as the problem of our incapacity to specify precisely the extent to which these things might shape us—I suspect it might be equally difficult to specify the extent to which our parents might have shaped our personalities, but I don’t think that anyone, for that reason, would deny that they had. There’s any number of equivalent cases. These pressures just don’t require to be specified exactly in order to be apprehended. We can’t specify them exactly. That’s part of the problem. What poetry might do—rather than measuring the degrees of effect with clinical precision, poetry has to scope out these zones, to sound them out, these regions of experience, which are pressed right to the threshold of unconscious life and beyond, and to produce noise, music, syntax, grammar, and fiction which somehow feels as though it both touches on the most exposed and sensitive, hidden, even secretive parts of that whole region of experience, to give it some voice, wrong or right, to make it eloquent; but at the same time—although I wouldn’t accept that we have a transcendent self, exactly— I do think that poetry is not once and for all fatally bound in these structures that I’ve been talking about. Lots of Marxist thinkers would say that it is, and I have a real problem with that, because I think that what poetry has always done, with its unique temporality, is to try to erupt out of these systems of relations, these forms of containment, precisely by creating individual forms that are at some new profound level radically incompatible with the social forms that presently accommodate them. So poetry has to erupt out; but it can’t just start outside and stay there, as though it was never inside; it has to fight its way out.
Q: But to my mind, ‘political’ is not the word that applies to the situation you are describing, because this is an extremely private experience. It is only political insofar as it has the potential to break the reader out of bad habits, to set the stage for better engagement with the political world. I could accept this version of the political aspect of poetry; but I feel that in doing so, I’ve deprived the concept of the political of any specificity or usefulness.
A: It’s difficult of course because it is an inherently problematic concept. We could decide on principle to accept only the most narrow and parsimonious definition, and then we might say that nothing we do is political except voting. But for example, you say poetry might break you out of bad habits—you could read poetry which would make you think of a group of people in society in a different way, because of the way the experience was represented, and you might walk around the streets and feel different about the people you come into contact with, and you might feel as though, somehow, you might even be capable of greater intimacy because of how experience had been shaped and represented. Would that be political? Would the test of that question be whether or not you were directly provoked to switch party allegiances come the next election? If politics in some presently intractable broader sense does not include how people relate to each other, then it’s a pure abstraction.
Now, in a sense, it is a pure abstraction. This is the Marxist critique. It is dialectical. It is a pure abstraction, and at the same time it is absolutely real. It is both, and it is the conflict immanent in the co-existence of these two things. We often have the sense that the political has no relation to our lives, and in a sense that’s essentially true. Why should these powerful men have any relation to what I feel when I read, or when I fuck, or when I sleep? On the other hand, there is every possible relation, because the world in which I live is fundamentally shaped by the actions of these kinds of actors and of the people they really represent, who are of course the big capitalists. These are the people who force fundamental shapes on our lives. They are also the people who decide who dies and who lives. Poetry runs the risk of absenting itself from the world if it angrily decides that its prerogative is to occupy its own zone of purity which is of such transcendent significance that just playing with politics or playing with social relations could only be a kind of lazy corruption that threatens the purity of the distillation I am in truth. I just don’t think poetry really works like that, thank god. I think the purest poetry in that sense would be the most trivial too.
For me, the poetry that is the most moving, you might say the most personal, is also poetry that is profoundly political. I’m not talking about dogmatic tub-thumping propaganda, though I like some of that too. I’m talking about Shakespeare. Shakespeare is, in every play he ever wrote, a profoundly political poet. It doesn’t take any unraveling or stretching of the concept to see that. It’s unmistakable right at the surface.
Q: It’s a matter of stipulating what you mean by politics.
