Episode 122 – Steven J Fowler

Ep122 SJ FowlerEpisode 122 is now available to download/play wherever you get your podcasts.

For this episode I’m in central London talking to experimental poet and artist Steven J Fowler. The pair discuss Steven’s approach to writing and editing (or lack of it), whether it helps to sometimes be ignored as a writer and his work as a curator of European and international literature events.

Below is a transcript of the episode minus Steven’s poetry readings. If you’d like to read a full transcript then you can download it here.

 

Transcript by Christabel Smith

Guest: Steven J Fowler — SJF

Host: David Turner — DT

Intro:

DT:      Hello, welcome to Episode 122 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts. I’m David Turner. All right? It’s been three months since I last released an episode and you might imagine there would be some news or updates for me to give, but no. Nothing has really been happening. I’m still in the process of finishing what will be my first full-length book of poems. The word ‘poems’ there has enormous air quotes around it as they’re just getting weirder every time I work on them. It will be out through Hesterglock Press in 2020. If you’re listening, Paul, my editor at Hesterglock, the manuscript will be with you soon, I promise.

What else? I’m learning to play the piano, so lots of practising scales and trying to teach myself how to play Moondog’s ‘Elf Dance’. I’ve been making a prototype of a chair this week, so I’m fighting the urge to tell you how annoying that has been and I’ve been dreaming about how to make the underframe. The life of a joiner, eh? Oh yeah, I or we or Lunar Poetry Podcasts no longer uses Instagram as it bores me, so in terms of social media, you can find us at Lunar Poetry Podcasts on Facebook and @Silent_Tongue on Twitter. You can of course find lots more information over at lunarpoetrypodcasts.com, where you will also find a full transcript of today’s episode.

This week’s guest is Steven J Fowler. Steven is a multidisciplinary artist that works in the muddied waters between poetry, theatre, film-making, visual arts and performance. He’s also the curator of hundreds of live literature events around the UK and Europe. Steven appeared in episode 33 of our companion podcast series, A Poem A Week, hosted by my wife Lizzy. In that, Steven reads his poem ‘Old Time Wrestles New Time’, which doesn’t feature in today’s episode and you should definitely check out that recording and the other 70 poets that are on Lizzy’s series. Links in the episode description line.

Steven and I met up at his studio round the back of St Pancras station in a very busy part of London, so apologies in advance about the traffic. I don’t think the noises are that intrusive. Also, it gives you an insight to the soundtrack of Steven’s creative process. Imagine him sat at a paint-spattered table as the black cabs pass slowly below. We discuss whether work is ever really finished, or is it just published, so beyond our grasp. Whether or not there is any benefit to just being ignored as a writer and being content with the way you work, regardless of the advice of others.

We also get round to briefly discussing the Nordic Poetry Festival that Steven is organising this year in the UK and will take place 11-17 October at various venues. It’s going to be fantastic and I’m lucky enough to be reading in collaboration with Bård Torgersen at Rich Mix East London, 12 October. Maybe I’ll see you there. If you enjoy this episode or any other, please do help us out by telling friends, family members, work colleagues and squidgy cats.

Word of mouth is the best form of advertising for podcasts, especially this one, and this is not for my benefit, but for the wonderful guests I’ve had on the series. They deserve to be heard by as many people as possible, right? I’ll be back at the end of the episode with an outro and obviously all the way through, but for the moment, here’s Steven J Fowler.

Conversation:

Poem Redacted.

DT:      Thank you very much, Steven. Welcome to Lunar Poetry Podcasts. Thank you for joining me and all the listeners, wherever they are, if indeed they are. Starting interviews is always the most difficult bit. Often I don’t know people at all and this is the first time I’m meeting them, but I know you a little bit now, and it’s always a little bit of a worry, the initial questions that always flash through my head first seem a bit inappropriate for people you don’t know.

SJF:      Please ask me inappropriate questions.

DT:      Not even inappropriate. I know you well enough to feel you are resilient to any of these questions anyway. My question, I wanted it to be: Why all the nonsense?

SJF:      That’s a good question. Yeah, I mean I can’t help but feel that that question is not really about poetry, it’s about something wider.

DT:      Possibly, but I felt it was a good inroad into the wider aspects of your work.

SJF:      That’s true, yeah. I suppose my instinct that might answer the actual question that you’ve posed would be to ask why you would ask that question, not to say that I can psychologically analyse why you did it, because I know you a little bit too, would imagine it comes from your own sense of intrigue, your own engagement with a notion of a non-sense. But also, any time anyone has ever asked me a question, unfortunately, because I am painfully sober and hyperaware, I tend to think first, why are they asking me about the nonsense when they’re the ones bringing the nonsense to the table?

Maybe that is the answer to your question, but I think to compress nearly a decade of careful and unfortunate consideration around my work into the answer of a genuinely important and good question that you’ve just posed me, I think that the brain, where my existence resides, is full of nonsense and that the notion I can control the universe’s experience, which is endlessly difficult and confusing, into a kind of sense beyond just the limits of communicating, would be arrogant and maybe stupid, which I am both at times, but try not to be.

And given that I consider poetry to be the language art and we communicate in language, I try to use poetry for something other than communication and it seems like it’s probably more useful than to utilise it for things that are not the sense of talking.

DT:      It’s interesting, I think out of the hundreds of people we’ve had on the podcast now, I would say that by far the majority view is that poetry is an act of communication and it’s really interesting to talk to someone that believes the opposite.

SJF:      I suppose for me, it would depend what we mean by both the word poetry and the word communication, right? It does communicate something, but so does me falling over. All things communicate something. I think this is about the notion of intention for me. All I’m, I suppose, trying to say is if the meaning of a poem can be done in a conversation, it’s a failure and most poems are a bit like that, no? Most poems are communicating something similar to a conversation and that to me is valid, if done with great skill or in a certain tradition, I find it fascinating and interesting. Just personally, as a person who makes things, I don’t find that very interesting.

DT:      I feel these kind of qualifications that I always give are a bit redundant now, but just so we feel a bit more relaxed in the conversation, neither of us are projecting our own thoughts onto what other writers should do. I’d like for everyone, I say ‘everyone’, I’m including the listeners here, to feel like they can talk about their own work without having to- but I don’t mean other people should follow these routes, blah blah blah… Because I often find myself talking about my own work and excusing myself in some way. Other people don’t have to follow the way I think. Do you feel that’s an issue in general around the way poets interact?

SJF:      I think that’s an issue around all human beings and culture in general. For example, a lot of the time when people tell me: ‘God, isn’t poetry quite competitive or tribal?’, I always say: ‘Compared to what?’ I’ve never done a job where people didn’t talk shop. I’ve never done a job where people didn’t sleight others who do it because they do it slightly different from them. I take it as a human condition.

I don’t think the things I think about do put other people down, for a variety of reasons, the main reason being I think my ideas or interests seem to operate on a slightly different, lower level than other people, actually, not higher level. So I think people have a very refined engagement with the idea of literary criticism and how poetry works, whereas I’ve tried to be a bit less theoretical and more instinctual, so I’m interested in, for example, the idea of authenticity, which is a silly and ambiguous idea, but it’s instinctual, so if I see someone who’s doing, say, a spoken-word poem, a lot of people have associated me as being against spoken word because there are certain elements around this methodology which are so far away from what I do that they assume so, where actually if someone is authentic in what they’re doing, I don’t really care if they’re doing in spoken word, ballet, cooking, flying a kite.

That’s attractive. It’s beautiful and it’s exciting and it generates things for me to do, but if someone is working in a tradition and it isn’t authentic, and I’m just using authentic as one of many criteria, then I just move on immediately to the things that do excite me. I don’t spend any time being negative or critical. That is why sometimes, I think, people take certain things I say as critical against other practices because we’re working in different conditions.

Also, I do say that a lot, exactly as you described, when I say something positive, I’m not trying to put other people down, it’s because I want to be polite. I really, really believe in that. For example, I’ve always refused criticism. I’ve never written an article of criticism for money because if I take money and do a job of work and I don’t like something, I have to lay into it and I have to do that by mentioning someone’s name. Life is short. I have no interest in that at all.

DT:      I got into making the podcast because I started writing reviews of live events for what was then Lunar Poetry Magazine. I had to stop because I felt if I’m going to be really honest, and it wasn’t like I hated everything I saw, but it was like if I’m going to be honest about things, it’s going to be too blunt and I didn’t see the point in doing that. What I really wanted to do was have a conversation about people and their work instead and meet them face to face and actually talk over ideas.

SJF:      I think it’s a failure in me that I won’t do it because I see that negative criticism should be out there, especially at the moment. People need to take responsibility for the space of how things are made, certain trains of thought and critical spaces, so I’m not advocating this as a position. It’s actually a very personal thing and it’s an enormous failure. I’m a coward because the previous jobs I had before were so combative and so volatile and were constantly engaged in conflict, and I enjoyed them, I’m a conflict-orientated person, whether it’s because of something that happened to me or whatever, that’s the case.

So I don’t want any conflict now. That’s my choice. Poetry for me, literature in general, making art and stuff, is a life of putting ideas out that will conflict with other people’s ideas. But it’s not personal to me, I don’t care. So I do think people should be highly critical. I like it when people are critical of my work. I love it, in fact, because I don’t really mind. Actually, I take that as a huge compliment, but I don’t think my work has become widely understood enough that people can be critical of it. I think they just think ‘I don’t get it’ and then they leave it. That suits me also super fine, because I don’t really care.

DT:      That brings me to two points, actually. If we go back to the point you made about believing your work sort of occupies almost a slightly lower position than more refined taste, one of the reasons I mentioned the word ‘nonsense’ is because I wanted to get talking about the idea of playing. You mentioned how serious people are about the way they view their work and how it becomes more and more refined, there seems within that process there is less space to play and it seems really important in your work, especially your latest book with Hesterglock Press, ‘Unfinished Memmoirs of a Hypocrit’[sic], maybe just talk a bit about how freeing yourself up to work is a starting point.

SJF:      Yeah, it’s something I’ve thought about so much. Thank you for the generous question. It comes from hopefully not waffling, but from how I got into poetry. I discovered it later than a lot of my peers, in my mid-20s, about 10 years ago, and I discovered everything at the same time. So I did spend a lot of time engaged with the theorising around it and trying to read back, but I was discovering all kinds of poetry immediately. There is a massive absence of, shall we say, certain bands of aesthetics in poetry, for example, genuinely funny poetry is almost impossible.

Comic poetry isn’t funny. It’s funny in a really unfunny way. Negative aesthetics don’t exist in poetry. What’s the equivalent of a horror film for poetry? Have you ever got to a poem that’s deliberately trying to make you feel upset? Not to inculcate the emotion of sorrow, but make you feel bad, as a pleasure. You never get it. It doesn’t make any sense because poetry is just a means, it’s a refraction of language, it’s a mulching through, just like shooting with a camera or making a sculpture.

I was always intrigued by that. I really think a lot of that is the constipation of theory. There is so much theoretical underpinning that goes around poetry and that’s important in many ways, but what I found is it creates a culture of people who are afraid to do certain things. They are afraid to look silly or be silly or play or make mistakes or be rough or messy. My work is engaged fundamentally in ideas that I hope are really complex, but I hope they’re complex in a way that everyone can understand because existence is complex for every reflexive mammal.

Every human being, every single animal, lives a complex existence and we can do that without alienating people theoretically. So I think that’s how I started to find a road into it. A lot of the things people have done to give their work kind of intelligence stilts, to put it up in the air, had actually put it into a place that most people couldn’t reach. The problem is then people conflate that with accessibility or conflate it with the ivory-tower argument or class and that really frustrates me. It’s actually only being a teacher in creative writing and teaching in different institutions where I’ve realised and formulated an antidote to that, I think.

Trying to teach students who are often from a working-class background why sound poetry or concrete poetry or avant-garde poetry is good, requires you to create arguments of purpose for your own work. So that’s given me a great gift, teaching other people why I think the things I do are important, although not ever teaching my own work, of course, because I’m not a dweeb.

