SJ Fowler is one of the most energetic poet-artists you’re likely to meet. He works in performance, film, installation, print and landscapes, all exploring the material of language. He teaches Creative Writing at Kingston University, and he created the long-running, collaborative poetry event Camarade. He is the founder and curator of international collaborations The Enemies Project and the European Poetry Festival and leads the neuropoetic scene of Poem Brut. He’s poetry editor at 3:AM Magazine. Type SJ Fowler into the UK Web Archive and you can browse 943,419 glimpses into his practice, almost as numerous as his soft toy collection. His own website can be found at stevenjfowler.com Alice Willitts talks with Steven about his prolific practice and recently released book Nemeses (Haverthorn) showcasing ten years of collaborations and his hauntingly prescient film, Animal Drums (2020). In person, he is exquisitely polite with an intelligent humour that cannot mask his serious contribution to contemporary poetry which is defined by a deep exploration of poetic collaboration as artform, provocation and way of life. This interview has been transcribed and edited from a recorded conversation.
SJ Fowler (S): I want to ask serious questions about the received wisdom around poetry, and creativity in general. People speak so freely and so quickly about how “art makes people better”, “poetry changes you”, and I always wonder, how does that happen exactly? What do we mean by that? For the individual it’s complex, and subjective. Can poetry not make us worse? Is it good for everyone to read poetry? We cannot make a presumptive case for poetry being ‘good’ without getting into the meat of why it is so. Clearly, to me, it’s something to do with growth — the individual expanding their consciousness through an experience with language that requires a certain difficulty. Is growth not reliant on that? Is poetry where the meaning is immediately clear and declarative, really doing anything positive? That said, I’m not interested in what we might call good or bad poetry. That’s unhelpful. There isn’t a binary here, I’m more interested in authentic and inauthentic. I think poetry is an endless, expansive set of possibilities where meaning meets method. Our artform is about language, the miracle of its existence and its potential as a creative tool. A poetic method that innately evokes growth is collaboration, which is why it interests me. Collaboration has been core in my process of discovery as a poet. It’s how I learned, first and foremost from other poets, how they worked, how they thought. Then in my events, watching those I’ve asked to collaborate for live performance. Many hundreds of Camarade events have allowed me to invite poets to work on short new pieces in pairs and I’ve watched them, no matter what their work is like on the page, almost always create complex, momentary and powerful works. Collaboration is innately inventive and small methodological changes or a sensitivity to how we write, changes everything about its experience for ourselves and others.
Alice Willitts (A): We’ve all felt the electric energy of being in the space as something special unfolds. The Camarades are a product of the special skill you have for picking pairings. You’re attuned to what’s going on around you, and thinking this poet with that poet, now that would make good poetry. You must feel like a magpie, constantly collecting, right?
S: Well it’s really fun, it’s joyous, searching out new poets all the time, asking those I’ve known for years to make new work. And I see it as a job, a really pleasant line of work – curating live literature, instigating brief communities, never allowing it to settle, or be theorised. I just keep making these nights happen, make sure that the poets will enjoy the experience and become friends and properly start things across their countries. It’s such a nice process. Ninety-five percent of the people I’ve met while organising have been generous, kind and talented. I’ve been rewarded by always seeking out new writing, new spaces, places, people and ideas. In a sense these events suit me greatly as a person too. I often don’t really socialise in the way many English people do, I don’t drink at all. In a way I see these events as a part of my social life. That’s a great fortune.
A: Well that fits the picture I have of the inside of your head being this vast and living catalogue, not static pieces but something that is so alive! For me, there’s a productive tension between my fairly optimistic and kindly view of human beings which is undercut with something more sinister and I think I see that in some of your work, probably the reason I’m drawn to it. I guess I’d like to know what role the sinister plays for you?
S: I don’t think it’s undercut, I think it’s a natural balance. I think people who are actively engaged when you’re speaking to them, who are enthusiastic and generous, they’re normally qualified with an alternative feeling about the world which is realistic / pessimistic about how sinister and difficult existence is. I think that’s a given. What matters is not what we think, or what darkness we recognise in people and living, but what we do in confrontation with that innate reality.
I become frustrated, for example, when people take my way of interacting with strangers to be indicative 22 of fake English manners. Everything in human interaction is fake, is an act atop personal moments of love, despair, fear etc. Learning to be polite to others despite this is an immensely complex process, and a victory! There is so much violence and negativity in existence itself, and the act of learning to be open hearted and positive, to be generous, to be enthusiastic, on the outside, it’s not an act of fake-ness, it’s not an undercutting, it’s the best possible interpretation of what’s afforded some of us, in unbelievably fortunate positions. Manners are the product of experience, they are like a kind, embodied respect for those you don’t know but recognise as individuals. Being well mannered as a person, and being ill mannered in my poetry is the goal. If my work is resolutely and constantly confusing, I want my company to be less so.
A: Yes, I think we work at openness, it’s a dedication. Interactions with people are often fraught and while we long for connection, we’re not consistently good at the dual honesty and self-effacement required to do it well. In your recent film, Animal Drums, the truthseer is present in a plague figure that haunts the narrative. It appears to show us things that we don’t or won’t see for ourselves. You’re working with violence, with the fragility and vulnerability of being human, which frightens you a bit on some level. It’s also cut through with urban nature motifs critiquing the wider human crisis that’s already here. I imagine the film’s been years in the making but it’s arrived on our screens when the plague has revisited. What’s it like having it come out now? S: It wasn’t an accident! I don’t think we intended to release it online, because it had only begun to be screened at some festivals and cinemas, but I suggested to my collaborator, Joshua Alexander, it’s pandemic lockdown, now’s a good time to just make it free for everyone to watch while the iconography of the film is often so connected. The response has been generous, but it isn’t what I’d describe as an uplifting movie.
