April 13, 2005

Questions, questions.

I've been contacted by a new literary website opening up in June to answer a questionnaire about the Text Festival's critique of the mainstream: here it is -

1 The Guardian quotes you as saying that ‘poetry has nowhere to go other than being an anachronism or mild entertainment’. Which strands of poetry were you referring to specifically by using these terms?

I actually said: From advertising to road signs, from logos to global branding to digital communications, text forms the visual and linguistic background to everyone’s existence. Once poets were seen as developers of language and ideas, the creators of new ways of thinking and expressing, but now poets are irrelevant except as radio comedians or advertisement copy-writers. Faced with a modern world where the written word or sign consumes and clutters virtually every environment, the fundamental question is how can poets and text artists work with language?

Official Verse Culture pretty much ignores its Language context. Its (pre)dominant "poetic" factor is limited to representation of self-reflexivity, the first person, the voice of the poet, sharing an epiphanous moment or a wry anecdote from his or her narrow emotional life. As the American Poet Lyn Hejinian wrote: “The world is found to be meaningful, but not for and to itself; it is meaningful because perceiving it makes the poet special; the poet plunders the world for its perceptual, spiritual treasure and becomes worthy (and worth more) on that basis".

2 How are you hoping that the Text Festival will change the landscape of poetry?

The landscape of British poetry has a particular configuration related to its history since the ‘Poetry Wars’ 30 years ago. Back in the Seventies, while the American’s were breaking new ground with LANGUAGE Poetry, and the French continued to develop the ideas of OULIPO, the English poetry avant-garde were forced out of its brief dominance at the Poetry Society. With poetry now defined as the voice of the poet, the only innovation possible was a succession of dialects or accents. Hence the Liverpool poets, Yorkshire poets (Armitage and MacMillan), the recent vogue for the pastoral, and even the celebration of sub-cultural minority voices. The banality of the defining character of the landscape has successfully diverted successive generations of young poets – rebellion against the dominant poetic culture cleverly misdirected into content, leaving forms unchallenged. Poetry Slams and Rap are good examples of the trick. Poets (and audiences) mistake Slam delivery styles of performance for innovation – but the actual writing offers nothing new. Rap is no more than rhyming couplets with hard emphasis on the end beats. I can’t believe that alarm bells didn’t ring when Seamus Heaney said that Eminem is the most important poet of his generation. Of course Heaney would say that because (not withstanding his persona of rebellion) the Rapper’s ‘poetry’ as poetry is banal rhyming and challenges nothing.

The Festival set out with a critical analysis of the mainstream but it always aimed to be much more than that. Its main objective was engaging the debate between linguistically innovative poets and text artists. In a sense, it set out to ignore traditional practice and in part for that reason it has attracted much attention as an indication of the fragility of the British mainstream. The realisation that it has exposed the poetry emperor is naked. Internationally it has attracted interest because it is a vehicle for practitioners to try new things, make new connections, and more language writing forward.


3 A lot of people featuring in Text could simply be described as conceptual artists and there is a massive audience for that in Britain. Would you consider Tracey Emin’s neon word artwork as poetry? Is Kruger a poet?

“Simply”? Maybe. There is a massive audience as you say, but interestingly how much of that audience recognises or reads innovative poetry in the same way? The Festival is not saying that someone like Barbara Kruger is a poet. Its analysis is that the most interesting poets are working with the same range of linguistic tools as conceptual and textual artists – parataxis, materiality, spatialisation, intertextuality and restricted languages.

Tracy Emin's art is an interesting case to consider because her public exploration of her personal experience could easily be characterised within the pejorative self-reflexive banality of mainstream writing. But demonstrates the points of difference graphically. Compare her blue neon text

PEOPLE LIKE YOU
NEED TO
FUCK PEOPLE LIKE
ME

with mainstream rhymester, Sophie Hannah:

He has slept with the stupid and clever.
He has slept with the rich and the poor
But he sadly admits that he's never
Slept with a poet before.

The Emin is a better text work than the Hannah (extract) and is linguistically much more sophisticated while seeming more simple. That said, it is a relatively light-weight. This is one of the interesting areas for debate. Artists criticise poets for not seeing how their work operates in the non-linguistic sphere; poets criticise artists for their limited understanding of how words work.

4 Do you think there should be a Turner style prize for poetry?

Not really – there probably shouldn’t be a Turner Prize. With the same marketing the TS Eliot Prize could be elevated to have a similar public profile, but competitive award-based merit system in the present situation would be a dangerous reinforcement of the status quo. Establishment hegemony is sustained by the apparatus of publication, curriculum, academic appointment and awards. A poetry ‘Turner Prize’ would just be another vehicle for the system to tell everyone to read more indifferent writing.


5 Do you think that part of the problem of trying to get poetry deploying mixed-media across to an audience is that it is usually couched in academic terms? A lot of the poets featuring in Text seem to come from academic backgrounds and disciplines.

No. This is a misconception that some have made about the Festival. The medium is not the issue (mixed or otherwise). Language is the medium. TV audiences have no problem viewing incredibly complex manipulations of text on a screen. The poets in the Festival are investigating how language can be used. Forms actually support and surpass contents – whether a text-poem is a sound piece, neon, a screenprint or on a page is immaterial as long as it is integral to the intent.

I can only think of 3 poets in the Festival who could be described as associated with academia. The majority of the participants, although possibly occasionally involved, are not predominantly academic.

6 Do you think poets, marginalised as they are already, don’t want their poetry to be subsumed into other art forms?


No. As with the previous answer, concern about other artforms is irrelevant. It is the use of language that is primary. A good example would be the poet Caroline Bergvall – she arrived at the festival with her latest poetry book called ‘&’ and installed an associated multi-media animation using ampersands and a sound text with the composer Ciaran Maher deconstructing a blues song. Later in the festival she will perform a reading.

7 I would have thought that poetry develops best away from the establishment. Do you think that the poetry you’re featuring in Text is suffering because it doesn’t belong to the kind of poetry celebrated by the establishment?

All artforms – not just poetry – have historically moved forward, broken new ground in their rejection or surpassing of the established cultural practice. So on the contrary, the poetry featured in the Text poetically benefits from not being the kind of poetry celebrated by the establishment. I would argue that it is the mainstream culture in general and poetry readers in particular that are ill-served and suffer from the bland hegemony of Official Verse Culture. The exciting thing is that art/poetry history is a record of innovation and change – and now is the time for change.

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