DT:      It resonates that you talk about class and such. When I first got back into writing in my early 30s, having spent 10 to 12 years working with performance and visual artists as a technician but also a producer, I found that suddenly all these barriers I’d broken down as someone from a working-class background and no formal academic qualifications in any subject, as regular listeners will know, I served a joinery apprenticeship, then ended up getting back into the arts that way, it took me a long time within these art settings to shake off a lot of this class bullshit I carry around with me.

It’s very real bullshit, but it’s bullshit nonetheless. I shook it off and I got to work with some really amazing performance artists and we did some really wild stuff and you realise that those things are for you if you want to go out and take them. But as soon as I started writing again, I felt pressure and I could feel myself moving towards more, like we were saying, more refined types of writing, perhaps subconsciously trying to prove myself in some way. It took a couple of years to think well no, I can play with this writing as much as I did with visual stuff and more physical stuff.

Now, a lot of my focus with the podcast is trying to show people from similar backgrounds as myself that these other, weirder types of poetry, or more odd types of poetry, are equally accessible to anyone. It’s just, it seems to be, for a long time, that section of writing has been owned and controlled by people who have been deliberately putting up barriers. You’ve been around the literary scene longer than I have and you are a bit more knowledgeable of the history of it. I’d be interested to know, if I said to you I felt like there were barriers, class barriers, towards more avant-garde and experimental writing in this country, would you argue that I’m wrong in that?

SJF:      Yeah, well you know we both share a background that’s atypical for people involved, especially in more experimental poetry, but I think fundamentally this is about the level of analysis. What you’re saying is practically true, but I don’t really think about it. I create things that do the opposite, rather than lamenting situations I’ve been in where I know people deliberately misunderstand me to further their own agenda, which probably comes from certain class experiences that they’ve had, so I prefer to talk about life experience or work.

I’ve definitely been in environments when I’ve been alienated and ostracised because my concerns and interests, shall we say physical violence, people seem disgusted by the idea it exists. You know, they’re more offended by the idea that I might bring up physical fights than the actual fact they are happening down the road from where those people live, just they never see them because they live a different kind of life. Sometimes I’ve felt people are against me mentioning them because they think the mention of them is an advocation for them, which is insane, because I’ve witnessed and been around more violence and seen its terrible consequences.

Or like the constant presence of prisons in my work, things like that. I understand that’s probably to do with what you’re saying, to do with class and class concerns, but I don’t care about that. It don’t bother me none. I’ve had no one against me, no one really trying to ostracise me, I’ve been embraced by 90% of the people I’ve met and the other 10% have just ignored me, which I take to be quite a nice way to respond to someone you don’t like, or whose work you don’t like.

Yeah, so it’s probably true, but actually, I’m really, really, really engaged with the notion of finding every single person I can who’s got an open spirit and soul and creates authentic, interesting work and trying to offer them opportunities and spaces to share what I’ve found and been part of. Some of those people are from really, really privileged backgrounds and some are from really working-class backgrounds. So yeah, I definitely think you’re right and if I was into that kind of discussion, I’d go super deep on that, but I’m not. I’m really not. I refuse all those things. I’m not saying you were saying that, it’s definitely been an experience of mine, but it doesn’t really matter.

DT:      Your experience probably echoes with mine as well, but I wonder whether a lot of that is to do with luck. When I first started to really seek out more experimental stuff, Lizzy and I had just moved to Bristol, so I found Anathema and Paul Hawkins in Bristol. Before that, I’d been to a reading and met Isabel Waidner and then came across your work. All of these people couldn’t be more welcoming. I’m still examining why I felt like there were barriers because just about all my experiences have proven the concerns weren’t as large as they had been in my head.

SJF:      I think you’re right though and you’ve mentioned two amazing human beings and brilliant writers, Paul Hawkins and Isabel Waidner, both people who are very much concerned with what you’re saying and I’ve learnt a lot from speaking to both of them about their experiences. I suppose, without sounding a bit stupid again, I assume there’s always going to be barriers. Like I assume I’m going to have a barrier because there are barriers between humans all the time.

I’ve never been in any situation, ever, where there hasn’t been a barrier if I wanted to find one and at the end of the day, I suppose again, not really about poetry but about life in general, I just want to make things, I just want to do things, because I suppose my first couple of years in poetry were surrounded by people who were massively theoretical, I mean as theoretical as you can get and I found that fascinating and I learnt a lot. I realised also that it led to a lot of bitterness for some of them and also others never really did anything.

So I suppose my whole events curatorial practice was based around the idea that I was like, oh I see there is an absence of something, how about I do it and then here we go? Then you find out there is some other problem. That’s with those people. No disrespect to them, but it’s just a way of being in the world and I’m so lucky. My body is healthy, my mind is clear, I’m surrounded by genuine warmth and positivity and I have lots of opportunities. I’m not trying to sound super-positive, I’m not all that positive as a person, but that is a fact. I’ve got no complaints at all about class boundaries and things like that.

DT:      You mentioned a couple of times your curatorial practice, we’ll come onto that in a minute, because that’s vast enough on its own. You’ve mentioned a couple of times now about people not liking your work and then ignoring you and you actually not minding that. I wanted to ask what are the benefits of being ignored as a writer?

SJF:      Yes, again, without being too overly analytical, one has to think through what it means to be ignored. Is there some world out there where people aren’t being ignored? Everyone, to a certain extent, is being ignored. There are people, I think you’ve had Raymond Antrobus on your podcast, who’s just had an incredible success with Penned in the Margins, who published one of my books, back in the day. That is just joy for everyone. A good human being, writing good work. The rising tides lift all people.

So there are examples, like with Raymond, whereby mad success can then be compared to yourself and you’re like wow, I’m being ignored. But how many Raymond Antrobus success stories are there? There’s like a couple a year. A big thing for me that I learnt this from is prize culture, literary prize culture. I never thought I would ever be up for a prize really, because my work’s too strange, so I began from a perspective of well, I will be the first ever who will be successful with prizes writing weird work.

Then I noticed a lot of my peers, who’d maybe started earlier, had different opinions, it would hurt their feelings. Every year they would feel snubbed. I would say: ‘There’s only one person who gets it. Only one.’ Of all the things that could happen, this should not affect you. I mean, I’ve definitely witnessed it, seen people release less books, do less things, move in a certain way. I understand that, I do understand it. But it’s those kind of things that then make me understand a clearer view of what is being ignored and what’s not being ignored.

I suppose, if we were being colloquial and generalised, you could say that my work has never really gone into a middle space, a Guardian review page type press. That’s my fault. I’ve published too much, my work is too weird, I probably don’t edit my work well enough, blah blah. I probably do too many things at once. I’ve just come to accept that is an authentic expression and my way of making work. At the same time, I’ve made a living from it, I’ve travelled round the world, I’ve worked with incredible people, I’ve gotten on with 90% of the people I’ve met and I’ve met a lot of people through it. I have also completely not been ignored, not at all.

What I’m trying to say is, the first thing first about being ignored, not being ignored, it’s an ego thing, it’s a subjective thing. If you feel bad one day because you got rejected from a thing, you feel like you’re not appreciated, again that’s a human condition, it can be mastered. So I don’t feel that very much, but what I do think is that if you lie in a fallow space, a middle space, where people don’t quite know what you’re doing, they’re not quite sure what you mean, you have the opportunity to constantly reinvent the joy of making things, writing things.

I get enough attention that I’m constantly busy and engaged, doing lovely things like this, thanks again for asking me by the way, but then also, I’m not under brutal scrutiny or the pressure to sell books. Last year alone, I was making a film, I made a feature-length film with my friend Joshua Alexander called ‘The Animal Drums’. We’ve got Iain Sinclair in it. Iain Sinclair is obviously this legend, he kind of invented this geographical writing. Brilliant poet. One of the most important poets of the British poetry revival, he has been incredibly generous to me. An incredibly supportive presence.

We were talking, just offhandedly, before we started filming and he said to me: ‘You should always take note of how lucky you are that you can write whatever you like. You’re free. You don’t have a press telling you “that’s too strange, that’s too weird”.’ My editors support my gestures, they help me edit but they give me freedom. So the joy of not being super-commercially successful is that I’m creatively free. That is, if you can appreciate it, an incredible gift.

DT:      Your point about prize culture, it’s very understandable why people would get jealous or bitter for not winning these things. You can see easily why a new writer looking forward might aspire to that as a marker of success, which is a shame because it can only let you down. Like you said, there’s only going to be one winner of each prize and who knows how these things are being judged?

Of course then, if you do have that kind of success, what pressure does that then put on you to produce a similar type of work? Does it push you down one avenue? I was hoping for that question to lead in this direction, to talk about freedom within your writing. Again, going back to the opening question about nonsense and leading onto play, and this idea of freedom, you feel like one of the freest writers I know. I think the reason I feel that is because you don’t feel tied to writing and so many people are bound not only to writing, but to poetry, which seems like a terrible curse on someone. I know some people are genuinely that focused and that directed, but it seems a very narrow space to live in.

SJF:      I don’t want to get pretentious or too deep, but I understand that if someone is engaged say in the profession of writing – with fiction it makes a lot more sense than poetry – but some of the guidelines would be ‘if I get a prize, then I get a better publisher, sell more books, then I’ll be able to write more books, then I won’t have to work in a shop’. I think not only does that make sense, because it’s brilliant, it’s kind of truthful, but again, I know it sounds silly, genuinely, my work is about me finding a path towards contentedness and gentility and decency to other people.

It’s not the main reason, it’s just a wee part of it. What I eat and how I exercise and how I sleep and the people I spend my time with, these are all nodes in a genuine daily commitment to have a better existence, just because I want to be happy before I die, because I’m going to die really soon, relatively. So if I then only wrote in Times New Roman 12-point font and indented, even though I had the desire to handwrite a book, say, that would be really weird because there’s no comeback on that. There’s only so much you can get.

To get back to your point, I’ve known people who’ve been mad successful, hugely commercially successful, I had the privilege of collaborating with some people who are hugely successful and happiness is relative. I think a lot about the concept of tolerance. I’m writing a book at the moment about prescription drugs and a brain and thinking a lot about the word tolerance. You tolerate joy and it wears off. Your success goes. Everything goes. You get used to everything.

So to a certain extent with me, I just try to keep my guideline as these deeper ideas. Intuition and instinct and exploration and innovation, these silly words that sound like a car advert, they are actually the driving force behind why we start doing all of this. How do we keep that light alive? If that’s who we are, if that’s what our authentic expression of things is. It is mine, because I’m brutally impatient and I want to discover new things and meet new people and live a good life through this work.

Well, that’s going to lead me to do a lot of different kinds of work, as you say, not limit myself and not worry if someone does say in my ear, which they have done pretty consistently: ‘Don’t publish more than a book a year or you can never be with…meh’ Or: ‘Don’t organise events as well as publish because people will think you’re just trying to promote your own… Don’t…’

Yeah, all right, I hear what you’re saying. You’re scared and that’s fine. I’m just going to do what I’m going to do. People will either be with it or they won’t be with it. I hope they’re with it. If someone has a dog, I’d rather have them as a friend than an enemy.

DT:      That’s the perfect time to go into a second reading.

SJF:      I might read something from my brand-new book that I’m writing at the moment, which is due to come out in 2020, with Dostoevsky Wannabe Press, who publish Isabel Waidner and a lot of amazing people.

DT:      A fantastic publisher.

SJF:      Just a brilliant publisher, based in Manchester. They’re publishing a book of mine called ‘I Will Show You The Life Of The Mind On Prescription Drugs’. That book is a result of a residency I did at the Wellcome Trust and a lot of explorations in a field that I’ve kind of called the name ‘neuropoetics’. So it’s like neuroaethetics, but it’s about how language functions in the brain and how we might utilise language arts as a way of exploring brain function.

We are unable to reproduce this reading at this time. Apologies.

DT:      Thank you very much.

SJF:      Pleasure.

