The Argotist Online
C. Evans Interview
A. C. Evans
was born in Hampton Court in 1949, and lived in South London until 1963 when he moved to Essex and co-founded the semi-legendary Neo-Surrealist Convulsionist Group in 1966. Moving back to London in 1973, he currently lives in Mortlake, near Richmond. Working in the tradition of the bizarre and the grotesque, he also considers himself a Realist. Influenced by everything on the dark-side, he is also inspired by the iconoclasm of Dada, revolutionary Surrealism and the immediacy of Pop. He regards all these as points of departure, none as a destination – we live in a post avant-garde world.
has had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg
Review, and on poetry web sites such as Underground Window, A
Little Poetry, Poethia, Nthposition, Eratio, Pirene’s
Fountain, Fieralingue, Moria, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket,
Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St.
Laboratories, P. F. S. Post, Great Works, Hutt, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay and Dusie.
He has reviewed poetry for Jacket, Eyewear, The Colorado Review, New Hope International, Stride, Acumen and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was the deputy editor of The Argotist magazine.
His publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Distorted Reflections, Slimvol, Collected Poetry Reviews 2004-2013, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jake Berry), available as a free ebook here.
JS: What are your definitions for the words ‘radical’ and
ACE: I would define ‘radical’ as pertaining to radix (root) –
getting to the root of things. I don’t think there is a direct link between
radicalism and formalism, although formal innovation might be a kind of
aesthetic radicalism. I don’t think it is useful to tie radicalism to formal
innovation – not all ‘radical’ works of art or poems are characterised by
formal experimentation. Also the idea of ‘experimental’ or
‘revolutionary’ art is basically a nineteenth century idea – you can trace
the use of the term ‘avant-garde’ back to 1825 at least, although it was
popularised by Bakunin in the late 1870s. I find it ironic that one of the few
artists who could claim to be a real revolutionary was Jacques-Louis David –
and he was a Neo-classicist! As it
is very difficult to disconnect the ‘voice’ from a worldview (culture etc.)
one has to look closely at the worldview/cultural background of the voice –
how far does the worldview of the voice credit the transgressive implications of
freedom-to-create? If you evade this question how 'radical' can you claim to be?
To use Eliot as an example, I would define ‘The Waste Land’ as a reactionary
poem, not a transgressive or ‘radical’ poem in the progressive sense, even
though its poetic form might have caused some outrage. In any case none of
Eliot's efforts stand comparison with the ‘radical’ Simultanism of say
Cendrars' 'Trans Siberian' poem, or the works of Apollinaire.
my terms 'progressive' must have something to do with freedom. Freedom of
expression is closely linked to the concept of the voice – if you deny the
voice, you deny the agent of 'expression'. I think that is a 'reactionary'
position, not a 'progressive' position because it strikes at one of the most
basic principles of freedom. There can be no freedom if there is no free agency:
the only sensible definition of a free agency is a free individual. Frazer's Golden
Bough was based on an evolutionary schema that postulated a 'progression'
from Magic, via Religion to Science. Eliot disregarded this because of his own
'faith' position. I would suggest this points to the fact that Eliot (or the
poetic voice we call 'Eliot') was actually an anti-Modernist, not a Modernist or
a 'radical', unless of course you wish to think about a reactionary or
conservative form of radicalism (you can – Margaret Thatcher is often called
'radical'). This example highlights an issue concerning ‘modern’ and
‘radical’. Rimbaud might be both ‘modern’ and ‘radical’ but Eliot
might be ‘anti-modern’ and ‘radical’. So these terms are prone to
circular interpretation! This is my observation on confusions or contradictions
in general usage.
It is a commonly held view that ‘innovative poetries’ in the UK originated
in the Nineteen Sixties. In this period we find the literary world separated
into two, symbiotic, warring camps: ‘conservatives’ and ‘radicals’. The
conservatives are ‘the establishment’, usually Encounter magazine (1953-1967), The Movement (1955), their pre-war
predecessors the Georgians, or, sometimes, the more recent Confessional Poets
– the Alvarez/Plath ‘suicide school’. The ‘radicals’ composed what is
now known as the BPR (British Poetry Revival), called at the time the
Underground, or the Children of Albion.
timelines can be great fun – one likes to isolate those key moments or
watersheds, those defining episodes or momentous years – here are some for the
Sixties. 1963: the Kennedy Assassination, Wilson leader of the Labour Party, The
Liverpool Scene, Writers Forum, Plath kills herself. 1966: the year of
‘swinging’ London (according to Time
Magazine) and the Situationists. 1968:
the May Events in Paris, the death of Duchamp, Bomb Culture. Perhaps
1969: was a significant year –
did Zabriskie Point symbolise the end
of Modern architecture and the birth of Postmodernism? Of course, in the main,
the ‘Sixties’ was – and, for popular ‘folk memory’, still is – a
fashion statement. It was a statement defined by clothes (the Mary Quant
mini-skirt, the Cecil Gee suit, the monokini and the topless dress), James Bond
films, Art Nouveau posters (in the style of Mucha) and pop music – The Stones,
The Who, Pink Floyd, the ‘acid dandyism’ of Jimi Hendrix.
