Reviews of the Ephemeral

Archive for the ‘Conversation’ Category

In conversation with Helen Ivory

In Conversation on October 15, 2013 at 9:18 am
-In conversation with Claire Trévien-
Helen Ivory is a poet and artist.  Her fourth Bloodaxe Books collection is Waiting for Bluebeard (May 2013) She has co-edited with George Szirtes In Their Own Words: Contemporary Poets on their Poetry Salt 2012.  She teaches for the Arvon Foundation, The Poetry School and mentors for the Poetry Society. She edits the webzine Ink Sweat and Tears and is an editor for The Poetry Archive.  She will be on a panel on Monday 21 October at Byte the Book on the future of poetry publishing.

Sabotage Reviews: As an editor at the Poetry Archive and the editor of Ink, Sweat and Tears, what do you think is the place of the digital in poetry?

Helen Ivory: I think that having poems online makes it easier to share work.  Before the digital age, if people wanted to read poetry they would have had to get off of their sofas to find it. Now, they can access it on whatever electronic device they happen to have.

It’s also easier to combine other media with poetry- for example on the Archive you can listen to poets reading their work so you can hear the music of their voice and the weight of the silences and words, so the poem’s performance is a working part of the poem.  On Ink Sweat & Tears, we publish work which combines word & image, which can be too expensive to do in print media.

SR: In recent years there has been a resurgence in lo-fi articles, zines that embrace their low-budget, a preference for the hand-crafted over the sleek, I wonder how you feel about this with regards to poetry, and whether you think it’s a movement that is likely to continue to grow?

HI: As a visual artist who makes work from found objects and cuts up ephemera and old publications to make collages, I am very much singing from the same song sheet.  I do think it’s a movement that’s likely to grow because now people are being asked to examine the nature of the media they are using and what qualities they want from it and what that says about the kind of publication they are involved in.

I also think that because of Kindle, books will generally become more beautiful as objects and be valued as such, rather than just methods of giving and receiving information. It seems to me a bit like when photography was invented, when there was a device which could record the world in perfect detail so the reaction was that painters started to explore and question how they approached their medium.

SRWhat has been your biggest challenge when running IST?

HI:Keeping up with the work submitted, which is I suppose a challenge to any editor!  Also, we published two of the poets who have recently been uncovered as plagiarists, they had appeared on the site several times.  This makes us a little bit paranoid, so we have got into the habit of putting lines of work submitted into Google, which is the way that the plagiarists were found out!

SR:On a more personal note, it must have been fantastic to see your latest collection Waiting for Bluebeard do so well (congratulations on making the East Anglian Book Award shortlist in particular!). Are there any ways in which you feel that the process of writing and editing poetry has changed in the last few years for you?

HI: Thank you – I’ve pretty much always written straight onto the screen to gain objectivity, but more recently I have become more attached to using Google as a research tool.  I like the directions a poem can take after doing just a little bit of cross-referencing.  Not too much research though –  I’m more of a magpie.

SR:  It’s rare to find good digital versions of poetry books and I wonder if that was ever in discussion with your editor at Bloodaxe? Do you ever read poetry digitally?

HI: First question – no discussion at all.  Second… I go onto the Poetry Foundation website a fair amount, and dip into various quality online poetry sites.  If I like a poet’s work though, and they have a print publication, I will buy it.  Personally, I wouldn’t buy a digital poetry book unless the book was written with digital media in mind and I don’t think we’ve fully caught up with that yet because it’s still a relatively new format and is yet to be explored.

SR: Finally, what new projects do you have in the pipeline?

HI:I am currently poet in residence for the Curiosity exhibition at the castle Museum, so I am writing from that exhibition.  It plays on the idea of the Victorian cabinets of curiosity and the cross-over between art and science.  I’ve also been working on a commission with immunologist Professor Elizabeth Simpson – the commission is finished now, but we are looking at ways I can get some funding to be the poet in residence in her head.

Also, I’ve been working on some poems based on tarot cards and am playing with the idea of making an artist’s book of collage poems for the entire pack.  To make my collage poems, I have been using old publications bought from charity shops and fleamarkets. I love cut and ripped edges and the physical texture and qualities of paper and also the way one can juxtapose texts which have come from different types of publication, and how meaning can alter and gather weight in their juxtaposition.

The idea that there might be some time in the future where there won’t be materials such as these which have been bought by people, passed through many hands or spent time in peoples’ attics and bookcases, makes something die a little in the part of me that’s an artist.  I guess the idea that I cut up books to make work might seem like an act of violence to some book lovers, but I look at it as a way of giving new life and fresh meanings to materials which have been sleeping in dark rooms and junk shops.



Interview with Robert James Russell (Sea of Trees)

In Conversation, Novella on August 6, 2013 at 2:00 pm

-Robert James Russell spoke to Ian Chung

Author Bio: Robert James Russell is a Pushcart Prize-nominated author and the co-founding editor of the literary journal Midwestern Gothic. His work has appeared in Joyland, The Collagist, Gris-Gris, Thunderclap! Magazine,, and LITSNACK, among others. Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing, 2012) is his first novella.

Robert James Russell black and white

What inspired you to set Sea of Trees in Japan, and specifically, in Aokigahara?

The setting came to me before the story did, actually. I had read an article about Aokigahara and just found it fascinating – a place where the trees grow together so closely, where there are hardly any animals and that has this long and macabre history of death. As a setting – even as a character, which I think it ultimately becomes in the book – it was just too fascinating to pass up. So I did a great deal of research, read as much as I could about it as well as the epidemic of suicide in Japan, and the story formed around that, defined by a place just so magnetic and mysterious and eerie. As the story came together, it became about more than just death, but about relationships and communication (specifically the breakdown of communication in its many forms), and anchoring all of my stories in Aokigahara was the perfect way for me to do that: the fact that it’s very real, and all of the things that happen there – people killing themselves regularly, groups of people coming in to look for them, others there to collect their valuables – is far more unsettling than anything I could have imagined.

The main narrative of the novella is alternated with other short vignettes, recounting the stories of other people who chose to end their lives at Aokigahara. What prompted this structure? Would you ever consider expanding any of them into something longer?

Well, a couple things prompted it: When I first started writing the story, it was just the Bill/Junko narrative, and while that was the basis for everything, and their dynamic very important to what I was trying to say, I found that I really needed to break it up so it wouldn’t be too monotonous (you can only have so much walking around in a forest). I also think, since that is the main narrative, breaking up particularly tense sections with another story, giving your mind a rest, makes you think more about it and process what you just read, and that helps the story progress in a much smoother way. The vignettes ended up becoming some of my favorite elements of the book, truthfully, and are as important to me as the main narrative. I don’t strive to answer questions about why people commit suicide, or offer any solutions, but to open up a dialog about it, using the forest as a character, a mythic place they feel drawn to. And it is in these vignettes, I think, that you start to really grasp the magnitude of the place, the cultural reasons why people may choose to kill themselves, and you’re able to apply that to the Bill/Junko story – so some of the subtext becomes text and helps you understand Junko’s state of mind.

As far as expanding, it’s an interesting idea, but I probably wouldn’t. One of the reasons I tried to keep the vignettes short was so as not to dwell too much on death – I tried really hard to strike a balance of just enough characterization and death. Too much of the latter and I think it would have been too distracting. Too much of the former and you sort of forget the place of mind the characters are in and it loses its focus.

Could you say something about the process of getting Sea of Trees published with Winter Goose Publishing? Was there any particular reason you chose them?

I had actually submitted another book to them, and while they liked my writing, the book wasn’t quite their style, so they asked if I had something else. I did – Sea of Trees – and they were quick to respond with an acceptance. I ultimately chose them because from the very beginning they showed me an enthusiasm about the book and working with me that was very refreshing. Being in publishing myself, I’ve seen what some publishers don’t (or can’t) offer – some so bogged down that they can barely pay attention to their writers – so it was great to find one so eager and that so obviously loved books and writing and sharing all of that with an audience. That was very important to me, and really, it’s been an absolute honor working with them.

You are one of the brains behind Midwestern Gothic, and now, MG Press. Some time ago, I also reviewed the first publication from MG Press, Scott Dominic Carpenter’s This Jealous Earth, and interviewed him. What led to your selecting Scott’s work for publication? More generally, what sort of work are you looking for at Midwestern Gothic and MG Press?