A: That’s crucial, but then there’s lots of work to be done beyond that, because once we decide what we mean, then we have to decide what to do about it. I don’t think that your first instinct in wanting to keep poetry separate form politics is necessarily a bad instinct, although obviously I’ve suggested another way of thinking about it. It’s a good instinct inasmuch as poetry absolutely needs that impulse to push the world away, even as it looks at the world as closely as possible. It does somehow need that instinct to define its own priorities on the basis of the maximum possible autonomy from those kinds of processes and social relations, but it can only do that when it knows what social relations are. A poetry that was determined to snub political realities, to turn its back on them, because it felt like the world was simply nothing to do with poetry, would be a poetry that wasn’t very personal either.
The poetry which is going to be really personal—think about Shakespeare. If you read Shakespeare’s sonnets, within the short compass of fourteen lines here are poems which can turn toward the most unfathomable abysses of absolutely individuated inwardness, poems which by the end seem to bear apparently no relation to anything like a political reality, but which nonetheless start out with general reflections on the nature of political corruption or abuses of power. Something about that movement, that shift out of the world, from the world, pushing back on the world, against it, that for me is how lyric gets activated. The kind of lyricism you get in superabundance in the late 19th century or early 20th century, in which poetry is a kind of quarantine for sentiments that can’t be expected to breathe in the world—that for me isn’t personal either. It just doesn’t actually address the complexity of being an individual. I never feel like that.
Being an individual is a very complex experience. ‘As a poet myself’, I want people to feel something really deeply when I write poems. I want to make a gift to anyone, which is a gift first of all of love, of passion, of desire, even of pain, of any number of experiences that I wouldn’t right away or a priori call political. But the experience of actually trying to do that, both in the private scene of composition and also in the public scene of giving a poetry reading, is that you’re confronting a world that is so infinitely complicated, and in which other subjects are stuck just like you are, and in which your relations with other subjects and people are mediated in infinitely complex ways again… poetry should actually sound out that complexity of infinite mediation. I’m not speaking to only one person. I’m speaking to so many people. I don’t know them. What does it mean to know that you are writing for people whom you will never meet, to know that you have no idea what they’ve suffered or how they’ve lived? What does it mean to wish to make a gift of love in language to potentially thousands of people, whose experience of love you could never possibly understand, except perhaps abstractly, in fantasy and on the basis of whatever might be your concept of the universal?
These are complicated questions, and for me they mean trying to learn a lot about the world. So I try to learn what’s going on. I try to learn about history, I try to learn about complex systems of social relations that aren’t immediately visible to walk around in, I try to learn about histories of value, of commodification, histories of the economy, not simply in order to make a direct political statement, but always and at the same time, and perhaps even with greater urgency, to somehow try to communicate very intimately with other people. They aren’t separate priorities. There is a conflict, a stage of dissent between them, but the conflict is intrinsic to both ends. It is not just knocking two objects against each other, privacy and the world: they are the same, there is an intrinsic conflict. Writing a poem is like meeting a great pressure that potentially could crush you—not to sound too melodramatic—and that pressure is both internal and external, it’s a pressure of irremediably private psychic history, instinct and unconscious desire and dream, and it’s a pressure of the world bearing down on you and pushing you up and erasing you and making you conform and throwing you about, in certain directions or in none, and of showing you the lives of other people who are similarly being erased and being pushed about. For me, it’s when poetry allows both of those pressures to be intensified to their maximum that we get something like the possibility of lyric, which might push them apart for a second, and allow some kind of new beauty to erupt. It’s very difficult. Perhaps it’s a Wordsworthian idea. Wordsworth, when he was writing the Prelude, said that he could think of nothing that would not be within the compass of this poem. In other words, here was a philosophical ambition by a poet, that poetry should be equal to the task of bringing everything in the world into its interior. Much more than any kind of discourse of avant-gardism, that’s what inspires me.
Q: And you get there by a sort of calculated erudition?
A: No, certainly not. It has nothing to do with erudition, or calculation. I mean by living in the world with your mind active, agitated and open. Studying what’s happening around you. Calculated erudition sounds like cunningly going to the library.