JS: So this was, for you, the real impact of the Sixties not changes
in literature and poetic practice?
ACE: Absolutely, however, fashionable Sixties culture was mainly
confined to large urban centres, mainly London and Liverpool: the rest of the
country, stunned by the Profumo affair, traumatised by the death of Churchill,
was still in a state of denial, living in a drab, post-war cultural desert of
Fifties kitsch. The various items of new legislation – the abolition of
theatre censorship, for example – that helped to make the so-called
‘permissive society’ did, of course, have lasting, positive, long-term
effects. At the outset it should be recognised that the BPR was a sideshow for
everybody except its participants: then, as now, very few members of the general
public read ‘innovative’ poetry. If the truth be known the most
‘innovative’ publications of the Sixties were in the field of prose, not
poetry – for example Thomas Pynchon’s novel V
(1963) or Samuel Beckett’s collection No’s
Knife 1945-1966 (1967).
on our imaginary timeline, the defining moment or year for the BPR sideshow was
1965. This was the year of the Cultural Revolution in China: Maoism was to
become very trendy over the next few years after Godard made La
Chinoise. 1965 also saw the death of T. S. Eliot, and, coincidentally, the
beginnings of an ‘anti-permissive’ backlash in the shape of the NVALA
(National Viewers and Listeners Association) founded by Mary Whitehouse. The
International Poetry Incarnation (at the Albert Hall), organised by the Poet’s
Cooperative, was the big literary event of the year. The abiding image of the
Incarnation is preserved in grainy film of the nudist buffoonery of Allen
Ginsberg, semi-official envoy of the American Beat Generation. ‘Albion’ was
all about the Beat Generation.
to Kerouac the Beats were the generation that came of age after World War II,
their aims, expressed in ‘spontaneous prose’ and vernacular, freeform
poetry, were the ‘relaxation of social and sexual tensions’ and the espousal
of ‘mystical detachment’. This ‘mystical detachment’ seemed to mean a
fascination for Zen and, in sharp contradiction with British Pop Art, rejection
of capitalist consumerism in the cause of unworldly anti-materialism. William
Burroughs, a distinguished London resident of the time, and one of the few
writers associated with the Beats whose work has any lasting value, dissociated
himself from the mystical stuff but this went largely unnoticed. On a technical
level, Burrough’s Naked Lunch (1959)
far outstripped the work of his Beat contemporaries.
JS: Historically what
route do you see British poetry as having traversed to get to the point it is at
ACE: I suspect there is no clear historical trajectory for British
poetry in the modern era, which I define as 1890 to the present. I would say
that the most 'radical' innovations of the Eighteen Nineties (due to 'Symbolist'
influences) were (a) the formal understanding that a poem must be short (no more
epics) (b) urban themes and subjects (c) subjects from popular entertainment
(e.g. Music Hall). (d) a problematic approach to religion and morality. I see
the fin de siecle as the defining
watershed for modern British poetry.
JS: I always thought points a, b, c, and d were not a result of
Symbolist or Decadent influences. These points seem grounded in naturalism and
realism, something that Symbolist poets would not have comfortably endorsed. The
Symbolists were dedicated to pseudo-romantic notions of ‘truth’ and the
‘Ideal’; they were against plain meanings and matter-of-fact description.
The points you mention are more overtly identifiable in the work of Eliot than
in Symbolism per se.
ACE: I think this is a stereotypical, post hoc view of Symbolism –
the actual poems and practices of key 'Symbolists' (e.g. Mallarmé, Verlaine,
Laforgue) don't evade naturalism/realism. The godfather of 'Symbolism',
Baudelaire pioneered the 'modern' urban poem of gritty realism, alienation,
fetish sex, and a number of other things. His ‘Correspondences’ is a kind of
mini ars poetica for later writers,
but I don't think his inheritors actually referred to themselves as Symbolists
at the outset. The crystallisation of Symbolism as a movement was quite a late
development (circa 1886). The Symbolist concern for 'vagueness' and the
ephemeral is really an inflection of Impressionism (itself a mode of realism
concerned with the fleeting experiences and perceptions of everyday life) and a
realisation that poetry is intra-subjective experience. This concern with
interior subjectivity is very important. However, one has to realise that terms
like Symbolism, Decadence, Impressionism and so on were quite fluid and not well
defined at the time. Idealism (Ideism)
was a sort of Neo Platonic occult doctrine about 'higher' realities, the basis
for much Abstract Art (Kandinsky, Brancusi). But I don't buy the idea that the
Symbolists were 'pseudo-Romantic'.