Scott’s collection stood out to us as the exact thing we were looking for – not only is he wildly talented, but the stories are diverse and represent, even if not physically set in the Midwest, our sensibilities here. Part of our mission is not just highlighting people living here in the Midwest, but how the culture sticks with you no matter where you go – I’ve heard so many stories from folks who move away and can’t quite get the Midwest out of their systems, which fascinates me. I think that’s prevalent in Scott’s writing, and a testament to the uniqueness of the region. Moreover, his stories contain a breadth of themes and images – a little bit of everything – which we found works well with a collection to keep people reading. If every story was the same, for instance, I think it would be a much tougher sell/read. Last, his work was polished: it came to us in a wonderful state, fully-fleshed out, which I can’t tell you enough is very important when submitting.

In general, I think a lot of what I stated previously goes for what we’re looking for in Midwestern Gothic – stories don’t necessarily need to be set here, but be recognizable as Midwest-influenced. We don’t care if the story is light or dark, we just want real life, and this portrait we’re trying to paint of the Midwest is, ideally, represented by various voices, various stories and experiences, to better flesh our home. So as long as there is some connection here, even slight, we want to read it. I think I can say that the only thing we’re not specifically looking for is genre fiction – we have published some stories with slight genre bends to them, but nothing overtly so. The idea again is that we want to see real life here, good, bad and ugly, and while genre fiction is great and there is a place for it, we feel reality is interesting enough and really want to get to the bottom of that.

What is your next project as a writer and/or editor, and could you share something about it?

Well, we’re in the midst of working on our next MG Press title (a novel), which we should be announcing late summer/early fall – a lot of our energy is going into that right now, in addition to prepping Issue 11 of the journal, which is a Creative Nonfiction issue (our first foray into CN). Personally, I’m shopping around a new novel that I’m really excited for. In addition, I’m in the midst of a short story deluge (writing and submitting), so that’s been taking up a lot of time too.

What question do you wish I had asked, and could you answer it?

What is your spirit animal?
I wish I could say something ferocious like a lion or a black bear or an alligator, but I’ve taken a lot of online tests and I always seem to get a crow or morning dove. And those tests are always right.

[ED: Ian’s review of Robert’s collection, Sea of Trees can be read here]

‘Whitehall Jackals’ by Chris McCabe and Jeremy Reed

In All of the Above, Collaboration, Conversation, Play of Voices on July 23, 2013 at 9:34 am

-Reviewed by Billy Mills


Whitehall Jackals is a collaborative poem sequence written by Chris McCabe, a Liverpool-born, London-based poet whose work is new to me, and long-standing British avant garde poetry landmark  Jeremy Reed. The work is a kind of psychogeographic plunge into London in alternating voices, a tangled weave of intersecting, parallel and divergent lines through and across the actual and imagined city, a pattern woven in the shadow of Blair’s war on Iraq and the City’s war on probity and community as the poets swap perceptions and realities with something approaching what might once have been called gay abandon.

Reed’s introduction lists a number of antecedents: Black Mountain, the New York School, the British Revival poets Barry MacSweeney, Tom Raworth, Iain Sinclair and J.H. Prynne; though I have to say I just don’t get Prynne’s presence here at all. The poems themselves reference more, among whom Blake and David Jones and T.S. Eliot are the most visibly present. The result, allowing for the differences in style between the two men, is a recognisably late 20th/early 21st century ‘experimental’ idiom in which the relatively high proportion of stressed syllables in the average line creates an insistent, almost relentless verse dynamic with sentences that are rich in nouns. Adjectives are piled one upon another in hieratic visionary utterances laced with verbs that serve to move us from one gesture to the next.

White static runs to the reaches of ceramics & wires
as the river chants its outtakes.


The tattooed boozed-up brawler on Hog Lane,
knuckles slashed to ketchup dollops,
fighting at knife-point in rain’s
persistent steamy shattering


There are strong echoes of Sinclair’s 1970s poetry, specifically the two key books Ludd Heat and Suicide Bridge and of Blake’s prophetic books, but not the lyric voice of the Songs of Innocence/Songs of Experience, with consequences that I will return to later.

In many respects, I found it useful to think of this book in terms of the visual arts. Reed is a self-confessed plein air poet, writing a public life in public places, his words saturated in the here and now of their genesis, but also in his inner visionary not here, not now, as if Blake had painted after Monet.

Sea-green Starbucks cardboard wrapper
as hot finger stops on a paper cup
sipped on a street chair facing Heron Tower’s
47 storeys – clear reflective glass
like a hologrammed vertical coffin –

McCabe is something more of a studio-based collage artist, carefully integrating bits of found language from text-bearing street furniture, product labelling and the like into his poems.

THE RIVER HOUSE, flagged by a lamp-post’s tag –
Do not dig within two metres of this mast.
Every view of Chelsea is a vista of weathercocks.

The jackals of the title are equally Blair and his WMD advisors and the Tory politicians who connived with their wealthy patrons in the yuppification of the city (the last quote above, for example, is from a poem called ‘The Chelsea of Wilde and Thatcher’ and there are other sections on the Docklands development). However it would be misleading to suggest that the focus is narrowly capital P political; there is a good deal of observation of the everyday life of the city and its residents and the geography they inhabit, as well as ruminations on its myth and history. As Reed says in one of his poems when writing about some wild poppies, ‘Like everything I see, they’re poetry’.

The inclusion of this less overtly political matter into the book provides much welcome light and shade and it is a pity that this range of content is not reflected in the formal aspects of the writing. The intensity of the versification works well for the most part, and as texts bounce back and forth between Reed and McCabe you can see them feeding off each other’s energies. However, it can become a little relentless, and this reader at least would have welcomed some more varied verbal music. In the absence of this more lyrical element, the reader can begin to feel that they on the receiving end of a magnificent but somewhat overwhelming harangue.

I also felt that the righteous anger directed at potentially criminal government actions and rampant consumer capitalism was somewhat undermined by the celebrations of the equally illegal illicit drugs trade and of the hardly uncommercial Rolling Stones, David Bowie and the likes. The conflation of drugs, rock and roll and rebellion seems somehow a little too easy, and more than a little dated.

These criticisms aside, Whitehall Jackals is a very interesting and worthwhile read. You can sense that the poets enjoyed doing the work and learned a good deal from each other in the process. Despite the reservations I have expressed in this review, their enthusiasm is infectious and you can’t help but be carried along by it. Anyone interested in the poetry of London will find it an important addition to the genre.

Dr Fulminare interviews Jon Stone

In anthology, Conversation on June 26, 2013 at 9:44 am

Dr Fulminare, excommunicated alchemist and editor-in-chief of poetry anthology publisher Sidekick Books, turns investigator and interviews one of his own editors, Jon Stone, about the latest Sidekick offering, Coin Opera 2: Fulminare’s Revenge, and what it means for poetry.

Me, the eminent, pre-eminent and always extraordinarily busy Dr Fulminare, performing an interview? Just because the editor in question happens to have performed the mere monkey-work of actually drawing this particular collection of poems together? I would not normally stoop to such trivialities, but Mr Stone appears to have developed ideas of his own about what Coin Opera 2, the sequel to Sidekick’s first ever book (2009’s Coin Opera) signifies, and I am somewhat alarmed by his newfound independence of thought. So conduct an interview I must, at the very least in order to assess the extent of his deviation. I will test his evidence judiciously, then retire to report on my findings.


Dr Fulminare: Mr Stone! Sit down, or stand up if you’d prefer. Or sit down. You understand that you must answer fully and truthfully and in a timely fashion?

Jon Stone: Yes, I do.

DRF: Very well then. We shall begin. You do realise, don’t you, that Coin Opera 2, like all the books produced by Sidekick, is a feat of dangerous experimentation that might well rend asunder the minds of every person on this planet?

JS: I do realise that, but it’s also very possible a sign of an emergent genre within poetry, and I’m excited because poetry doesn’t have many identifiable genres. When a label is attached to a type of poetry, it often has a faintly judgemental air: confessional, mainstream, light verse. But if sci-fi poetry can be recognised as a legitimate genre, why not game poetry?