Q: I am reminded of an essay you wrote on Prynne. You describe his project:
‘Every resource would be stretched to that infinite end. Phenomenology from its beginnings in Ockham and the Scholastics to the present day would be reinterpreted as the moralism of immediate knowledge, under the modern impulses of Nicolai Hartmann and Maurice Merleau-Ponty; materialism would be radicalised to include among its objects of speculative dialectical analysis the relations of natural production, from deglaciation to the North Atlantic turbine; morphology, lexicology and etymology would become component parts of the technique of a lyric poetry that learned from and outstripped Heidegger’s restitution to philosophy of the archaic meanings of basic concepts; modern science would be studied and learned in detail, Pound’s comments on “modern physics” exposed for ranting dalliances, and all data, no matter how vanishingly hypermodern, hypothetical or arcane, brought under the central command of a hermeneutics of our latent existential possibility; Wordsworth’s brotherhood of all the human race would be reasserted against the defamiliarizations of post-romantic real life and its laid back ironies and complacent dismemberments. A poet would make “song” once again into “the proper guise” of “the whole order” of reality. And then I thought of Olson's claim in his essay "D. H. Lawrence and the High Temptation of the Mind," when he writes, "If Satan had wanted to tempt Christ ultimately, would he not have offered him a fourth test, offered him all the understandings the mind is capable of? For it is the putting off of this cloak that is the challenge that life demands of its finest creatures... For Lawrence knew, as no metaphysician ever does, the discipline and health of form, organic form as distinguished from that false form which the arrangements of the intellect, in its false speed, offer."
A: There’s much to say about this. As a poet I feel personally related to that tradition in which knowledge is the essential category for poetry. It’s a tradition which in its 20th century mutation originates with Pound, and is then inherited by Olson and then again by Prynne. These are in a sense the three towering figures in a kind of sub-tradition of the 20th century, all of whom were very much preoccupied, even aggressively preoccupied with casting poetry as the real work of knowledge in the world now, the work of knowledge which keeps knowledge free from corruption. I don’t subscribe, however, to that tendency of thinking, partly because I think of knowledge in quite different terms from any of those three poets. Here again I must point to psychoanalysis. It is not simply that psychoanalysis is to me a persuasive intellectual discipline, but far more importantly my experience of mental illness and therapy—my experience of groping my own way independently through what turned out to be psychoanalytical concepts and categories—persuaded me that knowledge is just one part of what a psyche does and that it is certainly not identical to power.
My poetry is at least as much preoccupied with what Freud called primary processes, or with dream existences, as it is with knowledge in the sense of erudition, a kind of cultural acquisition that can then be carried about and wielded and put to work. In my poetry, I’ve tried to explore down to the roots of existence—individual and psychic existence—to find zones of experience which can’t yet be accommodated in the form of knowledge, zones which feel much more wild than that. There’s a beautiful expression by the philosopher Merleau-Ponty in his text The Visible and the Invisible: sens sauvage, wild meaning, and for me, I’m not trying to write the poetry in which the thinking has already happened so that the knowledge can be presented, or the research has been done and here are the findings—and I’m not saying that Prynne does that either. I’m trying to write poetry which explodes under its own immanent pressures—and in a way that I could not possibly predict and would never want to predict, is a kind of sudden eruption, a kind of instantaneous metastasis, or flourishing, of wild meaning. I don’t know what it means. I don’t know what it means, literally. There is no kind of knowledge from the standpoint of the author involved, not yet. And that is not the only type of thing that I write, because I also write things that evidently are kinds of studies of certain situations, which are virtually essayistic in their discursive organization, so that they are like journalism. Some of the things that I’ve put into the Odes, the last book, are like that. But it is always part of a kind of madly would-be comprehensive sprawl. I’m trying to move in as many different directions at once as possible, and wild meaning is essential to poetry for me.
Q: You seem to be describing a technique that I recognize in your poetry but have trouble describing. It’s related to your account of an irreducibly ambiguous syntactical form in a poem by John Wieners. But whereas the ambiguity in Wieners hinges on a single fulcrum in a sentence, you seem consciously to construct the poetry out of movement from one pivot of ambiguity to another, and at a certain point it is impossible to speak of sentences at all. It is very difficult to describe.