DT:      Because you’ve read new work there and you’re talking about a book you’re working on, which seems like a state you’re constantly in anyway, I could probably ask you any day, but what are your feelings around the idea of finishing something?

SJF:      That’s something I’ve thought about a lot. Thank you again for asking a question that’s on my mind often. I think because I like this notion of constant work, like I enjoy the idea of being prolific because it’s just the way my brain functions, it’s the way that I’m motivated, I have maybe a different relationship to the notion of the finished poem or the finished fiction or the finished anything.

I like it when context decides the content. I like it when the deadline is the time it’s finished. I like it when the editor decides. I’ve had lots of experience with presses and they have been almost 100% positive. I’ve had great relationships with people I’ve worked with at presses, even though I’ve worked with lots of different ones. When an editor comes in and rips things to shreds, they think I’m going to be upset about it, but I love it. I love it.

I mean, I can choose whether to accept or reject, but a lot of the time, I accept because that means it’s finished. They’ve come in and engaged with it in a way that makes it something else.

DT:      That’s a very good way of looking at it.

SJF:      So for me, the notion of the finished work is maybe slightly different than a lot of people, so I know that a huge part of their poetry is this dichotomy, this split, and again I speak to my students a lot about this, between the draft and the final version and it’s something that people tinker with, the capitalisation of certain words and the play of things.

I just had a collaborative poem with Max Porter, who’s an amazing writer, taken for Poetry magazine in America. Their editing is incredibly finite, almost to the point where I was laughing really loud, because every single time you sent something back with their corrections, they said: ‘what about this comma? Can we spell it the American way for “labour”, without the u?’ I was just like ‘whatever you like, whatever suits you.’

I don’t care. I know it does matter a lot to other poets. I know why it does, but it doesn’t matter to me. American or English spelling of labour? I don’t care! Why do I care? I mean, that’s not why I wrote it and I’m not fussed about that at all, so maybe I have a more transitional view of what finished is than other people. The finished bit is the one in the latest book. It’s on the page, I’m not working on it anymore, it’s obviously done. What about you, what do you think?

DT:      It’s interesting. I find my writing is a place that exists further from higher standards, so as a furniture maker, I have a very defined idea of what finished means, because finished means a point at which someone is going to enjoy what I’ve made and they have to live with it. It has to be durable, look right, there are a number of fluctuating criteria, but they are all very high standards, each of these criteria.

People are paying a lot of money for the furniture we make. I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, I like to think I’m good at it and what I make I’m hoping people can pass down through generations, etc. I don’t want that to exist in any other part of my life. Those standards are really exhausting, very tiring and I like that my writing is an escape from that.

I share your view, well, you didn’t quite mention it, but I think we’re probably going down the same path here, but once something’s on a page, I’m free of it and I don’t have to go back to it. I find the overwhelming relief that it’s gone and done far outweighs if I ever find a mistake in something. If I ever do read over something and think ‘Shit, that wasn’t right’ or ‘I should have changed that’, the relief that it’s gone and out of my mind outweighs any worry I would have about regretting anything that I chose to do.

SJF:      One of the weirdest things I’ve found is some of the books I’ve edited least, I think my favourite book I’ve ever written is called ‘Minimum Security Prison Dentistry’, it was published by Anything Anymore Anywhere Press. He asked me do I have a book, it’s 2011 and I’d just finished my first year in poetry and I published two other full-length books that year, which ruined me forever, basically, because you shouldn’t ever do that. Your debut book should be important.

I was oh yeah whatever, I’ve got this different stuff and mashed it together and sent it to him. ‘I love it, I love it.’ Any mistakes of it, the aberrations, it’s the best thing I’ve done and that was a huge lesson to me because the other book I did that year with Knives Forks And Spoons, ‘Red Museum’, that’s one of only two books I’ve done where I might do another version one day. Or I’ll go in and mash it up. I think that’s a big thing to me.

I don’t have set rules or patterns for things, it’s an adaptable process. You finish certain books and whatever the mysterious process is that took you to making them, especially a poetry book or collection, because they’re really weirdly constructed when you think about them, the order. People never talk about that. ‘I spent weeks on order, that follows that’ and what, four people read the book and they don’t even read it cover to cover? They pick it up at page 67 and go ‘that’s good’.

I was like ‘yeah, but that follows the poem about the egg and that’s the bacon poem’, you know what I mean? There’s this stupid process that’s mystical and strange. I’ve just learnt to embrace that and as you say, when your book comes out, you’ve got it on the page, you open it, you don’t know how you’re going to feel and that changes mood to mood, day to day, year to year. I just reserve the right that I can go back in and meddle with things if I want, but most of the time I don’t because I’ve got a new idea.

DT:      These things are at the forefront of my mind at the moment because I’m getting to the point where I’ve finished my first book, which will come out with Hesterglock.

SJF:      Congratulations and a great press.

DT:      A really good press. I’m asking myself exactly the same questions. Do I spend endless amounts of evenings after work ordering these poems or do I think well, people probably aren’t going to notice? I suppose the question is you’ve got to do whatever makes you happy in the moment.

SJF:      Exactly.

DT:      What I would like to try and achieve is some way of, what I like about shorter projects and pamphlets, I’ve done a couple with other people, is that they feel like they exist more in the moment, because you can finish them faster and you can get them out more readily. They come out fairly quickly after they’ve been written, whereas what’s coming out for me with Hesterglock has taken a much longer time to write and it spans a longer amount of time. It feels a bit like things are being shoehorned together a little bit. I think that’s what those types of books are, often.

SJF:      I’ve changed so much about that, but I do think about it a lot. I mean, it’s a good time to have good friends. I’m always pitching off stuff to people, especially people who aren’t involved in poetry at all, or even literature, and just say ‘what do you think of this?’ If you get really negative stuff back, you know you’re on the right track. I think also this can be expanded metaphorically about the notion of publishing a book in general.

The amount of people I’ve known also that have said, not to say that all my friends are negative, like I said with the prizes, but who are disappointed by the reception of their book and why maybe it’s good to have pamphlets before that. I had that. I had a crisis with a book and what it was and what the point was. I had a really profound experience with a poet called Anselm Hollo who was like the anti-laureate of America and lived the most amazing life.

He left Finland just after the Second World War to live in Germany, then lived here in the 60s and 70s, then moved to America and I put on the last-ever reading he gave before he died and I read every single one of his published books after he’d died. I felt myself powerfully in them, where he was, what he did. I realised then that his authentic expression of publishing a massive bibliography was, even if it was just me reading it, a profound and powerful physical, ambiguous expression and legacy.

Then I realised ‘wait a minute, I want that.’ Tomaž Šalamun, another person, has 45 books he published in his life and has his library in Ljubljana. I’ve been there and looked through his books and spent days reading them. You can read a person’s life through their work that way. Then I suddenly realised, lightbulb, it’s all right to publish two books a year if you want, every year. I mean yeah, 1000 people won’t read them, who cares? You can’t be there when they read them anyway.

It’s something I say to my students a lot. You’re in a job whereby the best moments your work will create for other people, you won’t witness them. There’ll just be some professional critic in The Guardian with an ideological purpose, writing reviews whether they like you or don’t like you as a person or have heard about you and met you, but the actual people who read you, you never know. So do it out of motivation. So yeah, I think about those questions a lot.

DT:      Since you mentioned putting on Anselm’s final reading in this country, this is probably a good opportunity to start talking about your curatorial work and events you put on. Could you give a quick, very brief breakdown of what types of events you run and how they run? I’ve got a couple of questions to follow on from that.

SJF:      Sure, no worries. So I basically started about 10 years ago a project called Enemies that was all about collaboration, essentially, but it was also a way to kind of Trojan-horse experimentation into live readings because I found the traditional, salon-orientated reading to be pretty unsatisfying and uninterrogated and I think 90% of people agree and are thinking of their shopping lists. We all know this kind of stuff, I don’t need to go on about that.

So really it was about internationalism and collaboration, trying to get people from different countries to come to England, work with British poets, and then that grew and I started doing tours and going to other countries to do collaborations. That was an amazing way to navigate the universe and work with other people. Then I started a project called Poem Brut, maybe two or three years ago, which is about material and a lot of things we’ve already talked about, context and content, experimentation, mess, things being hand-made, things being physical.

One of the constituent elements of any reading or performance is proximity, physical space, three dimensions. That’s what Poem Brut is about, as well as about cognitive differences. Enemies evolved into the European Poetry Festival, which was a concentration of that collaborative European energy in London. I’ve done lots of commission events, loads of events where people have asked me to come in to start a series or start themed live-literature things, so yeah, it’s been a massive, expansive part of my practice really.

DT:      What I found interesting about all of these different events you’ve put on and this is quite a selfish view because I run the podcast, blah blah blah. It’s interesting the amount of documentation that goes into it. These are successful and very well-attended life events, but there also seems a real emphasis on filming stuff, recording stuff, getting stuff locked down and preserved in some sort of way. As preserved as digital media can be. We won’t get into the nature of all that stuff. I just wanted to ask how important legacy is in your work and if it’s different for the curatorial side of your practice and your own writing?

SJF:      For my own writing, I still think I’m too early into it to understand ideas like that. Maybe I slightly mentioned that with the Anselm Hollo anecdote and why I publish a lot of books. I don’t envision a moment when my work will be useful or important to people in the future. I’m pretty sure it resolutely will stay about where it is now. I really try not to care either way.

With the events, actually I document for two reasons. One is because I really, theoretically, want to embrace their transitory nature. I think as you say, by acknowledging the limitations of the documentation, they are fundamentally simulacrous shadows of the live thing. It’s more of a way of giving the poets and artists who are engaged with it a note of respect, like here’s a thing that has recorded what you’ve done and you can use it to navigate the modern world of being a poet or an artist.

Also, a kind of engagement with professionalism, but really, the most important thing is because I resist all critical theorisation around my events, like I’ve turned down conferences on my events, I’ve turned down reviews, articles. If you scour the internet, the 600-700 events I’ve done, you won’t find many reports because when people ask me, I say no thanks. They’re not Utopian. I’m against Utopian ideas, they lead to disappointment.

It’s a transitory thing, it’s in time. We get together, we have a nice evening, we do some interesting things, we support each other, we do challenging work and then it’s Tuesday. I don’t care. The videos are precisely there, frozen in time because there is no theoretical underpinning to the events in anything but a more colloquial, professional way.

Also, when I started, I had a couple of experiences with people who told me, for example when I discovered the work of Tom Raworth, who’s very important to me, I scoured the internet for videos, for recordings. I didn’t find that many, then I’d meet people who knew him very well before he passed away and they’d be like ‘yeah, I have got a box of recordings.’ Then you’d go and it’s disintegrated. So recently, my You Tube archive, which is about 2000 videos, the National Poetry Library are going to put it in their collection and have it there for the future. That’s lovely, that is a legacy. I don’t care though. It’s just the way it is, I don’t think it’s that big a deal.

DT:      Legacy is a bit of a weighted word, I don’t really mean that, I’m just really struggling for an alternative. It resides in my mind though, I couldn’t really care less where my work sits, but the work I do with the podcast, I’m very, very engaged with preserving it. Perhaps preservation is a better word than legacy, preserving some sort of document of what you’ve done, primarily the voices of the people who’ve been involved in the events, rather than yourself, which is what I’m trying to do with the podcast.

SJF:      I think that’s great. When I followed your podcast and congratulations on what you’ve done with the podcast and the longevity of it, because that’s a huge constituent factor. People start them, do 30, then they’re like ‘I’m not getting any feedback. I’m not getting vibe, I’m going to leave it.’ In way that’s what I mean by saying I’ll take the You Tube videos and I think oh, maybe David will take this as an act of respect, I recorded his work and put it online in a resource he can access and makes him feel good about doing my event or engaging.

That’s where I stop thinking because it allows me to keep doing it every time as a practice, whereas if I was thinking I’m going to record the finest voices of my generation and put them on a You Tube channel, I would perhaps be oh, I haven’t moved the needle in terms of contemporary literature, why are they not speaking about me on the Bookseller 10 years later? I don’t care about that. That’s a big part of it, I want my events to be…

There’s an ambulance, a London ambulance. Yeah, I want my events to be transitory and engage in that, but I like being seen as a professional as well as an artist, someone who works on what they do and develops it, as I think you do too.