DRF: Interesting, interesting. You actually believe humanity is ready for such a thing, do you?

JS: Well, some of the poems we’ve included in Coin Opera 2 were already published. More than in any previous Sidekick anthology, in fact. Ross Sutherland already brought out his full sequence of Streetfighter II sonnets through Penned in the Margins. And of those we commissioned, many have already found their way into the poets’ own publications. Two were even in The Salt Book of Younger Poets. I think that proves this isn’t just a sort of light-hearted frolic, that game poetry can fit comfortably within a poet’s main body of work, complementing the themes they’ve chosen to explore elsewhere.

Poets: Assemble!

Poets: Assemble!

DRF: You are quite the dreamy-eyed belligerante. Poets are accustomed to handling any subject matter. So what if one poem is about a game, the next a murder, the next an unfeasible bicycle?

JS: It’s not just about subject matter though. When it comes to games, I think what we see in Coin Opera 2 is that the mechanics and the spatial architecture can subtly inform the shape and the feel of the poem. At least four of the poets, independently of each other, opted to shape their pieces in a way that reflected something of the games they were writing about. There’s also the matter of play, which I keep going on about.

DRF: Play? Play! Ho hum. Go on.

JS: Well, games are all about playing, whether that means beating a high score, putting virtual bricks together to build something, testing your boundaries or following arbitrary rules. In gaming culture, play isn’t just how people interact with games, but also how they attempt to extend the life of games. Creative subcultures emerge around modifying and adding to the content. I think that sense of what it means to play, how valuable it is for our minds, bled out of the games we were looking at and got right into the DNA of the book. It’s there in the structure and the presentation as well as in the poems themselves, but the poems themselves are especially infected with it.

DRF: Mr Stone, your comments are an affront to indecency. I don’t think you even know what DNA is.

JS: But it’s not just that the poems are playful in the sense of joyous and light-fingered, you see. It’s more that they’re testing things. Even when the poets are using their natural voices, they’re extending beyond directly lived experience, projecting their humanity into other worlds with different rules. Or else they let the language and rhythm of games define the feel of the poems, the way the poems play out. They’re adventurous. I think it’s a common thread that’s emerged that suggests the possibility of a genre, something beyond just this book’s identity as an artefact. In fact, I think it could go beyond the book form itself and head out to meet other emerging genres, like interactive fiction and alt-lit.

DRF:  I do like the sound of this ‘testing’. I do indeed. A small consolation, considering the extent of your insolence. Did you envisage this when you began work on the project, and if so, when were you planning to reveal this corruption of your thinking to me, your employer?

JS: Can I just say: you don’t pay me anything. But to answer your question, no, when we started work on this, I was more responding to the fact I sort of have one foot – or ear, perhaps – in gaming culture and one in literary culture, and I didn’t think there was much conversation passing between the two. It felt a little like having parents who never spoke. I wanted to get them talking. Everything I’ve talked about here is more what’s occurred to me lately, reading through the poems as we’ve edited and typeset them and reconsidered what exactly we’ve got here.

DRF: Indeed. Well, then. Anything else you’d like to add before I retire to consider your case, and probably your punishment?

JS: It would be really nice if we could hit our Kickstarter target, so anyone who is remotely interested in this project, please consider pre-ordering the book by pledging some money on Kickstarter.

An Interview with Alex Dally MacFarlane, editor of Aliens: Recent Encounters

In Conversation on June 7, 2013 at 9:05 am

-Interviewed by Claire Trévien


1. Tell me about this new anthology you’re editing, Aliens: Recent Encounters. I was particularly intrigued by the fact that they will take different approaches to the alien encounter. Did you feel a need to distance yourself from the kind of images the word Alien would immediately conjure (the film franchise and anal probes vs ET), or were you drawn to works that manipulated these tropes?

It’s an anthology reprinting over 30 stories published since 2000, with, as you say, a range of approaches to the theme of alien life.  Having that variety was really important to me: I wanted all the  stories to be different, not only from each other (it makes for a far more enjoyable anthology if that’s the case!) but from the types of stories more typically told about aliens.  There are no anal probes here!  The anthology starts off with a story about people struggling to survive an alien invasion of Earth, but with a focus on language and narrative loss, and goes in many directions from there.  Other stories deal with wonder, war, immigration, interstellar travel, dogs, long-distance communications and personal encounters.  Other stories are told from the aliens’ own perspectives.

2. Why do you think that the figure of the alien continues to fascinate us? How is it evolving do you think?

I suspect the answer to this differs from person to person, but there seem to be some widespread reasons.  One is wanting to know whether alien life exists and what they’ll be like.  I get pretty excited at the thought of extremophiles in deep caves on Mars or under the ice fountains of Enceladus.  The thought that we might age wine in the stomachs of horse-like animals with the permission of the planet’s sentient life, or encounter copper, hourglass-shaped aliens thinking-writing with condensed steam inside their bodies, or develop complex, personal relationships with life on another world — these possibilities are why I love fiction.  I won’t get to experience this in my lifetime, but I can read about it.

Another reason is more problematic: the twinned narratives in the West of exploration and conquest.  A lot of people perpetuate these, assuming that all relationships with other species will be based on exploitation, violence and assimilation, or write about white Westerners heroically fighting back against colonial aliens, or don’t even realise that exploration and conquest are almost always synonymous (or, even, that they’re bad).  Sometimes these stories are more nuanced.  Sometimes people envisage futures in which better relationships are built.

3. I like the fact that the stories are reprints, it feels apt for an Alien anthology that you picked works belonging to different worlds/books/magazines. Was it a difficult process to narrow down the pieces? 

It was a really fun process!  I sought out stories in different ways: some I found by going “I like this author’s work, I wonder if they’ve written about aliens!” and a lot of the time they had; some I got via recommendations from friends (special thanks to Bogi Takács, Niall Harrison, Aliette de Bodard and Jetse de Vries); some I received in my inbox when I asked for submissions.  Then I had to assemble stories that took a wide variety of approaches to the theme, which meant losing some from my longlist if they were a bit too similar.  Then: an anthology!  It was a bit more fiddly than that, but that’s the gist of it.

4. Did other people try to interfere with your choices, and tell you that so-and-so has to be featured in it? I don’t think I’ve ever come across an anthology review that didn’t complain about someone being left out! 

My publisher, Sean Wallace, mostly let me pick what I wanted.  He gave me some good ideas and feedback on bigger name authors (my reading tastes lean towards people who are not — yet — famous) and suggested that it’s not a good idea to reprint too many stories from the same place (it turns out that Clarkesworld Magazine publishes a lot of great stuff!), but he didn’t insist that I include anything I disliked and he didn’t make me pull something I loved.  No one tried to suggest that I must include a certain author or story while I was compiling the anthology.  As for what readers think, well, we’ll see!

5. You’re a writer in your own right, are you finding editing compatible with your writing, and even beneficial in some sense?

I find them quite separate but complementary: they both allow me to engage with the things I love in SF and the things I find frustrating.  With my own fiction, I can write about the people who are not always centred — or even seen — in many SF narratives.  With my editing, I can show readers the stories I’ve found that are doing this.  Other than that, there’s not a lot of overlap.

6. If you could create an anthology now, with limitless funds and a free rein, what would you like it to be on, and who would you want featured in it?

Ooh. I would love to edit an anthology of original science fiction stories about gender in the future, written by authors of all genders from many cultural backgrounds.  One of my biggest frustrations with science fiction is that I’ll be reading a story set in the far future — but everyone’s cisgendered (and, often, in a heterosexual monogamous relationship with womb-born children, despite technology levels that would allow people to skip the discomfort and dangers of childbearing if they chose).  The binary gender system is non-existent right now: people are transgendered, genderqueer, genderfluid, non-gendered; many cultures have gender systems with non-binary identities.  This has been the case for a very long time and it will continue to be the case in the future — but where are these people?  Where are the future cultures that normalise non-binary genders?  I want to edit an anthology of these stories so that I can read them — and then share them with other people like me who want to see ourselves in possible futures.

7. What’s next?

First of all I need to finish my MA in Ancient History.  Then I get to spend the autumn reading science fiction stories: I’m editing The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women, which will be out in late 2014, and I’m already excited about the few stories I’ve read and want to include.  I can’t wait to start assembling it in its entirety.  I’ll also spend plenty of time on my own short stories and longer projects

You can find out more about Alex Dally MacFarlane’s projects here!