A: It is hard to describe, and I’m immensely gratified that it is hard to describe. I want it to be hard to describe. I know what you mean, I know what you’re talking about, and ‘consciously’ is just a very slightly awkward word. So, sometimes I’m conscious that that’s what I’m trying to do. Sometimes I might not even mind being conscious. But typically I do mind being conscious, and what I mean by that is, if I feel like I can observe myself doing something that I know I know how to do, then I try not to do it. For me, it just feels false if I know that I’m doing a technique that I know how to do. It is disgusting. Unless I’m doing it with very concentrated irony, so that the history of the subject observing its own competence is also part of what’s said and put at stake.
These sentences which kind of run out of control—I mean those to be, not just virtuosic specimens of any kind of rhetorical technique (I suppose they could end up being that). I want the subject itself to be kind of breaking or overextended or run off with itself, somehow. That running off with itself that a sentence can do, and ending up somewhere different from where it began, is for me something that was consciously inspired by music. By various types of music. I’ve been trying to think very hard about this whilst being musically illiterate, because I can’t read music, I never formally studied it. I listen to music very intensely all the time, every day, it is a ritual practice for me, a space I move into, and particularly certain kinds of wildly disorganized or spontaneous free jazz, which goes in directions that you really would not have predicted, and above all the music of Beethoven, which does that, I think, breathtakingly, all the time, and takes you, not just to a place where you hadn’t expected to be, but that goes on for longer, and pushes or stretches further, than you could have expected, to the point where attention itself feels overextended and therefore somehow extremely exposed. I try to do that in poetry, to get to a point where poetry has been pushed or carried or embraced or ripped over to a spot where you didn’t expect it would ever be, and some kind of singular exposure should be possible there. This is the work of figuring out the destiny of syntax, the varieties of destiny. It can be done through extreme uses of grammar, it can be done through extreme volatility of idiom. It can be done any number of ways.
Q: I’d be curious to know how you punctuate these exploded sentences.
A: Well I don’t have any one practice, it varies depending on the poem. But it is for me a question which costs a great deal of labor. This might sound precious, but it’s true: I’ve never placed any punctuation mark in any poem, or indeed deleted any that you might expect to find there, without thinking about it long and hard. When I say thinking, I mean something a bit more like enduring the uncertainty for a while and then seeing what happens. It’s not so calculated as it sounds, I’m not sitting there thinking, ‘if I take the comma out here, what will that do?’ It’s more a kind of tarrying with the strangeness of there being one or not, and then feeling at a certain point that it is possible to go on with things as they are.
In the use of punctuation, certain writers have been very inspiring to me. Wordsworth, again, was really a profoundly original poet in the use of punctuation. You have these pile-ups, car-crashes of combinations of punctuation throughout the Prelude and other poems by Wordsworth—say, a comma, immediately followed by a colon, immediately followed by a long dash. These are uncertainly iconic of certain kinds of mental states. They both represent and in another sense are moments of ambivalence or confusion or uncertainty, which in that poem could not be altogether expressed in words alone because no idiom could be found to represent these states. That’s true about the inadequacy of idiom in all great poetry, and it is why poetry is not prose, but in Wordsworth’s poetry, the best of it at least, we get virtually a commentary on the exhaustibility of idiom and the necessity of iconic representations of otherwise unspeakable states of feeling. Wordsworth’s very passionate and interrogative use of unusual combinations of punctuation bound up in clusters was profoundly influential to me, as also were his vastly overextended sentences, which are quite thoroughly different from Milton’s overextended sentences. Another master of punctuation is Samuel Beckett. His use of punctuation is deeply inspiring to me throughout his prose writings, particularly in the so-called trilogy of novels and in the novel Watt. I don’t know if you remember the moment in Watt where he describes the semi-colon as ‘hideous’. It’s a beautiful thought. The idea that Beckett was in agony over the appearance in his work of a semi-colon—I’m sure he really was. I use the semi-colon with a kind of mad profligacy throughout the Odes because it can be such a horrible, gruesomely administrative device, because it proposes a specific moment of compromise, or of negotiation, or of reticence, or of hesitancy, a certain kind of mental attitude which is about balancing and pausing for thought, pausing for precisely the kind of thought that exists to be paused for, which is essentially contrary to the headlong drive of those poems. Punctuation can be used in ways that are instructive of or antithetical to what the poem is doing, rather than simply as conventional stops and starts.