DT:      I’ve spent a lot of time trying to shake it off, but I’ve had to embrace it. I think it’s an unnecessary yoke I carry with me, feeling like I need to prove to everyone that I’m working hard and visibly work hard because you can’t, unless you’re going to sit in a shop window at your desk and write with everyone watching you, people won’t…

This is what I find strange about creative pursuits, it’s very seldom you’re seen to be working. I was very guilty when I first started the podcasts, that I was trying to visibly put out a lot of stuff. Not really for my own promotion, I really wanted to promote other people’s work, but I felt like it became exhausting because it was slightly for the wrong reasons. Once I addressed that and rebalanced it, I had a much healthier relationship to the whole thing.

Similarly to what you’re saying, I had to set a few ground rules which allowed me to say that’s out now, it’s gone and done and I can’t sit around to see whether I’m increasing the listener figures for this episode and whether I’m making inroads into possibly selling advertising. Once I let go of all of that…

Going back to your earlier point, I wanted to do this to be content. I don’t want to do it to be unhappy because I’m striving for things that are unattainable. I want to have the conversation and make it as accessible as possible, with points people can interact with.

SJF:      I think about this a lot, how do we get this balance? Because there is meaning in work. A lot of people aspire to be free of that kind of stuff and that was my goal. I wanted to use this pursuit to not have to work a 9am to 5pm job, because I was doing that for the first seven years of my writing. It was only three or four years ago I stopped doing that kind of work.

Now I teach, which some people see as a real hard grind, but uni teaching, I’ve had great joy doing it. It’s a great privilege for me to do it. I think about that a lot too. This constant pressure, is that why I do so much? I think about that in my head all the time. Is it that I feel guilty that I get to write a lot? Actually, no, it’s not the reason, but I have spent a lot of time thinking about it because there is clearly value and meaning in working hard and having that mentality of grinding.

I love that kind of feeling when you’re making something and you’re in it, but I’ve also had brutal suspicion and maybe one or two fallouts with people who perceive their artistic practice as some sort of grind. I’m like it’s not a grind! Oh my God, if you think that you’re a miner…

DT:      I used to work in a bronze foundry, I used to pour bronze. Since then, I haven’t moaned about any job. That was grafting. It’s not to take away from the amount of effort that people put into things, but people definitely have a skewed idea of what some people have to do for a living and the amount it takes out of them.

SJF:      Yes indeed.

DT:      There are some poor fuckers who, like you say, are in the ground for their whole working life.

SJF:      Exactly. My family’s family are paramedics, nurses, soldiers, teachers. I’ve laboured, I’ve worked on the doors. Everyone has it hard. I think that includes artists and poets because it’s all relative, but my feeling is if you’re not suspicious about what you do, unless it’s really hard, then you miss a trick in your soul. Because if you’re a nurse, working double shifts, you don’t have to worry about this question because you are just under unbelievable pressure.

But if you’ve got that mentality and you’re a writer, you’re like oh no, I’m melancholy because I sit in all day and I don’t do anything and I’m writing another book that no one reads, that’s a fair suspicion. There’s nothing wrong with that, but saying it out loud? Or living that lifestyle, like you’ve got it tough? I don’t know, maybe because I’ve done jobs where I felt I was drowning constantly, it makes me feel a bit queasy, I’ve got to be honest.

I’ve got a bit of an ethical problem with that. This is a huge constituent of my work, actually, the notion of perspective. I really think about that a lot. That’s why I like my work having this strange feeling of kind of menace and confusion because I want people to at least have a moment where, if they don’t understand it, it creates a kind of perspective of what they do understand. Maybe that’s a good function of my work, I think about it all the time.

If you read a poem that says ‘As I floated down the river, I thought of my love’, I’m like I get that, you’re remembering someone you loved, how sad. Then you read mine and it’s just squiggle, squiggle, squiggle, I don’t get it, at least then you’re creating a notion of perspective because in my lived life, exactly speaking to what you’re describing here, that’s so important to me. Perspective. We are going to die. That’s the only thing that bonds us together, that’s a beautiful thing. People in the majority of all time and place have had it 1000 times worse than I have it. How do I deal with that and still express my concerns? That’s a huge thing about what my work is about.

DT:      Let me know when you get the answer.

SJF:      Never! Exactly. When I’m in the ground. Sorry.

DT:      No, it’s fascinating. I just worry we could really go down a hole.

SJF:      Let’s do it, David, let’s turn it into a metaphysical podcast.

DT:      We’ll have to do a part two of the conversation.

SJF:      Any time.

DT:      What I’d like to just talk about briefly at the end here…

SJF:      Are we at the end? You’re breaking my heart.

DT:      We’re not at the end of anything, we are purely at the beginning.

SJF:      The beginning of the end.

DT:      Yeah. Talking about the live events, it’s vital we talk about how underpinning so much of what you do is collaboration and not only collaborating with other people, but you smashing other artists together, mainly around Europe. I know it does go wider than that, but with the European Poetry Festival, maybe we’ll talk briefly about the importance you see in collaboration.

Now we’ve touched on you admitting you’ve driven yourself into the ground by working too much and trying to prove yourself, this idea of why you feel collaboration is so important to your work and also to avant-garde writing in general…

SJF:      I suppose I was always confused that I was the only one who was interested in collaboration, in a medium that is inherently based in solitude. But then it’s based in solitude in a way I’m confused by the way people speak about it. The problem of other minds and philosophy or whatever, it’s the fundamental problem of all existence. I don’t know what other people are thinking.

I don’t know you’re not a robot right now, David. There’s no way to be inside other people’s… You’re nodding because you are an automaton. This is an issue. That’s what communication really is. We all know that most of the time when people are communicating, they’re not listening to each other. We all know we read body language, blah blah blah, we’ve read all these articles about this stuff.

The reality is that we’re a pack animal. We have a collective mindset. When we’re isolated, we feel bad about being alive. Poetry is an engagement with an internal and personal language experience. That’s what it fundamentally is. To me, collaboration is a way of mediating that. It’s an addition, it’s not to replace. Writing is a lonely task, no matter what your writing is, fundamentally. Like existence is. You’re born alone, you die alone, you don’t share a mind.

To me, collaboration is a way of literally and clumsily overcoming that. What I’ve learnt through doing it by accident, in these Camarade pairs, where I pair people off who’ve never met before and ask them to create a work with no criteria apart from a time limit, what I find is the very nature of collaboration removes a tension from the kind of practice that the poets seem to think their work represents who they are, so they write a very certain kind of way, because that’s who they are, that’s how they see themselves and when they collaborate, they get up and do wacky stuff.

They will go full weird-po, as I like to say, because they’re doing it live, it’s almost never in print and that’s not an accident even though most people think it is and they’re sharing responsibility. They can blame the other person. Maybe this is just a personal opinion or cheeky of me, but a lot of people I’ve invited have very formal print practices and they work they do live with collaborative partners is better, freer, more entertaining, more alive.

Collaboration has a methodological purpose. It’s inspiring, it’s collective, it’s human, it’s fun, it’s engaged, it changes the tenor of events. It also has a change in the way people write. It’s also about responding to how weird it is that poets and writers don’t really collaborate when almost every other art form does.

DT:      It’s been nice hearing several poets that you’ve invited say, almost apologetically, ‘I’m really surprised to have been invited to take part’. They probably don’t view their own work as being particularly stage-based or with some sort of performative aspect to their work and it’s really nice that the collaborative aspect can draw that out of them or doesn’t, just forces them to be part of it and often that’s enough. You just need the impetus to get up and perhaps have the shield of someone else standing next to you or perhaps lying on the floor or jumping around on table.

SJF:      Or crying.

DT:      Or riding round in one of those scissor lift things that was at Rich Mix last time.

SJF:      Someone built their own walking poem and walked around with a little castle. That’s the thing, it’s a protection in a way, but why not? There’s no doubt that collaboration has been a gateway to my own and many other people who’ve been involved in Enemies and the European Poetry Festival towards doing a more engaged version of a live poetry, which we have a responsibility to do, I think. To me, that means something very specific again. It’s like a version of what we’re doing with the book. It’s been an amazing, accidental exploration.

DT:      How long has the European Poetry Festival been going on for?

SJF:      We’ve done two, so the third year will be next April.

DT:      Coming up very shortly in London is the first Nordic Poetry Festival, which is an extension, is it?

SJF:      It is. It’s an experiment. It’s a sister festival because really, I got asked to do that. A lot of the poets who had come from Scandinavia and the Nordic region really enjoyed it and I’ve been invited to organise similar things across Scandinavia over the last three or four years. I’m really open to doing other kinds of sister festivals like that, with different regional specificities.

DT:      Just because this particular event is looming, maybe we should break away from having a proper conversation and go into a bit of spiel, dates, venues and stuff.

SJF:      Thank you. So the festival starts on October 11th at Burley Fisher Books, then has a second event in London, October 12th, Saturday night at the Rich Mix, the big Camarade, which I’m very happy you’ll be involved in, David. It’s fantastic, with your experience of living in Norway and so forth.

Then we’ll go on a mini tour, Norwich at the National Centre for Writing, who’ve been an amazing supportive partner of a lot of my events and these festivals, on Monday 14th October, then 15th we go to York to the Jorvik Centre, which is so funny and so good and I know all the poets probably won’t get round to hearing this podcast, so they won’t know that it’s this giant, beautiful in-joke for me that I bring all these avant-garde Scandinavian poets and take them to the Jorvik Centre, where it smells like sour milk.

I’ve actually booked the ride. They don’t know that when the reading finishes, I put them on the mechanical ride. That makes me glow inside. Then we come back for one last reading in Kingston-upon-Thames, where I teach at the university, so it’s part of the Writers’ Centre, which I run there too. Yeah, it’s short, a burst, like 30 poets coming from all over the Nordic region. There is some incredible work happening up there, it’s going to be really fun and all the events are free.

DT:      I really cannot recommend highly enough that you go and check out some of these events if you can. If not, try and find some of the recordings that will no doubt be made. Links to everything we’ve been talking about today, including links to Steven’s work, which we haven’t really touched on in terms of where you can find things, but stick around, it will be in the outro. Possibly. It’s weird talking about things I haven’t even thought about yet. They will be in the outro, they will exist.

SJF:      You will make it happen.

DT:      You can find those links in the episode description, people that are listening. It’s the end.

SJF:      It’s the end. Thank God it’s the beginning of the end. Thanks again for having me.

DT:      I’ve been really looking forward to talking to you properly. We talk fairly often, but that was the whole point of getting the microphone, it was to pin people down for an hour.

SJF:      I’m glad you’re back in London.

DT:      Me too. We’re going to finish with a reading please.

SJF:      So this is a poem from a book I published this summer, 2019, called ‘I Stand Alone By The Devils, And Other Poems On Film’, by Broken Sleep books. Thanks to them for suffering under my work.

Poem redacted

Outro:

DT:      Hello. You stuck around. Grab yourself an ice-cold Capri Sun from the fridge as a reward. I hope the traffic noises and squeaky chair didn’t annoy you too much. I also hope you enjoyed the conversation. I certainly enjoyed recording it. It’s a conversation I’ve been wanting to record for a while, so I’m glad we both found the time. We’re both pretty busy at the moment.

I’m a bit disappointed, looking back, that I let the issue of class slip by. I suppose that’s been spoken about enough in the series previously and Steven and I wanted to discuss other things, but I regret not pushing him more on the idea of recognising issues around class and ignoring them, even if ignoring them is based on providing platforms and spaces that counteract these things. Perhaps we should all be a bit more outspoken about these things, I don’t know.

For more from Steven, go over to his website stevenjfowler.com. If I started now to list all of his work, we’d be here for another hour so I will allow you to go and seek that out for yourselves. One thing I would check out is Steven’s appearance on episode 12 of Matthew Blunderfield’s Scaffold podcast, in which he talks about a residency he did at an architect’s studio and what it means to attempt to write future-facing poetry. It’s a really fascinating discussion.