Interview with Dan Holloway

In Conversation on May 1, 2013 at 11:30 am

-Interviewed by Claire Trévien

Art by Eleanor Leone Bennett (

Art by Eleanor Leone Bennett (

Dan Holloway is the author of several novels and poetry collections, the ringmaster of New Libertines, a touring band of poets. He has set up a new publishing imprint 79 Rat Press to publish his conceptual work, including Evie and Guy a novel in numbers, and curate conceptual literature shows, such as NOTHING TO SAY. As if that weren’t enough, Dan is a prolific blogger, writing among other things about self-publishing, and regularly writes for The Guardian.

CT: You’ve just launched 79 rat press as part of the literary exhibition Nothing to Say, can you tell me a little bit more about what inspired both these things?

DH: 79 rat press has grown organically out of eight cuts gallery, which I have run since 2010, and under which umbrella I’ve published some wonderful books that have had remarkable critical success for such a tiny outfit, such as Penny Goring’s The Zoom Zoom and Cody James’ The Dead Beat. It also hosts The New Libertines and all sorts of other events.

I think I have become aware though that I can make most of a difference through very sharply focussed, very small events and editions. I also wanted to get back to my original intention with eight cuts gallery of something literary based on a model from the art world. As you probably know, I am obsessed with both Modernism and 20th century art, culminating in the Young British Art movement. Tracey Emin is the biggest influence on my own writing, and what I have felt for a long time is that to get people truly talking about what literature can do, we need more events like art’s Freeze and Sensation, and more figures like Jay Jopling and Nick Serota to push challenging literature into the public consciousness. I think the last time that really happened was in the 60s and 70s when Carmen Callil launched Virago and Lawrence Ferlinghetti brought the Beats to the world through City Lights. I’ve always thought of myself as some kind of very weak shadow of Ferlinghetti, the guy behind the scenes who writes himself but whose pleasure is bringing other people to the world.

79 rat press is a body through which to do that – my White Cube as it were – and NOTHING TO SAY  is my first installation.

I am also endlessly infuriated by the lack of ambition in contemporary literature. It is very rare you will meet a writer who admits to wanting to change the world, or even wanting to leave the literary canon a richer and more beautiful thing for future generations. As a self-publisher, I’m used to people at events getting standing ovations for saying they want to get rich, but bustling me into a corner before I embarrass them any further if I start talking about wanting to chip away at patriarchy or wanting to unshackle the voices of the oppressed or provide a loom on which people’s voices can weave themselves into a glorious tapestry or, in fact, pretty much anything that has to do with wanting to create great art (apparently that’s arrogant – or intellectual snobbery – or even worse “rather sweet and we love that we know someone like you but can we get on and talk the grown up talk of how to sell now please” – whereas wanting to sell a stackload of books is “being a savvy entrepreneur”).

So I wanted a place that was unashamedly uncommercial (the exception being that unlike a lot of poetry presses I am paying all contributors an upfront fee) and where the sole focus was on the art. That’s probably enough for now or I’ll have nothing to say (see what I did there?) for question 3.

Veronika von Volkova (

Veronika von Volkova (

CT: You’ve written Evie and Guy, a novel written entirely in numbers. What prompted this idea and how did it end up in its final format?

DH: I just noticed I’ve already had 500 words and answering this in full would take twice that. Right, here goes at proving self-publishers can be concise. I’ve wanted to write a novel in numbers for about 3 years. It’s a bit like my Mount Everest – I wanted to do it because it was there. And despite a fair bit of hunting around, I don’t think anyone’s done it yet – which I have to say I find extraordinary.

The project started life as #twentyfoursevendigitalwonderland and was going to be a representation of a day in someone’s life through all the numbers they encountered. It was going to be about the digital world and how we construct our identity in it. But it wouldn’t work. I think the problem was that once I’d explained the idea, I’d kind of done it, so it’s more suitable for something once of my characters might do in a short story (I’m obsessed with writing about conceptual artists – largely because I’d like to have been one and have a whole wardrobe full of ideas for installations I haven’t the skill to make, so I write characters who make them instead – what readers will never pick up is that as I was writing the “longhand” for Evie and Guy, I actually created – in minute detail – seven separate conceptual art exhibitions that they staged between them). For all I am probably known best as the endlessly theoretical/political bar bore of independent literature who will never say “narrative arc” when he could cry false consciousness instead, I am actually a complete sentimentalist. My overriding artistic imperative is the freeing of each individual human spirit to enjoy its own sensuality and experience and express itself sensually in a world full of equally subjective, sensual spirits.

So, my novel would be in numbers, but it also had to be emotionally satisfying. It had to have characters and those characters had to have meaningful, fully-rounded experiences that would trigger readers to discover their own sensuality free from the confines of language. I came to realise more and more that I wanted to use number not language not just because I wanted to create a watercooler moment – in fact, not even to create one – but because actually there was more experiential truth for both character and reader in avoiding language. And those thoughts, combined with the academic work I’m doing at the moment, led me back to feminist interpretations of Lacan, and the fall from sensuality into language, and the desire to create something (what I rather grandiosely tend to call a “poetics of hope”) that would take some tentative steps towards enabling people to experience themselves not conceptually through a language that boxes them, putting them in this category or that category, every single one of them a fiction, but sensually, directly, by jarring them out of the myth that you “have to” or “can only” think of yourself linguistically.

Anyway, Lacan, with his notion of jouissance, the semi-orgasmic purely sensual experience of the self as self, was what gave me the lightbulb moment to make the book a list of two people’s experience of masturbation. And the more I explored the idea, the more it became obvious just how fruitful that could be as an indicator for life events and relationship events – in other words, I’d found a way to create the emotional core I wanted but to squirrel it away safely out of the clutches of language, waiting for each reader to unearth it anew as they read, and offering the possibility of reading as genuinely sensual and pre-linguistic, the first tiny step towards a poetics of hope.

CT: What do you hope people will go away thinking after attending Nothing to Say?

DH: The short and very simple answer is I want people to go away feeling what people felt after they’d been to Sensation. Or what I’d felt after I saw Tracey Emin’s and Steve McQueen’s installations at the 1999 Turner Prize exhibition. Both those exhibits slapped me in the face. Steve McQueen’s Deadpan was my first introduction in the flesh to the power of the Modernist project, and has influenced my own recent conceptual works like “All of These Taxonomies are Political”, a series of 512 almost identical limericks using just the words cock and cunt (what people forget about McQueen’s piece is its roots in comedy – a Buster Keaton sketch – and I loved that playfulness as well as the seriousness, and the way that the combination jarred me, kept pulling me up short, made me think about the structure – so using a limerick as the skeleton for a very serious linguistic exercise in repetition made perfect sense). Tracey Emin smacked me in the gut with a punch that’s left me bruised to this day. What I got from it was very simple – the most ordinary life has a transcendent quality, not because it is transformed into something greater than itself but precisely when it is not transformed – because life in all its messy minutiae IS what is transcendently important. Any art that seeks “the universal” or the general, or to make the everyday eternal is fundamentally deleterious to the human spirit. We give true voice to everything that is most important about each individual human life precisely when we burrow right down to the most insignificant and particular. It’s one reason I positively detest things like the Great American Novel.

I don’t know that I was aware of these aims as I sifted the submissions, but I was aware that certain pieces hit me viscerally, and those were the ones I clung onto.

The shortest answer of all, though would be this – I want people to go away with a heightened sense of their own sensuality. I want people’s lives after NOTHING TO SAY to contain more of their true selves than their lives before. And whilst the title may appear flippant (it was conceived as a response to poets like Geoffrey Hill who think the current generation of underground poets has nothing to say, and also references John Cage’s dictum “I have nothing to say and I am saying it”) but it’s become clearer and clearer that it is also very serious – a life lived experientially really should, in the deepest sense, have no words, just sensuality.

CT: You organize a poetry troupe called the New Libertines, and when I think of your poetry, the image of a flâneur pops up, possibly because of the organic and damaged nature of it. So I was wondering how big an influence symbolist writers, such as Rimbaud, are in your work? I’m thinking especially of poems like Baudelaire’s ‘The Swan’ and its uneasy relationship with urban renewal, in relation to your pamphlet i cannot bring myself to look at walls in case you have graffitied them with love poetry.