Q: You have moved from writing in stanzas to writing extended prose blocks. It’s not prose in any conventional sense, and at certain points you break into verse rhythms without the enjambment of verse. I’m thinking particularly of a moment where an extremely rhythmic doggerel-style cadence emerges in the Odes. At some level, you have to have made a decision about the organization of the words on the page, and I’d like to understand that decision. Was that a calculated move, or some improvisatory revelation?
A: It’s both. If I can be slightly tricksy in my answer, you say ‘you have to make a decision.’ I think that’s the truth. The imperative is the truth, rather than actually making the decision. You feel, or I feel as I’m writing, I must decide. That doesn’t mean I do decide.
The movement into these blocks that look like and perhaps are prose started probably as early as 2005 in my writing. In a poem in Neocosis, 'The Food at Alcove One’, there is a chart that lists prices of bulk wholesale fireworks. It looks like a kind of block on the page. Then in Hot White Andy there is a section in prose, a block, the speech by Vyshisnky that occurs in the play within the poem. Then in Stress Position there are four footnotes to section 2 that are boxed up in prose blocks. Then in ‘The Proxy Inhumanity of Forklifts’ in The Stats on Infinity there’s a block of speed and disintegration. This block-form slowly accumulated a certain kind of significance, for me, a certain undecidable importance or bearing. It began to put more and more pressure on my thinking when I was writing. And eventually I felt that this pressure was an incipient sense of new potentials that might emerge through writing within justified limits on the page like that, but at the same time it was also a painful acknowledgment of what had begun to feel like my incapacity to use the line break in ways that felt true, a kind of distrust of my own complacency or competence in using and breaking verse. That feeling eventually drove me to the point where I wrote the Odes—quite without any prior design or purpose—writing what at the time I called these prose ‘tubes’, where it suddenly felt to me as though experience had to be crammed into a space, compressed between inelastic limits, stuffed down—put under the maximum possible pressure as if from above. It came to feel to me as though line endings in versification, though they worked as pivots or sources of tension and pressure, also sometimes worked as release valves and as exits from or exonerations of the tension of syntax. I suddenly felt as though my writing couldn’t accommodate those exits, that it needed to be totally blocked in. In the Odes, it still also felt essential that at moments writing would erupt out—whether into what you fairly call a kind of doggerel verse form, or whether into verse which still tries to be jagged and uncertain; it erupts out into various types of versification. In the very last text in my Poetical Works 1999-2015, a poem called Jenkins, Moore and Bird, there’s just one line that strikes out of the block like that. The rest of it is all in blocks.
I just recently gave at Chicago and NYU two versions of a talk called ‘Blocks: form since the crash’ [ https://archive.org/details/BlocksSeminarAtNYU13November2015 +
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XCKfXsOn0Y ]. I tried to theorize the appearance—not in my work, but in the work of some other British poets—of this justified prose tube or block, and think about what it might mean. I tried to construct a Marxist account of how bodies are put under pressure in wage labor, and related this to what it felt like to be kettled by the police. Kettling is a police technique that has been around for a while, which has been frequently used, here [in the US] and also in the UK, particularly since the student riots in the UK of 2010. The police will form a cordon with their bodies around a large number of people in the street. The police link arms and make a square, say; the cordon will have firm edges, it will be a quadrilateral; and they will contain within this cordon sometimes thousands of people, and they will tell everyone inside that they’re not allowed to leave. They refuse to communicate except to repeat that nobody is allowed to leave. The only way out is to assault the police, in other words to commit a crime. People get stuck in there for hours, they get madly frustrated. Either you endure crushing boredom, pettiness and spite for however long the police decide you should be paralysed, or you try to commit the crime that is your only possibility of freedom right now. The technique is designed to defuse a situation, to paralyze mass movements of bodies in the street and to stop protests, to frustrate and demoralize people to the point where they’re so dispirited, so broken by boredom, that protesting on the street ceases to be the exhilarating experience of really being alive and standing up for truth and justice, and instead becomes the experience of pure frustration and stasis. It actually represents a very insightful understanding of the psychodynamics of street protests.