I’ll be back before the end of 2019 with episode 123. I still have no idea who will be joining me though. That’s a deliberate choice now. I’m trying to not allow the podcast to take control of my life too much, so I’ll just be seeing who interests me and who is available nearer the time. That’s quite enough for today. Be good to yourselves, I’ll speak to you soon.

End of transcript.

 

Episode 65 of ‘a poem a week’

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Episode 65 of our companion podcast a poem a week is now available to download wherever you get your podcasts. This week it’s me! (apologies) I’m reading a poem called ‘The twat in the (beanie) hat’ taken from a joint pamphlet called ten cups of coffee available from the brilliant folk at Hesterglock Press from Bristol. The pamphlet includes 10 short prose poems by media, all illustrated by my wife Lizzy. The poem in this week’s episode and its accompanying illustration is featured above. Listen on Soundcloud here or through your podcast app of choice.

 

apaw david

Ep.118: 4th BIRTHDAY SPECIAL EPISODE

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To celebrate the fourth anniversary of Lunar Poetry Podcasts (01/10/2018) I chat to Abi Palmer about how and why LPP began.

We discuss how the podcast has evolved since October 2014 and the changes made because of growing audiences and funding from Arts Council England.

As with any episodes where my own life experiences play any significant part, the role of my mental health ‘struggles’ and working-class background feature heavily in this conversation.

We also talk about the brand new anthology of poems by 28 former podcast guests, ‘Why Poetry?’ (VERVE Poetry Press), out now in bookshops nationwide.

Below is a transcript of the conversation, minus the three poems I read during the episode. If you would like the complete transcript you can download the here.

For more from us:
lunarpoetrypodcasts.com/
twitter.com/Silent_Tongue
www.facebook.com/LunarPoetryPodcasts

Order ‘Why Poetry?’: The Lunar Poetry Podcasts Anthology here: vervepoetrypress.com/product/why-poetry/

For more from Abi:
abipalmer.com/
twitter.com/abipalmer_bot

Episode music is an original composition by Snazzy Rat. You can find more from Snazzy here:
snazzyrat.bandcamp.com/
www.facebook.com/snazzyrat/

 

TRANSCRIPT:

Producer/Guest: David Turner – DT

Host: Abi Palmer – AP

Introduction:

DT:      Hello, welcome to episode 118 of Lunar Poetry Podcasts, my name is David Turner. Today’s episode is a very special one as it celebrates our 4th birthday. Celebrates four years of podcasting, celebrates 118 episodes recorded in eight countries, celebrates 13 hosts and well over 200 poets in our archive and, ridiculously, it celebrates over 30,000 times somebody pressed play on an episode.

As many of you will already know, we have published an amazing anthology, ‘Why Poetry?’ through our favourite indie publisher VERVE Poetry Press which is out now in bookshops and also available through the publishers themselves for £9.99 – link in the episode description.

In the process of putting the book together Stuart Bartholomew at VERVE asked me to write an introduction to the anthology which made me feel really, really awkward as I’ve always tried to put guests and their work before me and my opinions. A compromise was reached and we decided that anthology contributor, author of the book’s beautiful foreword and bloody good friend of mine Abi Palmer would interview me and the transcript of that recording would form an extended introduction weaving its way through the 28 poems and quotes from the contributors in the book.

This brings me neatly onto today’s episode. The resulting recorded interview turned out to be a pretty good record of the history of the podcast and a very good explanation of why I started it in the first place. Most remarkably for two people that talk as much and as tangentially as me and Abi it actually made a lot of sense. Now as embarrassing as it’s been to edit an interview in which I’m the guest, I’ve been assured by some regular listeners that there will be some interest in this episode. If though during this episode you feel it’s all a load of insufferable self-centred nonsense then rest assured it won’t be happening again and we’ll be back to normal next month.

One important note about the anthology is that my wife and co-editor of the book, Lizzy Turner and I have pledged to re-invest all money we make from sales back into transcribing the podcast throughout 2019. Our Arts Council funding ends next month and we can’t be sure we’ll ever even apply never mind receive more so buying the book will directly support keeping the series as accessible as possible. As always you can find a full transcript of this conversation over at lunarpoetrypodcasts.com

I’m going to be back in the middle of the episode with more names of poets featured in the book and to read another poem from it. But as a taster here are the first 14 poets in the book: Helen Mort, Sean Wai Keung, Lizzy Turner, Grim Chip, Paul McMenemy, Donald Chegwin, Abi Palmer, Travis Alabanza, Anna Kahn, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Nadia Drews, Nick Makoha, Harry Josephine Giles and Keith Jarret whose poem ‘Granddad’s Conspiracy of Yams’ I’m going to share with you now;

 

To read this poem download the full transcript here.

Accompanying that poem is a quote taken from episode 61 from way back in February 2016 and it begins with me saying to Keith: Something I’ve thought about a lot is why people ask, “what are you trying to say with your work?” and not, “what are you trying to ask with your work?” To which Keith replies, Exactly! I’m full of loads of opinions but I’m not exactly full of answers! The more I respond to what’s going on around me, the more questions I find.

 And aping all good stand-up comedy sets, there’s a call back to that later in the episode. Here is me and Abi, we join the conversation shortly after she asked me what motivated me to start the podcast.

Conversation – Part One:

DT:      So back in the spring of 2014, that’s when I first read at a poetry open-mic night, at The Dragon Café, which is a mental-health support group. Then the following week, I read at Niall O’Sullivan’s now legendary Poetry Unplugged. I suppose between then and the summer, I was attending as many open-mic nights and poetry events as I could and because I hadn’t had much exposure to poetry, but I was just desperate to know more.

I wanted to know why people kept coming to these nights. I felt like every time I’d seen an open-mic with 10 to 20 to 30 people read, there were at least two people every night I was desperate to have a conversation with. I wanted to ask them these questions, things I was wondering, and I didn’t know enough about poetry, so there were gaps in my knowledge, and I desperately wanted to ask these people these questions and there wasn’t the space to do that.

Once I’d befriended a few poets, early on I met Sean Wai Keung and Anna Kahn they were probably the first two ‘actual’ poets to come and talk to me at an open-mic night and we started having these conversations in the intervals, I don’t think either of those two smoke, but I have this image in my mind of people huddling round with roll-ups outside poetry events, having these conversations.

Once I started being, not allowed but invited, by other people, I just thought it was ridiculous if other people didn’t get to share in those, because I realised immediately that I was lucky to be allowed into these conversations and, for reasons we’ll no doubt talk about, there are huge amounts of people that can’t access those conversations and I wanted them to be as public and accessible as possible. I felt like if I started this project, the slightly more selfish thing about it, was that I could get poets to myself for a couple of hours and just bombard them with these questions.

In lieu of me having any literature qualifications, I failed my English Literature GCSE and haven’t done anything in terms of literature since I left school, it felt like this could be my own, personal, Creative Writing MA. I acknowledged straightaway that was quite a selfish thing to do, but I reconciled my conscience by making these conversations public, no matter how silly or foolish or naïve I sounded at the beginning.

AP:       One of the things you said has come back to me in various forms over several years, that at some stages during the process, you presented yourself to me as somebody who didn’t much care for poetry, so my favourite David Turner quote ever is ‘My name is David Turner and I fucking hate poetry’. That is from a review, where you reviewed a night you really enjoyed. So my initial impression of you was someone who was intensely passionate about something that you were also intensely objective about and trying to be quite neutral in your approaches to these conversations.

I guess something that’s interesting about what you just said is that you went into it attempting to extract information back out from people and have access. Something that’s always fascinated me about the podcasts as a series is the range of voices you get and the diversity of types of poetry. Could it be a fair assumption that the conversations are the bit that’s always interested you?

DT:      It’s funny, part of me is slightly embarrassed that I used to so proudly go around saying how much I fucking hated poetry, but it was true and it’s still true, but it’s true for slightly different reasons now, the deeper I’m in it. When I first wrote that sentence down, I wrote it on several reviews that I did for Lunar Poetry Magazine, back in 2014, which was another reason that the podcasts started, because I was writing reviews of poetry events and spoken-word nights. One thing that led me to have these conversations was that the word count, although it was generous, up to 1500 words, which is exceptionally long for a review, it wasn’t long enough to talk about the things I wanted to talk about.

Going back to the point of, ‘I fucking hate poetry’, I hated poetry with air quotes, what it stood for, how exclusive it could be and how if you said you were into poetry, in most people’s minds, it was a very, very defined and narrow thing. I chose not to put air quotes around it, because I didn’t want it to seem tongue-in-cheek or like I was trying to back out of it and didn’t have conviction, because I really had conviction.

I hate poetry in the same way I hate fine art and I love fine art. If people ask me what I mean, I don’t understand how they can’t see how closely the love and hate are interlinked. What I think has changed now about what I hate about poetry is slightly different, because if you view what I said early on was a rejection of the established idea of what poetry is, I have to accept that now, four years into running a poetry podcast, I am establishment, not that I’m an established voice or opinion, but I am as established as anything I would have rejected at the start.

What I hate now about poetry are still those things about refusing access to certain people, still this defined and narrow view and all along, my motivation has been to meet people, because I find most people I meet intensely interesting. The conversations I have, I don’t ask facile questions, I don’t ask things I don’t actually want to know about people. I really want to know these things and I think everyone, as much as possible, deserves to have their say about this thing they love.

This is what I mean about not being establishment, I am a gatekeeper, because I run a series and I choose who comes on. I want to be as generous a gatekeeper as possible because whilst it’s very noble to say ‘let’s smash the system and remove all gatekeepers’, all you’re doing is setting up a new generation of gatekeepers and with every blow to the establishment, you just set up new little cliques and fashions and groups. Basically, I was just trying to reject that, I suppose.

AP: That goes back to this idea, you’ve mentioned in the past that when you started up Lunar Poetry Podcasts, you wanted it to have the feel of a zine, so a few aspects of that have been really interesting as a listener. Can you talk about what you mean by that?

DT:      My main motivation at the beginning was content over production values, to a certain extent. It was equally at the beginning as much by design and wish as it was by financial circumstances, because unfortunately with podcasts, you can’t start unless you have a microphone and a recording device and access to the internet to upload it. That doesn’t mean you can’t start an interview series, because you could have a tape cassette recorder and you could walk around and meet people, but how you distribute that becomes an issue.

Within that, the thing I loved about zines was because there was no motivation for financial gain, it was just about a subject a person loved and putting out the cheapest and most accessible version of that conversation, opinion, idea, drawing, image. I really loved that and really wanted to embrace that. I suppose one reality of making a podcast is that very lo-fi interviews, I’ve been going back through some older interviews in the course of putting this book together, and Christ, there are some shockingly bad recordings in terms of quality and it’s all my fault.

You do at some point have to accept that if you want to reach as many people as possible, which is sort of the idea of the zine anyway, is that you have to embrace the fact I probably needed to up my game production-wise. I needed to get new equipment, look towards spending some money where possible, to make the conversations as widely accessible as possible and whilst it’s nice to have a little bit of atmosphere in a conversation, it can’t be inaudible.

AP:      So, your role as a podcaster and primary interviewer, it sounds like you wanted to ask a lot of questions and get access and democratise that access to some extent. Has that changed in any way?

DT:      I’ve realised that what it means to make something accessible is not what I envisaged at the beginning. In exactly the same way as what I was rejecting in the term ‘poetry’, or the idea of poetry, the idea of what access is, is far broader than I imagined at the beginning, because most of what you’re talking about when you’re talking about access are not things I experience myself.

I’m able-bodied, my hearing is deteriorating, but I still have pretty good hearing and I’m white and cis-gendered and I’ve learnt along the way how insulting it is to claim you’re making something accessible when it’s not to someone and how disheartening and upsetting and one of many, many repeated blows that person receives in their life.

I suppose that goes back to production values as well. I probably at one point felt that if I just made something, just transcribed an episode, that would make it accessible and of course, it goes a long way, but it isn’t what that is.