DH: Ha! I guess having said I want to be literature’s Jay Jopling I can’t really worm my way out of it when someone thinks about me as a flâneur.

I’m not sure how many of my influences (consciously) ever come from literature. I certainly feel an affinity for Symbolism, but I have always felt more of a conscious influence from art. I love Abstract Expressionism (my first real “artistic moment” was sitting in the Tate in the middle of a room full of Rothko canvases as an eight year old), which I would call a first cousin of Symbolism – though I think I have too much Lacan in my blood to ditch the Abstract Expressionists’ insistence on true expression coming non-verbally, o language as something we have to get around. I guess I’d say Symbolism says that when it comes to language we have to look out of the corner of our peripheral vision, whereas Abstract Expression says that to see we have to close our eyes (there might be a tiny crossover in Expressionist silent film in the 1920s, with directors like F W Murnau). I see Abstract Expressionism as a recent avatar of a form of Neoplatonism that has cropped up through history in the form of the ecstatic mystics and the via negative. There’s a long history that sees language as a hindrance rather than a help to understanding.

CT: We’ve talked in the past of the challenges of being both a live literature producer and a writer, sometimes one leads to neglect of the other. As an outsider you seem to have managed the balancing act: you have two major creative projects recently out (your novel and your show some of these things are beautiful), while also publishing other people’s works and curating events in Festivals nationwide. What’s your secret?

DH: I remember seeing an interview with Alexander McCall Smith in which he was asked exactly that, and his answer was very simple – keep walking the tightrope never look down. I find that a superb philosophy for life (it’s no coincidence that in researching recent works I’ve read a lot about parkour, and Philippe Petit the infamous high wire walker who walked between the Twin Towers). In fact it pretty much exactly sums up everything I’ve been saying about not conceptualising but experiencing yourself. Doing it, of course, is another matter – which is why I’ve also had two major breakdowns since getting into the literature game.

CT: You’re militant about the self-publishing cause, and have rejected publishing deals in the past, why is it so important to you?

DH: In part it’s a result of my own quirky mental state. I get claustrophobic sweats at the thought of a publisher telling me what to write. I had an inkling of it a year or so back when I self-published a thriller that did reasonably well, and all of a sudden people only wanted to talk about me as a thriller writer and I was trying to explain that I wanted to talk about conceptual poetry, slams, lyrical literary novels, post-communist identity politics, pretty much something different every day.

I’ve also sat the other side of the fence, and felt my authors’ pain – but also felt my own at their response to it. That’s one reason I don’t want to be a traditional publisher again but a curator of one-offs – handling the emotional rollercoaster an author goes on over the long term was too emotionally damaging for me – I can’t do it again, and I know I’d do the same to a publisher.

I also believe in self-publishing as a way to bring genuine innovation to readers, and I am deeply disillusioned with a lot of contemporary self-publishing, which is about how authors can make money. Which is fine, and I love popular fiction as much as I love the avant garde, but that’s not really widening readers’ access to life-transforming experiences. So I sort of see it as my duty to be the thorn in the side of self-publishing, reminding people of the amazing things it can do that the mainstream can’t, not for authors but for readers, and in turn I hope that will do a small part to help genuinely innovative writers to keep self-publishing. I have a feeling it makes me deeply unpopular, because it must seem like I’m always sniping form the sidelines. Fortunately in this regard I’ve got a very thick skin because I think it really is important. Readers have to come first, more than even that people and the effect culture can have on their lives has to come first and I hope I will never tire of calling people out when they bleat on about how we should publicise self-publishing as being “as good as” traditional publishing or some other form of stuffing the genuinely revolutionary back into its box. Fortunately also I started self-publishing early, and have been gobby enough for long enough that whilst I’m fully aware a lot of writers’ groups see me as a token artsy guy and are as acutely embarrassed by my presence during “serious” debate as they are rather exhilarated by having someone who does whacky things (though when it comes to it they will still always say “an important self-published book? Hmm, you should try this one, it’s just like 573 books published by Harper Collins you know”), they can’t quite push me out altogether because my tentacles are slightly too long. It makes me feel like the character you always get in an Agatha Christie novel, the black sheep child, usually a woman who does something shady like works in theatre, and drives a sports car and wears trousers who is simultaneously the family’s dark secret and the one everyone looks forward to turning up at the party because they know she’ll say what they always wanted to. That’s a role I can live with very happily.

CT: Finally, what’s next?

Well, to paraphrase Lord Flasheart, what isn’t next? Obviously the NOTHING TO SAY launch is looming (that’s at Stoke Newington Literary Festival on June 8th, followed by a week long exhibition at the Albion Beatnik Bookstore in Oxford that will include an updated mystery play stationed around Oxford, and I will be papering the walls with pages from Evie and Guy), though I have a poetry slam final even before that for which I need two new poems. Then The New Libertines 2013-14 tour is already taking shape.

For me, creatively, the next thing is a novel that interweaves all the characters whose stories I’ve been working on separately for the past 5 years. Ninety Nine Nights of Urban Dogging has all kinds of characters whose lives do (or don’t) overlap over the course of a summer around the death of a philanthropist who made his name delivering aid in the midst of the worst atrocities during the Kosovo crisis. There’s a policewoman who fled Kosovo as a child and has a second life as a dominatrix by night, a street poet who can sense when someone is about to die and tries to capture their last thoughts in poetry, an ageing feminist activist and novelist descending into dementia convinced that the plot of one of her earliest crime novels is actually real, and a group or private school students home for the holidays who discover their parents were part of a paedophile ring.

In conversation with Anna Percy

In Conversation on January 14, 2013 at 11:15 am

-Interviewed by Claire Trévien


Anna Percy was born and educated in Norwich, she gained a Joint Hons BA in Creative Writing and Contemporary Culture from Cumbria Institute of the Arts in 2007 and a Creative writing MA from Manchester University in 2009. She is one half of Stirred Poetry Collective who run a feminist poetry event in Manchester. She is the author of several chapbooks, notably He is in the Stars (2012) and Ghosts at the Dinner Table (2010). She is participating in the Penning Perfumes, which I am co-organizing.

1) First, thanks so much for taking part in Penning Perfumes, it’s great to have you on board. What made you decide to accept the challenge?

I write a lot from art and music and film so I think it was the idea of making poetry from something that isn’t poetry. That’s one of the qualities I find interesting in modern and experimental poetry. It’s also that smell is the strongest link to memory.

It’s a marvellously odd project, I’m so pleased to have been a part of it. Art and poetry should intrigue people.


2) How would you describe the place of scent in your writing up until now? Has this challenge made you more aware of it?

I have always attempted to use vivid sensory description in my work. I have written some purely smell memory poems and some that use it as it as part of synthesia as a device.

Sensory description is the thing I always impress upon people as being the most important thing for making people feel what you are feeling when I am running workshops. Smell is one of the most visceral like sound it just comes upon you and your brain fires up the memory unasked.

3) It often feels at spoken word nights that there is a pressure for poets to be funny, to the extent where the lines become very blurred between poetry and stand-up comedy. Can you tell me a little about what makes Stirred so different?

Through choosing the guest poets we have chosen who while are picked for their ability to perform poetry effectively are picked largely because they the qualities of poetry we think are important. These are for stirred first and foremost lyrical qualities, innovative use of form, feminist values and surprising use of language. We are a team and know exactly what we are looking for in a guest. I think it is this in part that ups the game of our open mic’ers. We also have a space that is very open to new performers, queer and mental health friendly and this leads to some surprising poetic voices.

4) Somewhat related, but who are your contemporary poetry hero(ine)s?

I love the way Moniza Alvi gently brings in the surreal into her gorgeous poetry in poems like ”I was born in a glove compartment”, I had the great privilege of being taught by Vona Groarke for my MA she writes very tight often short biographical poetry. Steph Pike is a local poet who manages to write beautiful lyrical political poetry, she and Becca Audra Smith’s (my stirred co host) ability to write seriously and well about the inequities that exist in the world inspired me

5) How would you describe the Manchester literary scene, what are your favourite nights?