Symons’ models were Huysmans, Whistler and Degas. Again, it’s just using
‘Romantic’ as a pejorative, bogey word.
JS: On the point of the short poem; surely, it was Edgar Allan Poe in
his essay The Poetic Principle (1850)
who initiated the idea of the short poem as being true poetry. Poe
believed that the important thing was for the poem to have an effect on the
reader, this effect can normally only be sustained for a short period hence the
longer the poem the less lasting the effect. Baudelaire was influenced by Poe
and translated him into French. Poe’s influence on French poetry was therefore
significant, so much so that you could say that Symbolism was essentially an
ACE: True! In this respect Poe must be counted an honorary Frenchman.
I don't think his poetry was much appreciated in America! The modern American
poetic 'canon' dates from Whitman, I would guess – not Poe, who is usually
dismissed as a minor curiosity and an inconsequential poet. The English Nineties
poets inherited the principle of the short form poem from Poe (partly) via the
French influences – but they could read him for themselves no doubt. Poe is
definitely a precursor of Symbolism (whatever we mean by the word) although his
own poetry was Late Romantic. It’s an overstatement to say that Symbolism was
an American invention on the strength of Poe. (Poe's poetry was translated into
French by Mallarmé, while Baudelaire was known for his earlier translations of
the Tales of Mystery
and Imagination.) Also the short poem principle was not the only formal
feature of Symbolism as a movement. Vers Libre, the Prose Poem and Open Field
were all 'Symbolist' innovations before WWI.
JS: What do you mean exactly by ‘naturalism’?
ACE: When I say Naturalism I mean specifically the Naturalist Movement
associated with Zola and Huysmans, the plays of Ibsen and, in Germany, the work
of Gerhart Hauptmann. It means something quite specific involving 'exposure' of
difficult social truths, not a loose real-life descriptiveness or picturesque
nature poetry (evocations of daffodils or mountain scenery). Naturalist Realism
was considered ‘decadent’ and 'degenerate' by its opponents – because it
questioned the status quo it was subversive. Decadence celebrated modernity, low
life, physical sensation and the 'artificial'. In many respects quite different
from Symbolism in the narrow sense, the Decadent Movement elevated technology
over nature. What we call 'symbolism' is a loose bucket-term that encompasses
all these things: a lineage of writers and artists influenced by Baudelaire.
JS: To the extent that your own poetry (whether you intend it or not)
enables readers to bring meaning out of the text indicates that you have some
connection with the experimental, however tenuous.
ACE: This 'reader' thing is political correctness. It's a truism isn't
it? Of course the reader brings meaning out of the text – I bet Sappho would
have agreed that her audience functioned at a level of creative engagement with
her work. But then to assert that only
the reader is important, removing the author from the picture altogether, is
just ridiculous – it’s a kind of pseudo-democracy, a populist dodge – its
just ‘gesture politics’. So far as my own poetry is concerned, I like to
'tease rather than tell' and I think poetry works primarily on an irrational
level. I like the idea that the reader can identify with the poem or text on a
level of emotional empathy as well as on a level of ambivalent, oblique psychic
symbolism or imagery. Surreal elements of ‘objective chance’ enhance the
shared nature of empathic engagement with the reader, because they can derail
expectations but I don’t think this engagement is concerned with simple issues
of semantic meaning. It is quite possible that a truly ‘poetic’ poem might
be incomprehensible on the rational level. I certainly don't think poetry (or
any art) should be didactic – if you want to deal with ‘issues’ become a
JS: How do you define the individual voice in poetry? Surely to
insist upon one is didactic.
ACE: I'm not insisting on it, I'm saying you can't surgically remove
the individual ('voice') from the creative process without destroying the
mechanism of the creative process itself. But to define the voice is very
difficult – I would be the first to agree. There are all sorts of pitfalls here.