Incidentally, in the Odes, at the beginning of ‘Ode 2’, there’s a painstaking description of this procedure, a satirical analysis of a containment operation at Trafalgar Square in London, which the second ode interprets as an ingenious tactical manoeuvre within the struggle between the police unions and their managers over the payment of overtime. It’s kind of a satire, but I think it’s the truth. Police were fighting to get back their overtime. How do you guarantee yourself overtime? Kettling operations that last six hours. Anyhow, the experience of being in one of these things is extremely frustrating. And when you see photographs of one of them, they are like justified blocks filled with individual bodies pressed together in intense states of anger and agitation. Perhaps coincidentally, in any case concurrently, all of these poems began to appear in the UK in which you have these blocks, in which these madly heterogeneous accounts of life and of the world begin to appear all crushed and pressed together in these tubes, always with a justified right margin. When I wrote mine it really felt to me as though I was standing over a hole and crushing life down with my forehead into a tube, everything had to be crushed in. It made possible a kind of crazy promiscuity in writing. So I could switch from talking about my earliest childhood memories to talking about prices on the commodities exchange to talking about a political scandal to talking about problems in relationships that I might have intimately, any number of things, it was a constant churning turbulent scene of comprehension and occlusion, binding together and splitting apart, in which the energies that were generated were intensified by their containment within these blocks.
I wouldn’t quite say that these represent or are mimetic of what happened on the streets. But there’s a kind of historical concurrence that is still beginning to unfold. It’s fascinating to think through—now that I feel conscious of this kind of formal equivalent—where will the writing go next? The thing I am writing now is again blocks like this. But it wasn’t a conscious decision. For me writing verse is the hardest thing to do. There’s a remark by Pound that has always stuck with me. Pound says beauty is the hardest thing to do as a poet. This from a poet who was committed to writing a great historical epic, even to changing the world and its rulers, etc., still—beauty is the hardest thing. I think that’s true. Writing verse is painfully difficult for me because I can’t write it unless I think it’s actually beautiful—I mean, that it stands a chance of filling people’s lives with radiant sensation, suffusing life with tenderness, striking into the flesh with its passion, thrilling and hurting. If I can’t think I might just be able to do that then I don’t write verse. So these blocks are in a sense also—and this is part of their conscious irony—placeholders for beauty until it’s possible to sing. They do sometimes have singing in them, but it’s a singing that is somehow blocked and paralyzed.
Q: The situation you describe sounds like a ‘fall from grace’, the grace of verse.
A: It’s very difficult. That word obviously has very pronounced theological overtones. No, I don’t think of it that way. I think of it as growth; it might be malignant growth but it is growth nonetheless. I feel like what I was saying earlier about—for me—the indispensable necessity of confronting the world at all points as a writer, and trying to comprehend and wrestle with social relations, means that the direction in which the writing might go is simply not at the free disposal of the poet, not at least if the poet is really writing poetry. Yet it certainly doesn’t feel, either, as though writing is simply at the mercy of the poetic id—id scriptor!—and you’re just swept off impotently in whatever direction, and you have no power: of course you do. It’s somewhere, nowhere, in between.
You have to follow the essential and immanent impulses of the writing itself and these are not disclosed to you until you set about trying to do it in the most ardent possible spirit. When I have tried to do that recently it has felt to me like the only direction in which it might possible for me to grow and move has been this other direction, down as far as I can go into the stopgap infinity of the obstruction itself. I don’t imagine that I will not write verse again, and in any case there is verse in the prose that I have been writing, this metrical prose. But I’m not going to start writing it just to keep in practice or because I think it’s time I did a bit of that. I’m only going to write it when I think that what I write can be true and that it can shine and that it is a gift. I’ve tried sometimes and it just hasn’t felt to me that it’s good enough.