The scene is vast so you can find events for any kind of poetry you can imagine and its very supportive I’ve sometimes had lovely emails from people checking their event isn’t clashing with mine. We have all kind of festivals that happen the last one Stirred was involved with was Sapphormation we ran a wonderful workshop on lesbian and bisexual women writers. Bad Language is consistently one of the best events around and is packed out. This coming Tuesday is this. Knowing the organisers I expect is to be gloriously political and experimental and raucous. There’s dozens more I could mention like Paradox or the 2nd Sadcore Dadwave event. We are totally spoilt here and its wonderful. I have started up a new purely open event called Shaken that runs the first Sunday of every night running from Fab Cafe which has a sci-fi interior so the theme runs through teh poetry and prose read its been running for several months and attendance keeps going up!

6) Any big projects in the pipeline?

The first Stirred Anthology is coming out this year our first collection of feminist poetry from men and women countrywide which we are very excited about. I have other things to announce later in the year!

Anna Percy will be reading at Penning Perfumes in Manchester on 23rd February. Buy tickets here.

An Interview with the Editors of ‘Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot’. Part 2.

In Conversation on October 10, 2012 at 10:10 pm


-In Virtual Conversation with Claire Trévien

A three way interview with the editors of the print and ebook anthology Catechism: Poem for Pussy Riot: Sophie MayerSarah Crewe and Mark Burnhope. The poems, were translated into Russian in collaboration with PEN and sent to the band. All funds raised by the anthology go towards Pussy Riot’s legal fund and PEN’s Writers at Risk programme. This is part 2 of our interview with them (part 1 can be found here).

4) Many of the poems generated by this project reclaim or play in some way (ooh-er) with the word Pussy, including yours Sophie and Mark. How do you situate the poem within your wider body of work, is it a natural extension of your interests? Or did you find it surprisingly tricky in some way?

Mark Burnhope: For a split second, I hesitated about using the word ‘vagina’ in a poem. But then I laughed at myself for being a pussy, and all was right in the world. Of course, if anything is right in the world, it’s because of vaginas. They are why we exist. The vagina is a symbol not just of womanhood, but of all life. Patriarchal organised religion is embarrassed about that, but human cultures, folk religions, never have been. Vagina is why I am here, in the world. My mother is the reason I was able to go from disabled baby to teenager to out-and-proud-‘crip’ adult. The vagina is a symbol for everything, any kind of path, including the spiritual. But because it’s embodied, steeped in feminine physicality, it – like nearly everything feminine – has somehow been ransacked, made morally and socially dirty. I enjoy playing with stuff like that in my poems, and I loved watching others do it here.

Sophie Mayer: Lots of poems took on the word ‘pussy,’ and its association of the female genitals with an animal (at once infantile and bestial), while others addressed the words ‘vagina’ (like mine) or ‘cunt.’ As editors, we found ourselves fascinated by the power of cat imagery in contemporary culture; from Aslan to Cheetara to LOLcats to Cat Power (in Amy Key’s brilliant response to the project), there’s such a range of feline associations – and those became part of the bold, funny, angry aspect of ‘pussy,’ as opposed to it being a derogatory term. It wasn’t a straightforward reclamation/re-visioning – it was more kittenish and playful than that.

I’ve described ‘Vagina’ as a feminist Dr. Who episode, a way of engaging (as Sophie Robinson’s ‘Free Pussy’) does, with patriarchal culture’s fear of female genitals as this powerful, alien Other. Lots of science fiction is nakedly, if unintentionally Freudian, with its thrusting rocket ships ‘penetrating’ deep space; so the poem says ‘what if outer space and/or an alien race were a vagina?’. I wrote it standing at the back of a Donut Press reading, partially inspired by Matthew Caley quoting the line from Julia Kristeva that’s in the poem. Lots have magazines have turned it down…

Sarah Crewe: A natural extension of my interests covers it perfectly. And actually, it’s been liberating. I would never have used a word like vulva previously, whereas after this project, i’ve found myself far more engaged with body politic in gender issues. Why is society so fearful of talking about vaginas?

5) Following on from that, were you surprised by some of the poems other poets sent to you?

SM: I was surprised by all of the poems! By the fact that there were any at all. And then by the volume, the variety, the swiftness with which they arrived. By the way that many poets found to be political without being didactic, to be wild and free in their language without being offensive. Several poets remarked, when they sent in poems, that they’d been surprised by their poem – that they’d found a new form, subject, voice or method in writing it, that the project had opened some wellspring or given them permission to speak in a particularly energised, open, intense way.

I was surprised to discover just how strong a spectrum of feminist voices there is in UK and Irish poetry at the moment – it’s totally decentralised; there’s no one magazine, anthology or festival that represents it, and it’s rarely talked about. So it was a delight to discover that it was out there, across emerging and established poets. And that it’s very rich and multifarious, and confident.

SC: The variety both surprised and delighted me. I can’t say any of it shocked me, but seeing how other people responded to the subject matter was just a fantastic project to be a part of.

MB: Yes and no. I was surprised at the sheer volume of stuff sent to us. If by ‘surprised’ you mean shocked, then no. I told myself from the outset that I wasn’t going to be offended. It wasn’t my place to get offended. If I was offended by anything well put, whatever it was, I was the problem. I hoped people would send us a massive range of beauty and debauchery, quietness and rage, seriousness and silliness (that was the kind of book this needed to be: serious writing dressed in a neon balaclava). And they did.

6) Another route poets went down is through music, and I love the layering of sounds in your poem Sarah. I’ll confess that I did not know about Sheela na gigs before reading it, how did the poem impose itself on you?

SC: Thanks so much Claire! I have to say, it’s the most sound based poem I’ve ever done. Curiously I’d been meaning to write about Sheela na gigs for several months but was unsure how to find a way in (insert chuckle here). I was also familiar with the fabulous PJ Harvey song. Then this came up, and I thought it was perfect. The fact it starts with a “she” noise made me want to take it apart and work with each sound from a feminist perspective.

SM: Sarah’s poem, Adrian Slatcher’s Huggy Bear poem, Alison Croggon’s poem (which is a dance), Amy Key’s Cat Power poem, Wayne Burrows’ translation of a Czech pop song, Phill Jupitus’ band name puns: lots of the poems paid tribute to Pussy Riot’s choice of punk-pop as a vehicle for their political expressions.

There’s something too – very much present in the sheela-na-gig and Sarah’s poem – about the dangerous association of women with sound and music: the Sirens, the seductive and emotive qualities of music. If language is supposed to communicate stable, singular sense, then sound derails that suggestively, sets up secondary meanings and associations, subvocalic echoes, makes language sing – which undermines its legislative and executive power. So to make much of the music of language is to contest its use in sentencing and law-making, its rigid legalities.

7) Finally, what do you hope Catechism will achieve? 

SM: Catechism’s being published for free (although donations are very welcome, to be divided equally between the Pussy Riot legal fund and English PEN Writers at Risk) under a Creative Commons license, to which all the contributors have consented: that means the book and its contents can be shared, remixed, translated, and reposted. One conversation on Facebook became, via social media, a project with nearly 150 people involved in it, internationally, in just under three weeks. Retweeting a poem may not make legislative change in Russia: but it is part of a wider spectrum of actions that are taking place to support Pussy Riot. We hope, on the one hand, that the anthology directs attention to the case, and – by being funny and smart and sexy – gets noticed where a news article might not. We also hope that the poems reach the band (we’re sending them by as many routes as we can), and make some small difference to them: to know that there are people, all over the world, thinking of them and praying for them, and carrying forward their commitment to freedom of expression and liberation politics.

The anthology has also begun to do something: to make connections, between the poets involved, between poets and translators, and between poets and English PEN. There’s an incredible sense of focus, determination and generosity that I don’t think any of us knew was out there in this way: either so widespread or so organisable. Further projects, campaigns, protests, conversations, actions and poems are going to emerge from the whirl that is Catechism, extended further as new readers get involved. Each tiny step of speaking more freely, of making an alliance, of saying ‘yes’ to a bold protest against power, brings us closer to the world that Pussy Riot envision in their actions, as a band and as part of the radical art group Voina. Another world is possible: Catechism imagines that world in its words, but was also made by us working as if that world existed.