Can I say, I’ve also learnt how to shut the fuck up? Because that’s very hard!

AP:      It’s a really interesting thing, my next question is, I noticed that when you’re the interviewer, you do put parts of yourself into the podcast without ever having performed a poem because you find common ground with people, despite the fact you have a really diverse range of performers. The conversations seem to flow very naturally a lot of the time and yet, you’ve got this range of poets, not from one particular scene, but from a range of scenes, the widest diversity of styles, of genres and of backgrounds of poets I’ve seen in an organised poetic structure, which it is, ever. How do you know what you’re looking for when you choose your speakers?

DT:      There is one very, very easy answer and that’s if I ever hear anyone, or overhear anyone talking about how they consider their work, pretty much it’s a green light to come on the podcast. I made a very conscious decision right at the beginning that two things would happen: I wouldn’t read my own work, promote my own work, and I would not only have people I liked on the podcast, because it would have run for about 10 episodes, then stopped.

That doesn’t mean to say I’ve had people on that I hate. The beauty of what poems and poets are is they’re so wide-ranging, even if you don’t particularly find anything in someone’s work, if you sit down long enough to talk to them, there will be areas where you will find overlaps in interest. So that’s the main thing I look for, someone who considers the process of what they do. Outside of that, there is obviously the selfish element where I’ll choose someone whose book I really love, or I’ll see them perform and think ‘I have to talk to that person, I love their work’.

AP:       I’ve had the privilege of being involved in one of those round-table discussions, where you basically put a group of people who’ve never met each other in a room together, sat in a corner, did the sound and let them talk. You said you sometimes let people do the choosing themselves, in that particular instance, did you do the choosing?

DT:      I had a Skype conversation with Harry Josephine Giles, who was the host of the ‘Access to the Arts’ episode that you were a guest on. I allowed Harry to explain to me what they felt was important to that discussion and I allowed Harry full editorial control of the conversation, then we spoke about possible guests and I suggested a few names. Out of those names, we decided to invite yourself and Andra Simons.

The reality of putting together an episode like that means there are financial constraints and logistical constraints. Harry lived, and still does, in Scotland, so the choice was for me to travel to Scotland and have an all-Scottish, local-to-Harry line-up, made up of poets, or for Harry to travel to London and us find poets based down there. That was the option we chose. There have been other episodes where ‘Poetry in Schools’ for example, Jacob Sam-La Rose had full control invited Miriam Nash and Keith Jarrett, I had no say in that, nor did I want any.

That’s the thing, I suppose, I’ve had different roles in the podcast and I am host, editor and producer, sometimes all at once, sometimes I’m just one thing.

AP:       How do you juggle that?

DT:      It’s really hard. It happens more naturally now, but I don’t think it’s necessarily any easier, it just suddenly becomes habit. It’s still exactly the same amount of energy. The nature of a single host/editor/producer-based podcast is that you have to be present in the conversation, aware of background noise, make sure your guest is comfortable, the recorder is on, still on, still on, listen to your guest, do not stop listening to your guest.

Make sure the recorder is on, listen to your guest, then and only then, do you get to think about what questions you might want to ask. I don’t make notes generally, I like to go in and for it to be a natural conversation. I don’t know how relevant this is, but I liken it a lot to the improvised stuff that I used to do, in which whilst you’re improving in the moment, you’ve probably got an idea of what your middle and end point is to be, then you improvise within that, so I will have an idea of who my guest is and what they might want to talk about, might not want to talk about, which is also important, then how they want to talk about it. Then it’s all about getting from the starting point to the middle point to the end.

AP:      That’s a really interesting thing. I keep coming back to this idea of the podcast and its relationship with zine culture. In that as well, even in the role of editor/producer/host and having to juggle it all and put it together and do it like a series of, not a collage because it’s a linear interview process, but that thing where from start to finish, you’re assembling a production, an object that goes out into the world, you’re collaborating with somebody else and it feels like a collaboration when you’re listening.

It’s a two-way conversation, it requires both people, sometimes it’s a multiple-way conversation, but it feels like there’s a democracy to it that doesn’t always exist for instance in a poetry performance, where you have to sit quietly and watch one person and read the room as to whether you clap at the end of the performance. Then the next person who’s been chosen goes up and then you get an interval when you’re allowed to talk for approximately five minutes and then you sit back down.

It’s not that. You’ve created a platform that’s far more democratic. I like the podcast as an object for poetry because you can pause it, you can move it around. Has the podcast format been important to you?

DT:      I’m really glad you brought up the term dialogue, because that’s what I wanted. I wanted to avoid too many things I’d seen at spoken-word nights. The reason I don’t read my own work, or out of 116, 117 episodes, the reason I’ve only read a poem three times on the podcast, and that’s in very special circumstances, is because I didn’t like going to events where the host would read the first three poems of the night and centre themselves and detract from the guests. I really didn’t like that, so I rejected that idea.

My main editorial thought when I’m in a conversation with someone is I’m not actually in conversation with my guests, I’m in conversation with the audience, which as the audience have steadily grown over the last four years, so has my awareness of that obligation, because I do see it as an obligation. If you’re demanding an hour or an hour and a half of someone’s attention, you need to bear them in mind. You have to centre the audience.

Hopefully I’ve always been able to give people enough time, it hasn’t always worked out like that. Too many podcasts, too many people are involved with projects that are basically just producing a monologue. I’ve definitely been guilty of taking over conversations too much, talking too much. It’s really hard to shut up if you really like someone or if they’re sparking ideas at you.

It’s also hard if someone’s very shy. It took me a long time to learn how to bring someone out of their shell rather than talking over the top of them to fill in the space.

AP:       That’s something I’ve admired, knowing you, because we’re both talkers. It’s interesting to listen to you and watch you step into the professional role and take space.

DT:      It’s a performance.

AP:       OK, so it’s a dialogue and a performance at the same time. That’s very interesting. What have you learnt about your audience?

DT:      That they’re really loyal and really, really exceptionally broad-minded, because they seem to equally stick with any guest I put in front of them. It’s amazing to think hundreds of people tune in. Most of my audience must not know most of my guests because I don’t necessarily know people before I get to talk to them. There are a lot of people who’ve been on the podcast when I haven’t really known much about their work.

People continue to listen to back episodes and I can see through the stats that most people stick with most of the episodes. One thing you learn is about people’s listening habits, how people return to subjects and return to episodes. Not everyone shares their identity through the devices they listen on or the software they listen on, but I will see through my stats service that they have returned three or four times to a particular episode.

It’s really nice. That’s the exact difference and why I love podcasts over radio, because there’s a pressure to be live and be present for the radio, a podcast serves the same purpose as a journal in that you can lay it down on the table and come back to it when you’re ready. Another thing I’ve learnt about my audience is that it’s global. Right from the very beginning, I’ve had people in Malaysia, India, Australia, America, Argentina. Apart from the two polar continents, there are listeners on every continent, which is insane and it’s really beautiful to be able to give a poet the opportunity to communicate with those people.

I do get properly emotional if I think about that side of things, it’s too much to comprehend then I end up being glib and sarcastic to not cry. It’s just too much. I cannot get my head around it.

AP:       And they’re strangers.

DT:      Right from the beginning, I expected friends to listen for a while, family members out of a sense of obligation to listen for a little while, but what? Would you give people 10 episodes? That’s too much to stick with it unless there’s actually some meat there.

You do have to avoid as a podcaster the evil that is an over-reliance on your statistical analysis through whatever hosting platform you use because that is just numbers and it will drive you insane and it’s very unhealthy. But what it does, one of the few positives it gives you, is you can see people come back and that there’s a natural ebb and flow of the way people interact with the thing you make, which you’ll never get, for example, from a collection you release. If you’re an artist, you don’t get this information.

You get sales information, but you don’t know how many times people have picked up your book. I know how many times a good percentage of my listeners have picked up the podcast, it’s really fascinating and sometimes, all-consuming.

AP:       I’m very aware that you’ve spent a lot of time providing platforms for speakers from a really diverse, not in terms of content, but of who they are. You’ve provided a platform for some very difficult conversations that aren’t happening in many places in the arts. Can you talk to me a little bit about that, how you’ve increased the diversity of your podcast?

DT:      If anyone asks my advice on how to run a successful podcast, an interview-based podcast, and that is that you have to listen to your guest, because if it’s just a list of questions, the audience will know that you’re not, the guest will know and everyone’s interest will wane, including your own. If you’re going to have conversations around difficult subjects…. These are not difficult subjects per se, these are subjects that are very emotive to people and when they’re done wrongly, they are very, very painful to the people they affect.

It just seemed the natural thing for me to do and I can’t believe that more organisations don’t do it. Some do it very well, but a lot make a lot of mistakes. They don’t listen to the people they’re trying to address. If you want a very, very simple example, if you’re trying to talk about access for the hard of hearing to an audio production such as a podcast, you cannot have that conversation unless it involves primarily someone that is hard of hearing.

I mean primarily, to give them full editorial control and to give them the platform, not give them the chance for a soundbite, not give them a chance to give you enough opinion that you can then chop up and frame your own editorial viewpoint, it’s to give them the microphone and let them talk about how that’s affected them. Also, an extension of that, to acknowledge that it is a single person’s experience of the world and that every other hard-of-hearing person listening to that or engaging with that conversation will probably not have experienced it in quite the same way. There will be a lot of overlaps, but they will have their own experiences.

That’s why Harry Giles was invited to our Access to the Arts. That’s why Khairani Barokka was invited for Access to Publishing. That was why Paula Varjack was invited to talk about artists being paid, because all three of those people already made it their point to publicly talk about these subjects.

That means you’ve got somebody whose informed about the subject. It also means you’re not burdening that person to come up with a whole episode for you. Essentially, once they leave, you profit from everything they’ve done. That was another thing, I didn’t want to be profiting from everyone else’s experiences because that is unfortunately what a lot of organisations do as well. By virtue of the fact of you seeming accessible, you bask in the glow of your own accessibility and I don’t want that. I want something to be accessible and I don’t want the credit of that conversation afterwards.

I do want to be known as an accessible producer because I think it’s the right motivation for life, professionally and personally. I don’t want to be the one that takes the credit for any conversation somebody else has led or contributed to with their own experiences.

AP:       Something you did at the end of the first year of Arts Council funding was to publish publicly on your website a list of stats of the demographic of speakers you had and where the money went, an honest breakdown of exactly where it went. It was notably diverse in some areas, you talked about where there was room for improvement. It was the frankest summary of how an Arts Council budget had been used that I’d seen. What was your intention in doing that?

DT:      My intention was to instil some sense of accountability in other producers. If we just talk about the demographic of the guests and hosts, for example, it was a very, very hard thing to put together because it took a lot of trust that my guests and hosts knew that I wanted that information for the right reasons, not to make myself look good because you could twist that information to any purpose you want.

Also, it’s not a very nice thing to say to someone they’re invited on first and foremost as a writer, then a follow-up email saying ‘could you please identify yourself in all these different ways so that I can prove I’m doing what I’m doing?’ That took a lot of trust on the part of the people filling out the surveys, which were all anonymous. I waited until everyone had submitted their information before I looked at the results and they were all collated, so I don’t know who identified in which way.

The main motivation was to then turn around and say ‘this is what I set out to do’. I tried to frame it that way, that this is what I set out to do, these are the areas where I think I achieved those aims, equally these are the areas I felt like I failed, or had fallen short, I don’t think I failed in any area, but I did fall short on a lot of things and I tried to highlight what I’d learnt along the way. Like we said earlier in the conversation, a lot of the things I was asking of myself to do as being accessible and having some sort of representation in the whole series, I was far more aware of those things by the time all the questions had been answered, then it was too late to revise the questions, so I was stuck with quite a narrow view.