It’s definitely a poetry film, and, as you say, one about the mind and the body, what happens to us in the city, and how we understand history as something invisible and threatening, specifically to London. I adore London, it’s my only true home, but it grows on you in both good and bad ways. The plague doctor character comes from what I used to do in the British Museum, when I worked there as a guard. I would sometimes wear a mask to frighten the visitors when I was bored.
A: Where does this terrible energy of yours come from?
S: Is it terrible? Yes, perhaps. Genetic maybe, and from my trying to be healthy. I also used to do martial arts professionally. I mean I used to get up very early everyday and train hard and I hated it, but it leaves a framework. I don’t want to be financially successful, or well known, or succeed in the metrics commonly defined in our culture. But I want to eat life. I want to work at creative things everyday, grow as a human being, be more, do more, get to more contentedness. I have a very high expectation of what I want to do when I figure out what that is. With poetry, my family is working class and now, I’m not. I’m middle class and writing poetry, but I’m not bourgeois. Poetry is an incredible artform in which I’ve been able to make my own path, do my own work, travel, create, collaborate and share. The 21st century is a magic time for British poetry, for poetry in the world. One just has to ignore gossip, competitiveness, nonsense, all of which infiltrates any profession, especially those outside of the market with a massive, weighty, often silly, set of traditions.
A: In the intro to your recent collection of collaborations Nemeses, you say there’s so many things I can’t put in here because they just don’t translate. The sort of thing that comes to my mind is the sound duet you did with Phil Minton. The pair of you just make these sounds together for maybe twenty minutes. That can’t ever exist on the page, it wasn’t written for the page. There’s a spontaneity about collaborations like that, as well as a kind of careful curation, a magic that happens in those live moments.
S: I owe a great debt to Andrew Wells at Haverthorn Press. He did an incredible job with Nemeses, really just exceptional in every way. That allowed me to try to ‘page up’ that which is not for the page. I tried to think through what is a sound poem in print, what is a performance? A score, a document, a diary. The book is a selected collaborations, but also, I hope, a daring attempt to expand poetry beyond the two dimensional. I tried to build a document of what I’d done from 2014 to 2019, like a five hundred page document with everything I could possibly want in it and then cut that down into a shape where I found the ones I really wanted to have. And then it was still an enormous document to give Andrew, so there was another process of editing the whole until it had the right rhythm.
A: It’s interesting that you have this ten year review happening because I’ve heard people say ominously “it takes ten years to become recognised as a poet”.
S: Do they? I’ve never heard that. Jesus, no pressure!
A: Yeah, send us a post-card from over there okay? It sounds as though you are somehow conscious that you are at a significant point though. Nemeses does have a sense of the retrospective about it. What was it like putting that together?
S: I am conscious of this, but more as a time to consider whether I should keep writing or leave poetry and do something else with my life. I think this is a healthy consideration to have, at arbitrary landmarks in time. Nemeses is a retrospective, but also, it’s a celebration of all the collaborations that made it — the moments, the friendships, the experiences. It’s more an exploration perhaps than a deep looking back. I’ve published nearly ten collections and forty publications in these ten years too, but I wouldn’t do a selected poems, precisely because taking stock is not for reducing the past into a neat package for the future, but considering the very nature of my work in the future itself.
A: Did you find the selecting difficult then?
S: I have to say, I had a few experiences early on in my publishing career where I realised I put too much in my books, so I’m now quite keen to cut it down and I’ve always liked working with editors. I only ever get into rows about covers! And Nemeses is massive right, I mean it’s massive! You could definitely maim someone with it!
A: Well maim or not, you’re in the business of creating a new area for poetry, a new kind of poetry, aren’t you?
S: Thank you, I’d like to think so. I don’t know. From where I am now, I can see it’s been a very organic process. I just try to find out what I really want to do, stay true to that, be motivated from inside, not from what comes back to me in the outside world, not seek validation, and then keep at it. I’ve explored so many things to find out what I wanted to do. Ten years ago I thought I’d do a PhD, get a teaching job, follow that path. But I realised, it wasn’t for me, and quit the research I’d started, began running events instead. I tried to publish different kinds of poetry with lots of presses, and keep good relationships with them all. I started to collaborate, wanted to bring in poets from around the world which led to travelling with poetry. I questioned what performance is next to the reading, then what is writing — the linguistics and the neuroscience, and then what can photography, visual art, sculpture, other artforms do around poetry. I’ve tried to reunderstand what a poetry community is, and how a poet can work, gain commissions, residencies, be both an organiser and creator without deprecating either. And I pitch for things, I seek things out. My collaborators who are professional artists or photographers, they are organised, and they are unashamed of being business like. I feel I have a natural inclination to this also because my work is really difficult at times. It can be dense, ludic, opaque, flippant, harsh. So I’m obviously not selling out. I have a YouTube channel yes, but when you get to my work, I’m not trying to be popular. I want to make a living while doing the work I most want to do. I want creative freedom, to not care what anyone else thinks. That’s it for me.
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