For instance when Barthes proclaimed the ‘death of the author’ in 1968 he
did so on the premise that the omnipotent author was a surrogate for God. The
death of the author was also the death of God. It was an act of liberation. I
can certainly see his point. Without going into too much detail I would suggest
that, beyond all the textual analysis and critical theory that can be directed
towards a specific poem the ultimate defining characteristic of the work is the
unique 'signature' (strong or weak) of the writer. The essential difference
between a poem by Stevie Smith and poem by, say, W. H. Auden, is ultimately a
difference of personality, irrespective of literary theory. I would say this is
self-evident. It is also true of poems written by poets who tell us they deny
the voice – all you hear is their voice. A poem without a voice is an
impossibility (obviously a voice can be unobtrusive, boring or inconsequential,
but that is beside the point). This becomes a complicated matter of psychology
and philosophy (masks, multiple personality, false identity, alter-egos,
selfhood and instability, automatism, fictional personalities and characters)
and not a literary question at all.
is coming under attack every day.... check out the PEN website. As Terry
Eagleton has pointed out in one of his critiques of Postmodernism, significant
transformative action – artistic creativity counts as transformative action
– in the real world requires the participation of an integrated unified, human
individual/subject. Postmodernism usually denies this possibility. Eliot, if he
were still with us, would be quite at home with all this self-denial stuff. What
would he make of all the other related fads of radical chic? These include
social constructionism, reader response theory, linguistic determinism, ethical
criticism, post-colonialism and eco-criticism – whatever intellectually
hypertrophied school of thought the current wave of ‘radical’ poets use to
advance the next generational revolt – theory as power dressing. There is
major issue of identity here, all bound up with a stereotyped Anti-Romanticism
(T. E. Hulme via T. S. Eliot).
JS: Hulme’s attack on the Romantics was based on his mistaken
belief that they were not writing poetry that was particular and descriptively
accurate. He thought them flowery and vague. In fact, his call for more
precision in poetry was ironically the same one that Wordsworth advocated. Both
Romantic and Modernist poetry have more in common than is often recognised.
ACE: I'm sure your description of Hulme's position is quite correct
– I agree – actually I think Modernism is a development of Romanticism. You
could argue that some aspects of aesthetic Postmodernism are a development of or
amplification of, the idea of Romantic Irony – Byron saw a close link between
Romanticism and burlesque. However the ‘modern’ or most recent form of
anti-Romanticism is an authoritarian attack on the so-called ‘paradigm’ of
self-expression. Yet this is not so contemporary as one might think – Orwell
noticed a tendency to conflate ‘Romanticism’ with a negative interpretation
of ‘individualism’ in the Thirties and Forties as well. Not much has changed
since those days, unfortunately.
JS: Are you advocating a sort of neo-Romantic poetic aesthetic?
ACE: Perhaps this use of the term neo-Romantic conforms to the
dictates of the anti-Romantic propaganda line. What is Romantic? I tend to find
that anti-Romanticists don't really know what Romanticism is/was.
JS: My understanding of what Romanticism is that it is about
self-expression via a stable authorial voice or ego. Keats criticised Wordsworth
for his self-obsession and coined the term ‘Egotistical Sublime’ to describe
it. In principle I’ve nothing against an individual voice in poetry but I
think that the text is, and should be, ultimately in the control of the reader.
ACE: I think this is just far too narrow – Romanticism is or was
(historically) a diverse, widespread phenomenon – it can include everything
from the Gothic novel to science, philosophy and politics. Romanticism was a
tendency or movement that affected all parts of society and all the arts. Also,
I suggest that associating the idea of a ‘stable’ authorial voice or
‘ego’ with ‘self-obsession’ is unnecessarily tendentious – it sounds
like a thinly disguised moral agenda. It’s like saying Romantics are/were
‘bad people’, because bad people are self-obsessed and nice people are not
egotistical. This is not the Romanticism of the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, it is the political correctness of the late twentieth century.
Schlegel described Romantic poetry as ‘continually becoming, never complete
and infinitely free’. I would affirm Romanticism, or a form of Romanticism, as
a movement about freedom, revolution and transgression – the dogma against
Romanticism is a dogma against change, against the ‘voice’, against the
individual. Where Romanticism is for the individual, count me in!
JS: But don’t you find it ironic that the concept of the authorial
voice disallows the reader the freedom to make of the text what he/she will?
Surely, the text under such conditions becomes dictatorial. How is one to find
personal significance in a text that claims itself as being only applicable to
the ‘voice’ that wrote it? Surely, this leads to didacticism.
