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Andrew Duncan


(Editor, Angel Exhaust)



Andrew Duncan studied as a mediaevalist and started writing in punk fanzines. He has been publishing poetry since the late 70s. His collections include: In a German Hotel, Anxiety Before Entering a Room, Sound Surface, Surveillance and Compliance. He was one of the editors of Angel Exhaust and now reviews regularly for Poetry Review.  





Q: How has publishing changed with the advent of short-run printing and print-on-demand possibilities? Does this negate any need to sell a specific number of a title? Is this a freedom from traditional print expectations/values?


A: POD and the Internet are two quite different revolutionary changes in the means of production. I really can’t answer the question but I think this is a major historical shift of unknown impact. There seem to be more new books around, don’t there.


Q: Why does poetry continue to create schools and movements who feud?


A: Where I come from, a feud means that you kill someone because they have the same surname as someone who once killed someone with the same surname as you. This is not literally how we go about poetry. In order to find a new metaphor, we have first to ask what the reality is which “feud” refers to. My impression is that the phenomena this refers to are very rare. They may be secret - people engaging in surges of hatred alone in their rooms. As for written accounts of them, I am not familiar with any. The closest I can get is some passing remarks made by Eric Mottram sprinkled in essays on something else.


Journalists find that quarrels between poets make good copy. They also find it difficult to take an interest in the process of composition. This has led to biased coverage and possibly to the notion that poets spend their energy fighting with each other. Surely poets spend most of their time alone and most of the literary process is silent and internal.


Could I suggest a different metaphor? This is radiation into vast space. Poetry began to differentiate relentlessly in the 1960s. As the radiation went on and on, individuals moved out of sight of most other individuals. As a secondary phenomenon, they also formed small clusters - which did not blow apart. If, 30 years later, an individual reads a book from some other quadrant in this vast territory, they find it incomprehensible. This is not hostility, or vengeance. The arrival of the Internet has certainly increased the scatter by making it easier for people to streak out into the empty zone and to find specialised texts that extend their original strangeness.


Many editors have turned my poems down. Many readers have turned my published work down. Does this amount to a feud? Can we not account for the same events in terms of pure aesthetics? Furthermore: if I reject anything offered - not just a poem but a record by U2 or Perry Como, or a dinner from Kentucky Fried Chicken - is this some act of teeth-baring aggression or simply the exercise of my freedom as a modern guy? If the first person story is not “feuding”, then perhaps the third person account should not be either. Luis Cernuda said that what people dislike most about you is the most significant thing about you. This whole area is too big, too central, to be excluded from thought by an effacing word like feud.


I have a dream of a stereo text where we are made aware of what Sean O'Brien thinks of Rob Holloway's poetry and opinions and then become aware of what Rob Holloway thinks of S. O'Brien's poetry and opinions. And if we watch closely we can get a sense of what the diameter of the cultural field is. Now that's what I would call geography. We exist not only as subjects but also as objects of knowledge, and legitimately so. I own a certain something but there is a cultural reality, independent of my will, which exists outside me as if in the form of a space, within which my path evolves.


The mention of schools and movements in the question suggests that perhaps the feuds would not happen without groups. I demur – 2000 paranoid individuals would make a less stable and rational scene. Hanging out in groups is the most benign thing poets can do. It makes them cooperate as well as compete. It injects confidence and common sense into the process. I insist that poets spend most of their time interacting with people they get on well with – the clashes are marginal and unusual (and founded on a failure of understanding).


Perhaps we should strike “feud”, read “Recklessly turn responses into generalisations”. I think this does happen. I see books about poetry neatly writing off most of the spectrum. I do think that poets have civil rights when it comes to being reviewed, getting published, and even being read. Stupid generalisations can go beyond opinion to become an abuse. I do not see how a reviewer can breach a code of ethics unless that code actually exists. Is there a shared but unwritten code? I am afraid not.


The poetry world works in such a way that office holders are not accountable and decision processes are not recorded. There is therefore a breach of logic in denouncing various agents as acting vindictively and in feud. I would like to see more evidence – not to reach a verdict.


There are biological (or generational) reasons why the inherited knowledge of the cultural field should be interrogated and dissipated. A new generation has arrived and needs new and clear information. An inherited map of the cultural field probably is a set of prejudices - you have to develop your own map.


Q: With POD possibilities, including various organisations that will take on anything without a set-up fee and simply send royalties to the author, do poetry publishers need arts council subsidies any more?


A: This would imply the exit of the publisher! But there are perhaps as many as 25 vital social/linguistic functions which publishers have carried out and which would need to be outsourced to some other agency if publishers vanish. Beside the flow of characters on screen, we have the physical object called a book and the array of shifting, heated social information called reputation. If you remove books from the equation, perhaps ‘publishers’ turn into agents of influence: exciters, pioneer readers, discoverers, talkers. The first into the unknown building.


Q: If poetry presses are concerned with cultivating a wider readership, could this not be done more effectively via the Internet (where there are thousands of potential readers) rather than worrying about sales of printed poetry?


A: Personally, I spent many years in the 80s and late 70s doing data manipulation (to do with critical path analysis) on screen and I just cannot associate CRT screens with poetry or leisure.