MB: For me, the most exciting thing about the project hasn’t changed: with any luck, the members of Pussy Riot are going to know we stand with them. Poetry is being put to great use here, to build positive bridges, tear down harmful ones. Obviously it will be nice if everyone thinks everything in Catechism works as poetry in itself, but the goal is bigger. At the end of the day, nothing works in or by itself. Everything is connected. If readers grasp that afresh, or again, Catechism has done its job.

SC: Awareness, largely of how very wrong it is that these women are being held behind bars. I hope it invites people to consider freedom of expression, and to be outraged at how it has been denied in this case. I also hope it achieves what it has done for me. I have never felt so engaged with feminism as a political cause, and I firmly believe the time is now, it needs to be out there. Pussy isn’t a dirty word. Neither is feminism and I don’t want to see either brushed under the carpet for any longer.

I also hope it draws more attention to the work of PEN, who are just a fantastic organisation who work hard for writers who don’t enjoy the level of freedom that we do here.

On a personal level, I’d just love it to bring smiles to the faces of three women who have suffered so much this year. The thought of Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich reading just how much people care is extremely humbling to me.




An Interview with the Editors of ‘Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot’. Part 1.

In Conversation on October 10, 2012 at 9:54 pm

-In Virtual Conversation with Claire Trévien

A three way interview with the editors of the print and ebook anthology Catechism: Poem for Pussy Riot: Sophie Mayer, Sarah Crewe and Mark Burnhope. The poems, were translated into Russian in collaboration with PEN and sent to the band. All funds raised by the anthology go towards Pussy Riot’s legal fund and PEN’s Writers at Risk programme. This is part 1 of our interview with them (part 2 will follow shortly).

1) First things first, what drew you to the Pussy Riots trial above all other current events? Do you find that their actions have echoes with your own poetry (or poetry in general)?

Sophie Mayer: I came to political consciousness as a teenager, reaching against an orthodox religious upbringing, through riot grrrl and feminist poetry – writers such as Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Chrystos – so Pussy Riot’s case resonated with both of those, with their daring. Their appeal to a tradition of resistance within the Orthodox church, as the church of the people – and the Virgin Mary as a powerful female figure – was so strong, and so immediate. The vivid colours, words and actions, the sense of riotous humour, the energy of their performance carried so strongly internationally via YouTube. We’re the same generation, sharing access to similar kinds of knowledge and tools; that struck me hard, too.

Mark Burnhope: Well, my poetry does have an equality/civil rights/social justice thread running through it; as a disabled person, ‘advocate’ has become one of my default settings through no choice of my own, I think. But my first involvement in Pussy Riot’s story was as a poet for Catechism. I heard that the plan was to send them a poem anonymously. That was my hook. When Sophie asked me to help edit the final e-book with her and Sarah, I won’t lie, I felt like a hitchhiker, particularly on the cause of feminism. I couldn’t just tick off another social issue box to add to my CV. I called myself a feminist, but didn’t know which writers to read. I knew that by saying ‘I am a feminist’, I was placing myself somewhere on a wide spectrum of opinion and argument. Where was I? I didn’t know.

But I knew some things: 1) Governments shouldn’t use churches as buildings of entrapment. They’re meant to be places of liberation. 2) ‘Blasphemy’ as a legal category is always a misnomer: against the backdrop of a religiously diverse Russia, Pussy Riot’s ‘crime’ was to stage a surprise protest – a prayer – not against God, but against a government taking God’s name in vain, trying to monopolise the religious devotion of the people. Their ‘crime’ was exposing the irony that no one comes to the Virgin Mary, the Mother, except through Putin. Finally, 3) Jesus rioted in the Temple, turned the tables on those who had turned God’s house into a den of thieves. The thieves here were of conviction, conscience and voice, and Putin’s government had a network of dens.

In the short time I’ve worked on Catechism, I’ve become more convinced than ever that whichever rope is being pulled – for sexism, homophobia, racism, ableism – the same patriarchy is holding all the threads together. The poets writing for Catechism have heard the same bell ringing as I have.

Sarah Crewe: I had actually heard of Pussy Riot before as my brother in law is a musician and very politically active with LBGT issues, so to see them go from a band he’d talked about to suddenly being propelled into the news like that was bizarre. I think that four Russian women in a punk band, complete with colour, balaclavas and a shedload of attitude was going to be pretty hard for me to ignore personally. I think, or at least, i hope, the fact that i’m interested in women’s issues, Russia, colour and punk comes through in my own work.

2) Did the project quickly crystallize into its current shape? How did you come up with the idea of having the poems translated into Russian and sent to the band?

SM: EngPussyRiot posted guidelines for how to send a letter to the band in prison. Liv Moss, who organised an amazing fundraiser for Pussy Riot in London on 9th September, shared them on Facebook. I re-posted them and suggested we might send the band poems instead of letters, on the thinking that poems might be able to get through the prison censors more easily that direct letters. Several people jumped on it – then the following day, I invited more. Liv contacted me to say she would be able to assist with getting the letters to the band if I could get them translated into Russian.

That’s when I contacted English PEN, to ask for help finding translators. They immediately said they’d like to support the project by publishing the poem. In about three days, it went from a speculative conversation about sending a few poems to an English PEN-supported and –promoted project. And in about three weeks, it became a book.

SC: I think Sophie’s answer covers this perfectly!

3) What place do politics have in poetry? Is all poetry political, just some more explicitly than others?

SC: I certainly don’t think all poetry is political. I’ve heard people argue that just by participating in a creative medium, the act of making this choice is political, and I’ve also heard the same point being used to suggest that all female poets are feminist by this definition. I can’t agree with either. There’s nothing remotely political about writing a poem about, say, the poet’s last holiday. Many people don’t care for writing about politics, and that’s fine, as long as they don’t jump on a bandwagon claiming to be political on the grounds of being a poet.

In terms of the place politics has in poetry, I think, as with all forms of writing, it’s a perfect opportunity to express concerns and raise issue through an artistic medium. Anything that makes people think has to be a force for good and for positive change. However, I also think that with poetry, the poetry always has to come first, i.e. if the politics are great but the poetry is awful, I can’t ignore that, and I don’t think it helps any cause at all to have what sounds like an immature, inarticulate ranting session masquerading as a poem. Good job Catechism is so brilliant really, haha!

MB: As a reader, I think that the only thing that doesn’t deserve a place in poetry is bad writing. ‘Content’ is up for grabs, and I’m not about to say what shouldn’t be written about (if I did, I would only be revealing what I can’t write about well). As a writer, I think that people too easily use ‘political’ and ‘propagandist’ as synonyms, and they’re not. Everything we write, whether we like it or not, carries what we care about. A poem might wear those things lightly or heavily (and lightly is always better, if you’ve been listening to your poetry tutors) but they’re always there. In that sense at least, poetry is always political. If a poem doesn’t invite possible objections, disagreements, disgusts, neither will it persuade anyone of anything. And if it doesn’t do either, it probably isn’t a poem.

Ultimately, I’ve always doubted ‘Art for Art’s Sake’. If people sometimes sneer at ideological ‘feminism’, it’s because they are sceptical of any single-issue politics – of disability, LGBT, any of that stuff – and to me, ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ smells of another one. Even if all poetry isn’t political, I reckon it all should be useful.

SM: What the case of Pussy Riot shows is that language is political: the case against them was about the words they used, who used them, and where. Poetry works with and in language and symbols: so, for me, poetry is political and activist, in that it engages intensively with the fabric of political discourse, and can resist the way that the powers-that-be insist on stable, singular and exclusive definition – with punitive effect, in the case of Pussy Riot.

I think that Pussy Riot made lots of us realise, with a sudden shock, just how political what we do is – about the risks that writers run when they put words together. Some of the poets in the anthology – poets involved in feminist poetics, disability poetics, or left poetics – actively practice poetry politically; while other poets may have found themselves finding a political voice for the first time.

An Interview with Lindsey Holland

In Conversation on June 8, 2012 at 1:35 pm

-In Conversation with Claire Trévien

As regular readers of Sabotage know, Lindsey Holland has been covering my role as poetry editor for the last six months and is therefore my personal hero. Her tenure ends on 15th June, so here is a spotlight on Lindsey’s many projects and her own creative process. Lindsey finished an MA in Writing at the University of Warwick several years ago. Her poetry and reviews have appeared in various magazines and anthologies and her first collection, Particle Soup, is due out later this year with the Knives, Forks, and Spoons Press. She’s the chair and founder member of North West Poets and is currently co-editing its anthology of poetry. She is also one of the poets involved in the Penning Perfumes project. To read more about the project, check out this companion interview with Tim Wells.