Although it is wider than a lot of organisations have asked, it was still quite narrow in what I subsequently learnt. The biggest thing I learnt from having an amazing group of hosts and guests come on through these round tables, particularly the round-table discussions, but also the individual one-to-one interviews where we talked about similar subjects and themes, like accessibility and representation, is that every single one of those guests and hosts stated the fact they accepted that mistakes would be made, it was how you then faced up to those mistakes and if you were just honest and held your hands up to say well, we need to improve in these areas, people can live with that.

Everyone knows everyone makes mistakes. There is a pressure on you then to not continually make those mistakes. Although sometimes you learn more and more about people and certain themes and subjects, it can become daunting and almost terrifying to think if I fuck this up, people are going to be really upset, but similarly, the more I learnt about people, the more confidence it gave me to face up to things. People really respect that.

AP:       When you talk about how you interview people, how you don’t necessarily come with a script or agenda, there’s a vague outline but it happens live, it sounds like the same sort of thing has happened with the conversations around accessibility. You’ve had to listen and adapt the conversation as you’ve learnt more. Would it be safe to say it’s been a user-led experience?

DT:      I would say as much as possible, yes, but as part of accountability, it would be wrong for me not to say I have to accept it’s not a user-led experience, because I’m still editing stuff. It’s a collaboration, where I aim as much as possible to have it, even it if ends up 51%-49%, in favour of the guest or audience, that’s better than nothing. Ideally, I would aim for more like 80%-20% with my final 20% being just the mechanics of editing and putting something out, I don’t think you can actually achieve that.

That’s what’s led people to engage with the series, as participants, is I acknowledge that right from the beginning. All people want to know is you’re going to do your best to present them as they want to be presented, but the only way they could be properly represented, or presented, is to give them their own show. I give them an episode, but they don’t get the show. They get the platform for the time they’re on it.

It’s important to acknowledge that because it gives you a more realistic idea of what it’s possible to achieve. If you go around saying ‘Look at me, I give everyone this platform’, you’re making it about yourself and centring yourself as a gift-giver and we don’t want to go down that fucking route.

Middle ‘introduction:

DT:      Hello, I hope you’re enjoying the conversation so far, as I said at the beginning don’t worry if you’re not… it won’t be happening again!

Due to us not planning to publish this conversation in its entirety it did break down a lot and there were also toilet and tea breaks, most of which I got rid of through the magic of editing but this little break here, well nothing could save it.

I thought I’d take this opportunity to thank VERVE Poetry Press for giving me the opportunity to put together ‘Why Poetry?’ and for that opportunity to allow me to work so closely with my wife Lizzy. It’s been a wonderful if very consuming experience. I’ll also use this space to give you the names of the other 14 writers in the book, they are:

Luke Kennard, Amerah Saleh, Khairani Barokka, Joe Dunthorne, Zeina Hashem Beck, Kim Moore, Rishi Dastidar, Sandra Alland, Giles L. Turnbull, Susannah Dickey, Mary Jean Chan, Leo Boix, Roy McFarlane and Jane Yeh. It’s a pretty stellar line up.

Before we re-join the conversation, I’m going to share another poem from the book by Nadia Drews, this is called;

To read this poem download the full transcript here.

And that’s accompanied by a quote from episode 86 back in October 2016  in which Nadia says: Music and politics are the things that have shaped anything that I’ve put on paper. I was brought up by my mother who has had a lifelong commitment to socialism […] In middle age, what I’m still trying to act on are those impulses from my teenage years. I think the world is rotten to its core and I believe that music and other art forms, like poetry, can play a role in lifting people’s spirit to change it.

We re-join the conversation just after Abi has asked me what effect receiving funding from Arts Council England for the first time had on the way I produce the series.

Conversation – Part Two:

DT:      I can’t say anything other than it revolutionised everything I did. It made all the ideas I had possible overnight. It was amazing. The Arts Council have their flaws and the application process is littered with issues and problems, but there is no way I could deny the positive effects having that money suddenly had on the project because it meant I could go and talk to the people I wanted to and it didn’t matter if they were in Northern Ireland. I could travel to Belfast, travel to Leeds and dedicate a whole episode on poets who also worked as playwrights and have an episode specifically about poets as playwrights in West Yorkshire.

I could only have dreamed about having such a niche subject, which turned out to be a really rich couple of conversations. I couldn’t just wait for people to come to me in London.

AP:      And you’re taking your audience with you when you turn up. You’re opening up a world of poetry that isn’t just London. Even as someone based in London, the Yorkshire theatre episodes are interesting, in knowing there is a niche scene out there which as a listener, you wouldn’t have been able to access. It’s hard enough just in London, sometimes, just to get out of the house. As a disabled listener who can’t get out of the house, sometimes the Lunar Poetry Podcasts can be a lifeline.

You get adopted into a clique and then can’t show up enough and that’s a disgusting part to me about the creative scene in a country that has some arts budget. It’s disgusting to see how many decisions around who is allowed in and who isn’t is based on who turned up at the right pub on the right day. That comes with a whole host of problems, so having a podcast that’s managed to avoid those pitfalls is exciting. It stops it being lonely and being about anyone’s gang.

That’s leading me to the next question, you have identified on the podcast as someone from a working-class background and also someone who’s had mental-health obstacles and you talk about that very openly. I wanted to ask how that has affected your access to arts, how was that for you growing up?

DT:      I’m lucky that I come from a household where both my parents read a lot, mainly romance novels and horror novels, so I was surrounded by books. It goes back to just because you identify in some way, your personal experience will be different to those that identify in the same way. Whilst it’s a very valid and true narrative that for some working-class people, the only reading material was a newspaper on a Sunday, that is not the case…

Just because you’re working class, it doesn’t mean in any way you’re unable to engage with the arts. What it probably does mean is you engage with a very particular type of the arts. The same could be said of middle class and above. It’s just there probably is a stereotype and it’s definitely one I encountered, that poetry is trying to be too clever and if you are into poetry, you yourself are trying to be too clever and that is aspirational and that can be really poisonous when identifying strongly as working class.

As I said earlier, I failed my English Literature GCSE and went on from school to serve a joinery apprenticeship, so became a joiner. I did, for three months, do half of a Fine Art foundation course. I broke my elbow falling off a scaffold and couldn’t finish the course, but I was offered places at Wimbledon School of Art and Goldsmiths to read History of Art, but I turned those things down. The reason I mentioned the fact I failed my English GCSE and didn’t go to university is because I was having, both times, borderline emotional breakdowns.

That’s how my mental-health obstacles have impacted the way I interact with the arts. They have physically stopped me interacting with life and by extension, the arts, because my mental-health obstacles, specifically for me bipolar type 2, has incapacitated me at times, has disabled me physically and mentally and emotionally for obscenely long stretches of my life. It stopped me engaging with anything, never mind the arts.

I wrote a lot in my late teens. In my early 20s, I used to write reviews of art exhibitions I went to for my own amusement. I’ve always been able to generate or form ideas in my head through a dialogue. I’ll either talk to myself or write a conversation with someone else and that’s come out in reviews as well. Then I had a really severe emotional breakdown, I suppose I was about 24. It was the first time I ended up in hospital. It was only a short stay but it was a big thing to happen.

I stopped writing at that point. I didn’t write again until I was 33. The spring of 2014, I was admitted to the Maudsley psychiatric hospital in South London and I spent five weeks there. In there, I was encouraged to write. I had issues with compulsive and impulsive thoughts and I was encouraged to write these down because I couldn’t articulate them at the time. I’ve never really had any problem talking about my mental-health state, but at that time, I was emotionally exhausted and couldn’t articulate it. So I was encouraged to write these things down and when I left, I had these notebooks of lists, of phrases and sentences, which looked like poems but didn’t read as poems.

This is one of the things about this being a journey, or an education, for me in poetry. I now know that they are just found poems, ‘list’ poems. I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know what these things were that I was writing. Going back to the start, I then went and saw an open-mic event at the Dragon Café, which was a support group I attended and I saw someone read a poem. It was one of the few times in my life where it really felt like a lightbulb had gone off in my head.

I realised that what I wanted to do was talk to people and that perhaps there was something in this medium that would allow me a way of articulating a truth about what I was feeling, but communicate in a way that wasn’t centring myself and was accessible for other people to recognise aspects of it. Having spent five weeks in that hospital, a secure psychotic specialist ward called John Dickson, it taught me very, very plainly that not everyone that goes through those things has the ability to talk about their experiences afterwards.

I sort of came out of that feeling as though I had an obligation because if I ever felt I could talk about mental-health problems, then I probably should. I suppose the last four and a half years since coming out of the hospital, what I’ve been trying to learn along the way, is what was an appropriate time to share those feelings in conversations. What is the right way of talking about your own experiences that would allow space for other people to talk about themselves?

I haven’t found the answer and I am probably unlikely ever to find that answer, because of course it varies from person to person, experience to experience and moment to moment as well. Again, it goes back to your motivations. If you’re seeking that, people will probably sense it and trust you more.

AP:       That’s a really beautiful way of addressing a destabilising experience and also it really resonates for someone who also has to physically check out of a scene and come back in. I think having a physical record of the conversations you’ve been having since 2014 and the learnings you made that in a way, does enable other people to track that journey, that’s a really valuable thing to have.

DT:      Something that’s suddenly fallen into place in my head is that when I first started interviewing people and Lizzy, my wife, was my main co-host, mainly because we were both happy to work for free on this project, and we didn’t mind, because poetry had become our life anyway and it wasn’t an intrusion to have these conversations. Early on, the first question would always be ‘why poetry?’

I’ve sort of stopped asking that, or I do ask it, but in more nuanced ways and I try to tailor it to each guest, but it was really important for me to find out why would you be doing this? Why are you here, sharing these ideas, to what aim, to what end? Because there’s a really strong link with your mental health, because there’s nothing more poisonous than wondering what the fuck you’re up to, but questioning what you’re doing, questioning your own motives, because that can really eat away at you.

You’re absolutely right, it was really nice to look back on this archive of evidence of what I was doing and why I was doing it and when I came out of the hospital – I’ve never really thought of it this way – but I needed something to do. I needed something to fill my time that wasn’t destructive. I needed a space where I could talk about those destructive things, because that’s what my poetry is. Not that it’s destructive, but it is facing up to these hard things in my life.

I think this project, this series, has given me a way to keep shouting into the void that is the internet: Why poetry? It really could be: Why anything? It’s the why that’s the important bit. I don’t understand why people listen, why people come on as guests, I don’t understand why I’m doing this, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s happened and I can’t say it isn’t happening, because it’s there, isn’t it?

It’s a very real thing that’s happened in my life, a very real thing that’s happened in my life that my mental-health issues and my predilection to look at more negative things in my life and focus on them, I can’t turn this into a negative because it hasn’t been a negative.

AP:       The Why? question is almost every poem ever written, isn’t it? What you’ve got is a series of Whys? framed in different language. When people are reading their poems and you’re having different Why? conversations with each guest, that’s what a poem is, isn’t it? Different ways of having the same conversation and using language to explore this big, existential hole we’re in. Why do we need arts funding? Why is it so important that in this country, we have access to things that aren’t solid fact?

I think the politics of the podcast is also an interesting aspect. An interesting thing about poetry is it’s something that’s lorded by both the left and the right wing in different ways and it’s held up as this high art, but also this waste of time.

DT:      This has been the most productive waste of time in my life. I think we’re really lucky as humans in the West that we are afforded a space to waste our time and it should be embraced. It’s difficult, sometimes, if you say to a poet ‘It’s really great you’ve got a way of wasting your time’, people take it personally, as if you’re saying it’s not any good or there’s no point.

It’s the very thing with how we view what art is in the West because it’s a very Westernised view of what this kind of artistic representation is, but it is what you do in your spare time and this is why class politics is so important to me, because not everyone is afforded the time to play around.

Not everyone is afforded the time or permission to waste their time, whether that’s because they’re from a background where it’s heavily frowned upon and they’re judged for what they’re doing, or they physically can’t engage with something, or they are not allowed to identify their own gender or sexuality in public. Or – and I suppose you have to be open-minded – they’re not also allowed to write a love poem to Theresa May. I don’t know. As disgusting as I imagine that piece of work may be, it’s important that someone would be allowed to do that. You can’t deny that person this shit they want to make.