ACE: I just don't agree with any of this – the mere existence of a
'voice' disallows nothing – the
existence of the authorial presence in no way implies interpretative exclusivity
of signification in the way that you say – why should it? Also, didacticism is
not dependent upon the 'voice' in any way. It is a quite separate matter, I
think. Propaganda is often disembodied, anonymous and impersonal. Mind you, I
guess there might be conflicting views on the nature of the didactic. My ideal
poem would always resist clear-cut interpretations or didactic messages. Protest
poets might have a different view. What has happened since the Seventies is that
theorists have replaced the iconic (‘Romantic’) personality cult of the
artist with a personality cult of academic gurus, a pantheon of celebrities
drawn from the post-Structuralist intelligentsia (e.g. Baudrillard, Foucault,
Lyotard, Kristeva, Cixous, precursors such as Levinas, and a number of others).
It is in the interests of theorists to deny the crucial role of the artist and
elevate the ‘reader’ to a central position in the discourse, but it is their
discourse – a discourse of academic command and control using the ‘reader’
is a propaganda ploy. I would assert that most readers relate to the
‘voices’ of their chosen authors living or dead, and this intimate,
one-to-one relationship is a defining aesthetic experience for most readers most
of the time.
JS: Do the US Beats and the British ‘Children of Albion’
poets confirm or deny the idea of an authorial voice/subject in poetry?
ACE: In my scheme of things I suggest the 'denial of the voice' is a
characteristic of Postmodernism. Barthes' ‘Death Of The Author’ article was
first published in 1968. The Poetry Incarnation was 1965 so the British Beats
pre-date Barthes in this regard. Barthes himself cites the prime Symbolist
Mallarme as 'the first to recognise' that language should be the prime element
of a poem. Closer to home, I always quote Olson as the main US initiator – all
that 'wash out the ego' malarky. However, as I observed elsewhere, the Beats
seem to me to conform to the Romantic concept of the artist-poet. The decisive
break was the Language Poets (c 1971) who I see as Postmodernists: they quite
specifically attacked the 'workshop aesthetic of individual expression'. 1971 is
usually quoted as the beginning of Postmodernism in literature. The historical
origins of Postmodernism in the arts generally are confused (but that is another
story I guess).
JS: In your writings you use phrases such as ‘defected to
Americanism’, ‘literary Americanism’, and ‘like their American
friends’ the tone of which may make people think that your poetic viewpoint is
insular and anti-American because of political considerations. Can you expand on
exactly what you mean?
ACE: I realise the implications of using a term like
‘Americanism’. I'm not being narrowly political here – in this context I
would define Americanism as an academic trend or ethos – high-level
interaction between academics and others that conforms to The Fall of Paris
scenario. The idea that, after WWII, the centre of cultural innovation moved
from Paris to New York. The assertion that New York in particular and the USA
generally has set the pace and the agenda for innovation in the arts since 1945.
I don't deny the reality of the geopolitical shift, but I feel that the
situation is compromised by the rise of the global mass media – this Fall of
Paris idea is another highbrow propaganda ploy. Avant-garde innovation was a
nineteenth century concept. By the middle of the twentieth century the idea of
the avant-garde (and Modernism as a movement) has been completely trashed and
exhausted, mass-produced and commodified. Academia and critical theorists have
to keep these myths going – too many jobs depend on such cultural histories.
Americanism is a kind of academic Historicism. This is only indirectly related
to 'hard' politics and foreign policy. In any case I am only applying this
critique to poetry.
JS: Some of the references to the ‘Children of Albion’ in your
writings suggest you see them as ‘selling out’ on the authorial
voice/subject. If they did so, why was this?
ACE: From my frankly cynical viewpoint I would suggest it was
susceptibility to academic trends. Even Jeff Nuttall ended up working for a
University. I would say that the Academic Left consolidated a position based on
Post-Structuralism and similar tendencies (e.g. Social Construction
Epistemology) influenced by Thomas Kuhn's The
Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). This book had a tremendous
impact and precipitated what is known as the 'science wars'. Key themes were
denial of objectivity and the idea that the individual is a 'cultural
construction' not an innate entity. I don't think this mode of thinking really
filtered into the 'counter-culture' until the Seventies. Having said that I
might also observe that there is – at a deeper cultural level – a
correlation, or a form of family resemblance, between traditional mystical ideas
of self-denial, including puritan asceticism, and ‘the death of the author’
mystique as interpreted by Postmodernists. Such mystical ideas did permeate the
Sixties Beat counter-culture and helped to prepare the ground… well, kind of.
if one looks among the poets of Albion and their successors for that absolute
non-conformism (non-conformisme absolu)
demanded by the First Surrealist Manifesto
such a ‘radical’ disconnection from established norms is present only in the
form of an emotional stance. It was a mere posture or, more appropriately, one
might say, a poetical imposture. And even that imposture has been vitiated by
the fashionable orthodoxy of Postmodern theorists. Which is why, for many years
now, English poetry has been – literally – going nowhere.