1.    What made you decide to take part in the Penning Perfumes project? Were you interested in scents prior to the project?

I was keen to be involved as soon as heard about the project. For some time, I’ve been interested in how we choose to convey multisensory experiences through language. ‘Write about all five senses’ is a common poetry prompt. Every time I’ve encountered it I’ve found myself wondering ‘Why not actually evoke and utilise the senses? Could this be done? What’s left to be said when the senses are already speaking for themselves?’.

My interest in perfume prior to working on the project was rather minimal in that I rarely used it. I’d often bought perfume whilst on holiday and I was aware of how my memory of those places was often closely connected to scents: the perfumes that were popular at the time but also the cuisine, flora, even the buildings. I visited Prague in 2003 and bought Sensi by Georgio Armani simply because it felt like bringing the city home in a bottle. The scent had seemed to be everywhere. The girl at the Marionette Theatre box office was wearing it and I got her to write the name down for me. Now, when I smell it, I think of Don Giovani (the puppet version), smiling twenty-somethings with natural tans (including myself), yellow buildings and my first reading of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, amongst other things. I suppose I’ve been aware of how powerful scent can be for a very long time.

2.    You’ve been writing a poem inspired by an anonymous scent you were given, can you tell me a little bit about your first reaction to the scent?

When it arrived, I left it in the envelope for a day before I opened it. This was partly because I wanted to focus on it with few distractions but also, I think, because I liked the mystery of it. I almost didn’t want to smell it. I was a frightened, I think, that it’d remind me of lace doilies and fake teak furniture. When I did first sniff it, I immediately jotted down every word that came to mind. It initially seemed fruity, sharp and floral. As those notes subsided, I found the perfume much more attractive: rounder, sweeter, still floral but earthier, and a lot more intriguing. There was a moment when it smelt exactly, almost violently, like a medieval hall I used to visit when I was young. It was quite a physical experience.

3.    How was the process of writing this poem for you? I hate the term ‘comfort zone’, but do you feel that it took you away from your usual writing practice, or did you find a way to make it adapt to your style?

It was a combination of these. It definitely took me away from my usual style at first and I had many failed attempts at writing a poem from it. I wanted to be accurate to the scent; there was an element of approaching it like a puzzle and trying to find the ‘right’ answers. I also wanted to move away from that and be true to my experience of the scent. It took me on a journey. I used it in my car, tried it on my daughter, wore it to meetings and sprayed it on my notebook. It never seemed the same twice. After a week, I’d reached a point at which I felt haunted by it. I visited the medieval hall that had suggested itself so strongly and talked to the guides about the smell there. One room in particular, the Great Hall, has a unique scent. In the end, I tried to forget about it for a week or two before writing more failed attempts. The final poem came in a gush of inspiration. Everything I’d been thinking came together and found shape in the way that some of my other poems do. I allowed myself to forget the initial fruity notes in the scent because the other experiences seemed to outweigh them and the body of the perfume was so intriguing.

4.    Did finding out what the perfume was [Ruth Mastenbroek’s Eau de Parfum] change your interpretation of it?

Not really, although I did wonder whether I should have pursued the tropical elements a little more. Some of my aborted attempts had drawn on my experiences in Southeast Asia: palm trees, sand, flip flops and mango (I mistook the perfume’s pineapple for this). I found it hard to compromise these images with the roses, wood, a medieval hall and my feeling of being haunted by the fragrance. Because the tropical notes were more fleeting, I decided not to include them. I suppose this comes down to a desire for narrative. Mangos don’t belong in old English houses. In a way, I prioritised sense and atmosphere over absolute accuracy. The perfume didn’t feel abstract to me — I became quite close to it and almost felt as though it were telling me something — so I ruled out that approach. It made me very aware that there are always going to be compromises when you rely on language to convey a sense.

5.    Tell me about your perfume-partner, Kate Williams at Seven Scent, what was that process like?

Kate was amazing. I was struck by her intuition and by the speed at which she works. Her process is different to mine in that she writes very little down, certainly initially. It’s more of a physical process: pulling bottles from shelves, imagining which scents will be needed and trying them together. Or at least, that’s the impression I came away with. I think we both work with images though, whether visual or olfactory. At their essence, poems and perfumes both emerge from thoughts, senses and experiences so I suppose there’s an overlap in the processes of creating them.

I was delighted to learn that Kate creates what we might think of as unpleasant scents. It’s not all about bouquets; she also works with mosh pits. This definitely appeals to me! She sees a lot of subtleties in both language and scents. We talked about the words ‘crumbled’ and ‘coil’ and how, just as there are layers of meaning to each of them, there are also layers of scent.

6.    You’re just about to launch an online magazine. Can you tell me a little bit about this project?

I’m working on this with Melissa Lee-Houghton. It’ll be called ‘Conspirator Magazine’ and we’ll be asking for submissions fairly soon. The focus is on poetry that’s bold and vibrant, that has something to say and doesn’t hold back. It can be inventive, political, scientific, tender or playful but the common factor is that it has to really speak; there has to be a voice.

7.    You’re editing an anthology of poetry about the North West and you’ve also been editing the poetry reviews for Sabotage. What prompted you to make the leap from writer to editor? Does the ‘other side’ give you a new perspective on your own writing?

In my case, I’m not sure that it’s much of a leap. Like a lot of poets, I find it far harder to edit my own poems than I do to edit other people’s. I’ve always felt comfortable discussing writing, and critiquing keeps me mentally active. Poets are often told that in order to write, they must read. I also think they must edit, and not only their own work. It’s all about practise. I suppose I’m also a little addicted to having projects on the go. I like to see ideas come together and to make things happen. In some circumstances, when I see potential, I find it hard to sit back and just watch. The anthology in particular has been a learning curve though. I have renewed respect for editors who spend months trying to correct formatting issues and removing inconsistencies; and that’s before you’ve even considered distribution and marketing. If there’s any leap between editor and writer, I think it’s here. I enjoy the challenge though and it brings variety to my days. I’m excited about it.

8.    When did you first call yourself a poet and to whom?

Perhaps pathetically, I can’t remember, but it was probably on a form of some sort. In conversation, I sometimes still opt for ‘writer’ rather than ‘poet’. Telling people you’re a poet seems to either a) provoke a similar response to the one you might receive if you said you have the plague (concern mixed with a desire to hastily retreat) or b) it results in a discussion of Wordsworth and/or how poor you are. I should probably approach this head-on but I’m usually too flummoxed by the question.

9.    How has the experience of editing the poetry reviews for Sabotage been for you so far? Is it preparing you adequately for reactions to your first collection do you think (tell us about it!)?

It’s been fantastic. I’ve enjoyed not only reading the reviews but spending time going into them in detail: checking grammar and punctuation, searching for photographs of book covers, reading online magazines who’ve requested reviews, all the extra bits of work that most people probably don’t see. I think it’s prepared me for reactions to my own collection quite well. The reviewers I’ve worked with have all been fair, in my opinion, but I know that’s not always the case. I think even the most hardened of editors must dread a very negative, or worse, ignorant review of their own work. 

10.  What projects are in the pipeline for you?

My main project at the moment is the anthology I’m editing, along with Angela Topping and a board of editors, for North West Poets. It’s provisionally titled Sculpted: Poetry of the North West and we have some amazing poets involved in it, of whom I can’t yet say too much. The poems will look at the North West as a region, from its geological beginnings to our contemporary experiences of it, in both urban and rural areas. We’re hoping to be able to fund a series of readings and events throughout the region and we’re working on a lot of exciting partnerships.

I’m also hoping to begin a Creative Writing PhD in September, for which I’ll ‘translate and contemporise’ dragons, witches, giants and other beasts from folklore. I’ll also look at Czech poets (particularly Miroslav Holub), surrealism, archetypes, contemporary events, existentialism and eclecticism.

I do have a few other ideas for projects. They’re currently set to simmer because they’re not quite ready yet. We’ll have to wait and see.