I don’t know that anything that I’ve written is good enough, genuinely I don’t. I feel desperately, insatiably doubtful about everything I’ve written. Every day in my head it all turns to shit in my hands. But I have to feel some confidence at least when I’m writing it that it will matter. I hope that feeling will come again. It’s not a question of an irreversible change of form in the abstract. It’s all about living under the present pressure of what it means right now to be in the world, from the most inward atom to the furthest outer reaches of social relations that I can see or imagine. At the moment, that means writing these blocks. There is always a level at which these things are indescribable and indefensible. Finally I can’t justify it; it is just what I am able to do.
Q: Has the newer prose form affected your reading style when you read before an audience?
A: Yeah it must and it does, but it’s a difficult question, because even the poems that are in these visually identical blocks are quite different from each other. So I’m conscious when I read them that for long stretches, particularly with this thing I’m writing now, it might sound almost straightforwardly as though I’m just reading prose fiction, or presenting a simulacrum of prose fiction—but to return to a remark from earlier, I hope it also can be heard in those performances that part of their complexity, part of their irony, is their own internal observation of their resemblance to fiction. The concept of fiction has become quite significant for me within poetry, particularly as it might be used to describe dream narratives and dream work—the stories we tell about what we have dreamt. Telling stories about what we have dreamt in writing—while on the one hand it is the simplest and may even be the most banal thing imaginable—I’m sure everyone has done it, and that doesn’t make it banal, but I’m sure everybody has told someone their dreams or written them down—… But for me it has a curious status as descriptive language, because, psychoanalytically understood, the value of recounting a dream, making descriptions of its detail, is that you can do it for a second time or for a third time. The analyst will say ‘Can you tell me that again?’, and what will happen is that when you repeat some detail, you will repeat it slightly differently, and in the variation will be disclosed the potential interpretability of the volatile material. When you’re writing a poem, there is not the same potential for variation. You write it down and there it is. That’s the version. Or else you delete that version and replace it with another. It’s almost like erasing the knowledge that appears, rather than representing it, because the knowledge, properly understood, consists in the future potential variability of the detail and the whole narration: and this is what the poem as an achieved object directly abolishes. I get this fatal sense when I’m writing down these dream narratives that what I’m doing is eradicating them, superimposing over the life of unconscious experience the artifice of consciousness, which will now bind it and take its place. There’s a kind of lesson in the work of that writing, I think. How do we value the interpretability of our existence? What life is it that we think should submit to be interpreted, and what else is life beyond that point? Is life ever uninterpretable? Can the uninterpretable part be preserved? Should it be? I hope this has plenty of implications for poetry that I’m not aware of yet.
When I read out that stuff it feels very sad. I read it in NYC a couple of months ago, and for the first time ever in my life at a reading—this has never happened to me before—without warning, without physical or mental premonition, suddenly I just started crying, there were tears pouring down my face, I was shocked, I just didn’t predict it, hadn’t felt it coming at all. There was something about speaking aloud before strangers a kind of apparently prosaic, consciously artificial, consciously virtually fictional writing which nonetheless is for me an acutely painful, distant echo of the paralyzed poetic, and in which verse is allowed to erupt, occasionally, at certain points of irony or pressure, but never enough to assert its autonomy as a fluency of lines—that suddenly feels to me very sad. I don’t know what I’m doing.
[Keston Sutherland wrote Neocosis, Hot White Andy, Stress Position, The Stats on Infinity, The Odes to TL61P, Stupefaction and other books. His Poetical Works 1999-2015 was published last year by Enitharmon. A new poem, Instincts on Trump University, was just published in The Third Rail. He lives in Brighton, UK
John Tamplin is an apprentice carpenter and amateur of poetry from Louisville, KY]
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