AP:       I was going to say a really profound thing, but I’m suck on that love poem now! I was just thinking about the luxury of self-expression linking to the luxury of self, that’s what it is, isn’t it? The luxury of being allowed to be exactly who you are, even if that is a love poem to Theresa May. The only way we’re going to answer the Why? questions which lead to language around, for instance, the new language, the fact that non-binary is a recognised term, is a new experience for a lot of people. The fact there are words for certain types of trauma, certain types of experience. If we didn’t play with language and create space for questions, we wouldn’t have the language to identify what’s actually going on in our lives.

DT:      Politically, if you see campaigns about other governments and other regimes, to varying and horrifying degrees of punishment, very often what we’re complaining about is denial of freedom of expression and it’s really poisonous for people. It’s so destructive to somebody’s being to be denied the chance to define themselves and express themselves the way they want to and if I can play any role in allowing someone to express themselves in the way they want to, I view that as more important than anything I might write myself or any chance to be published or lorded as a podcaster.

Some people may not believe you and I don’t give a fuck what they think, because I know in myself that is my motivation. That is what I want to do, give people the chance to chat, even if that’s a chance for someone like Donald Chegwin to come on and do his King Prawn poem, something that might seem really stupid to some people, or not stupid, but less important than certain things.

AP:       Also it’s worth acknowledging the experience of Lunar Poetry Podcasts now being archived in the British Library. They’re now a body of literature that’s been collected. What did that mean to you?

DT:      I was hugely proud of that. It, sort of, runs up against my naturally self-deprecating personality, but I really felt I’d achieved something, because it meant these disparate voices were suddenly in a really established archive. It meant that someone like Mishi Morath, someone that doesn’t even class themselves as a poet and in his own words is ‘just an open-micer’ is now in a national archive, which will be, until we’re taken over by the ants, forever preserved.

AP:       Ants love podcasts.

DT:      My aims when I started were to learn to make a podcast, to make 100 episodes, that was completely arbitrary, I don’t know why I chose that, and to be accepted and archived somewhere. I don’t know why that was in my mind. It just felt like that would be… I tell you what, I think it would be that was then my permission to make something and whilst you shouldn’t go through life wanting permission, it is a very real thing.

You do want that affirmation and more than that is the permission to do something. I think that’s why I felt so strongly that I had an obligation to give other people a place to talk, because I felt like I had no right to be here, because of my background. It’s not you can’t be published as a working-class writer, it’s none of those things, but whilst that is now becoming an easier thing to achieve, it is not the accepted status quo in production and editorial roles.

You are not given the permission to run something as a marginalised voice. It isn’t that I don’t feel I can be a writer, I feel I can because I physically write and you’re not defined as being a writer by being published and you’re not defined as a writer through anything other than writing is what my belief is. Taking the next step up, when you’re in some position of responsibility and in control of a project, that is not available to people.

That is still only available to a very select group of people in this country. I think I needed that permission and that kind of affirmation to be able to turn around to anyone who ever questioned anything I’d done and just say ‘well, they think it’s worth archiving’. When I had a meeting with them, they sat down and sold themselves to me, because they knew I had a collection of voices that they hadn’t gotten hold of before.

There are many poetry archives within the British Library and they were themselves surprised that there were so many poets they hadn’t heard of. That made me really proud. I was really happy that day.

AP:       We’ve now come to the point where we’ve got an anthology about a podcast about poetry that is now going to be a collection of poetry. What made you want to put a book out in this form?

DT:      Right from the beginning, I didn’t shy away from the fact I wanted to keep the word poetry in the title, so it became Lunar Poetry Podcasts because when I started, the fashion was to talk only of spoken word and to frame it as a spoken-word project, but I wanted to root it firmly in the act of writing poetry and the tradition of printing poetry on paper because whilst the oral tradition in poetry is much longer and the oral tradition of storytelling is much longer, it was only the advent of the printing press that made any form of literature accessible, because it meant you didn’t have to be sitting in the presence of the person telling the story.

I didn’t want to lose touch with that. It seemed natural to go from the written word to the spoken word to the recorded voice to a digital form, to then return back to a paper form. It seemed the natural thing to do. All of this is pointless speculation without a publisher and it wasn’t until Stuart at Verve Poetry Press said ‘we’ll do it’. I was like ‘yes, OK’ because while I had an idea of what it might be, you may as well just be imagining anything at that point if you haven’t had a firm offer.

Things like including quotes to go alongside the poems was an idea Lizzy, who’s co-editing this book, had. She suggested it would be a really good idea to have them in. I didn’t dismiss it, but I didn’t imagine a publisher would want to go with that idea and then Stuart said he loved that idea as well. It was just a really perfect way to frame the poems, retain another dialogue, not just dialogue through the poetry but retain elements of the dialogue and root the anthology firmly within these conversations again. That was really nice, that something that leapt to Lizzy’s mind immediately, we were able to put that in place.

AP:       I’ve seen the range of writers that are included and some of the quotes you’ve pulled. I was really interested to see some of the quotes are a lot about the diversity of poetic practice, there’s a lot about process, so not just Why? but How? It’s fascinating to read as an external observer who doesn’t know which poem has been chosen from each person and see it framed like that. Has that been a big part of it for you? It was exciting to hear that’s a big part of it for Lizzy as well. You’re a husband and wife team, you married a year ago tomorrow.

DT:      I met Lizzy at Poetry Unplugged.

AP:       So poetry has been a big part of your relationship and the support network you provide each other, I’m also fascinated by and in terms of the dialogue and roles you have. Is the dialogue about practice a big part of the anthology for you? I want to pull Lizzy into that question as well.

DT:      The editorial and production process in the podcast is far more weighted towards me. It’s a project I started and it is identifiably my project. Lizzy has provided a huge amount of physical, logistical support. She is beyond anyone, the person I’ve ranted ideas to endlessly and she’s enabled me to talk things out and given me a space, because I don’t talk about my own ideas that much on the podcast, I need a space to work things out.

We have those conversations over dinner, over breakfast, on the way to work and at night and there wouldn’t be a podcast without her. It would have fizzled out. I don’t think I would have been able to maintain the energy without having someone else involved. When it came to the anthology, I wanted to make sure she was more involved.

I would say the selection first of all, we each wrote down 30 names of people we would invite to the anthology, then we compared them. Any overlaps went immediately into the invitation list, then the remaining five, six or seven, we discussed and debated about who we should add to the list. As poems started coming in, we each read the submissions independently and again, made a top four, depending on how many submissions there were and the ones we agreed upon went in. We’ve got fairly similar taste. Where there were divergences, we discussed them further and re-read them. At some points, we said to each other ‘This person is probably more to your taste and it should be your choice’.

So there were a couple of times where we allowed the other person to choose the work.

AP:       Your invitation to submission definitely didn’t mention anything to do with the poems having to have featured on the podcast. Are there poems that have featured on the podcast?

DT:      I would say maybe two, three possibly. Most people have been really generous and submitted new work. Some people have submitted previously published work and that will all be credited and listed in the back of the book if people want to know. It just seemed natural and in keeping that we said to people ‘all we want to do is give you page space, we don’t want to tell you what to submit’.

It reflected more the desire behind the podcast, to just say we want you to be part of it, but we want you as much as possible…and again it’s about this collaborative aspect that ideally, we would just give you the page space for whatever you want to show, but in reality, you’ll have to submit some work and we’ll see what’s appropriate and what fits. We’d like to have some idea how it’s framed, but essentially you get to choose the four or five poems you submit and it won’t be anything other than the things you’re happy to submit. It’s about finding that blend.

A lot of people that come on, I have favourite poems and there are things I’d love them to read to me, but I won’t request them. I want the person in that moment to be happy with how they’re represented. We wanted to have that as much as possible in the book as well. There’s a huge range of writing. If you think Helen Mort was a guest in episode three back in December 2014 and her work is hugely different, there’s no way of saying ‘Can we have something like what you did?’ but she’s since had another fantastic collection, No Map Could Show Them and numerous other publications. Her way of thinking about writing I’m sure has changed immensely.

AP:       Both being a guest and also listening to the podcast as a collection and a series of dialogues is the sheer number being churned out one after the other and the sheer number of conversations, how they’ve grown, how they’ve evolved and the different shapes conversations can take. It’s a good reminder that art isn’t a fixed object and that we, whether we’re listeners, whether we’re actually engaging with the form that’s being discussed or whether we’re an audience, we’re not finished yet, any of us.

DT:      You’ve just reminded me of a quote I pulled out for Keith Jarrett and I think it’s a really beautiful summation. I had said ‘I can’t understand why people ask you what are you trying to say with your work and not what are you trying to ask of your work.’ His reply was ‘I’m full of loads of opinions, but I’m not exactly full of answers. The more I respond to what’s going on around me, the more questions I find.’ It’s almost so succinct, it makes the podcast irrelevant. It just says what everyone has said constantly for 100-odd episodes.

AP:       I wish that’s what arts education in this country did, I wish it’s what GCSE English did. I’ve tutored GCSE English for years and having to explain to disaffected 16-year-olds that poems aren’t trying to tell you one thing is a constant job. I wish they printed that at the beginning of every GCSE syllabus in every country.  I wish I’d known that when I was 16. The fact there isn’t a locked door. This is the myth of poetry, that there is a locked door and either you get it or you don’t and you’re constantly trying to solve a riddle like Sherlock Holmes. But the idea of poetry being a riddle is so offensive and sad and so much part of education and what’s wrong with aspects of literature education.

DT:      It’s an idea that’s supported and perpetuated, isn’t it? The more that was held up as an example and benchmark, the more poetry was written in that style. By far the biggest regret that most poets had on the podcast is that poetry has been traditionally taught so badly in schools and taught as this exclusive club you can only join if you understand and fully engage or can pretend to, with a very select band of dead poets. That is not a rejection of those poets’ works, but most of those poets are writing in a way that supports a particular type of government and a particular idea of what empire was, national identity.

It’s so easy to imagine why people reject it. That doesn’t mean that everyone will come round to love it, because that’s the world we live in. Some people will never want to engage with poetry and that’s fine, but I do think if you taught something closer to the breadth and depth of what poetry actually is, then more people would respond positively to it. I hope that’s what the podcast has done for some people.

AP:       That’s a really nice point to end it on. Is there anything you wanted to add?

DT:      No, I think we’ve covered everything. We should have done, it’s gone on for a while!

Outro:

Hello, you stuck around. Grab a biscuit as compensation for sitting through me talk for an hour! Thank you so much to everyone that has downloaded/listened-to/shared an episode over the last four years. I’ve really loved having the space and time to talk to you all and share so many wonderful poets with you.

If any of you out there are thinking of starting a podcast I would say just go for it. Bear in mind that it’s a lot of work but anything in which you’re going to pour your creativity into is a lot of work. Don’t let that put you off. Also, don’t listen to anyone that says it costs thousands of pounds to get started, that’s just rubbish. I produced my first 76 episodes using smartphones, tablets and a USB microphone. And if you don’t have those then get in touch with other podcasters, they’re a very friendly bunch and likely to help you out in some way.

That’s it for today, for more from us visit lunarpoetrypodcasts.com, find us at Lunar Poetry Podcasts on FaceBook and Instagram or @Silent_Tongue on Twitter. I’ll be back next month with episode 119 chatting to Bristol poet Shagufta K. Iqbal.

I’m going to leave you with a poem by one of my favourite poets Susannah Dickey which is accompanied in the book by this quote from episode 108, November 2017 in which Susannah says:

It’s not the most important thing, to be published, because it’s the act of writing and what that gives you […] It’s really lovely to feel like you’re getting closer to that stage of producing the kind of material that you really respond to; because, while you like to feel like your work is saying what you want it to, it’s also a really nice thought that someone else might be responding to it similarly, in the way that you respond to others’ work.

Which is quite a nice summation and open-ended question as to why people not only write but try to share their work…

This is;

To read this poem download the full transcript here.

 

End of transcript.