The Argotist Online
Tony Lopez Interview
Tony Lopez is the author of 20 books of poetry, fiction and criticism. His most recent poetry collections are False Memory (Salt, 2003) and Devolution (The Figures, 2000). He has received awards from The Wingate Foundation, The Society of Authors and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. His poetry is featured in many anthologies including Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry (Oxford), Vanishing Points (Salt), Other (Wesleyan) and Conductors of Chaos (Picador). His critical essays are collected in Meaning Performance: Essays on Poetry (Salt, 2006). He is well known as a poetry performer and has given readings throughout the UK, Europe and North America. He teaches in England at the University of Plymouth, where he was appointed the first Professor of Poetry in 2000.
Scott Thurston began writing in the poetry scene situated around Gilbert Adair’s Sub-Voicive Poetry reading series and Bob Cobbing’s New River Project workshops in London in the late eighties. His books include Poems Nov 89 - Jun 91 (Writers Forum, 1991), State(s)walk(s) (Writers Forum, 1994), Turns (with Robert Sheppard) (Ship of Fools/Radiator, 2003). His full-length collection, Hold: Poems 1994-2004 (2006) is published by Shearsman. He lectures in English and Creative Writing at The University of Salford and lives in Liverpool. He edits The Radiator, a journal of contemporary poetics.
ST: What was the starting impulse for your writing of poetry?
TL: I have thought about it and I can’t really remember a starting impulse, which is interesting. I have teenage children myself now and I wish I was better at being a parent and didn’t lose my temper. But it is difficult to remember really what that was like 40 years ago. I think that I started writing in my early teens and that it connected my own experience with that of music lyrics (early Dylan and pop and Blues) and with what I was reading at school. And of course they never bothered to choose literature specially relevant to the young then so we started with episodes from classics for translation and then Chaucer. I was probably in trouble and writing something as a way out on paper. We were set composition exercises at primary school, writing stories and poems, that probably goes all the way back. The change for me was when I began to get work published. The writing was not very interesting but I was trying to make a connection.
ST: An intriguing opening, especially in the idea of making connections between one’s reading and the occasions for writing that emerge in those early stages. Your first published work was in genre fiction, is that right? Can you tell me a bit more about your approach to that kind of writing?
TL: My approach to genre fiction was one of complete desperation. I was trying to sell stories to newspapers and magazines, I had the odd success, but it wasn’t enough pay. I sent a novel to New English Library (which they bought eventually) and they asked me if I could write soft porn or ghouls horror or hells angels. I didn’t really know what to do with that but when they asked me for gangsters I said (with supreme confidence and zero knowledge) yes, ok. (It was the time of the film The Sting.) Then I went out and bought some biographies of gangsters and pillaged them for incidents and characters to patch together the stories. My agent was very good at contracts and rights, got me a better deal than I had with the first book. I wrote very fast, one book in ten days, didn’t have any other income, and we sold the books several times over, so that was good. I have a set in Danish somewhere. I don’t know if the other translations were ever done or just rights purchased. After four I got fed up with it and had a kind of crisis, had to do something else. I couldn’t cope. I was writing poetry at the same time, erratically. I printed some and sold them door-to-door. Interesting social encounters here and there. I went off to New York with no money; it was a kind of scary adventure. Anyway I found out I could go to University as a mature student and get government support so I came back, put in an application and started working in a publishing firm, production work with proofs and advertising copy. I was doing some readings and freelance reviewing. That lasted until I became a student and moved away.
ST: I’m interested in how you found your way to your academic work on W. S. Graham and his importance for you as ‘permission’, but also whether any of the technical approaches to genre fiction that you describe – like almost a collage approach to plot and the speed of composition – remain in your poetic practice?
TL: I started work towards my PhD in Cambridge in autumn 1980. I had a government scholarship to work at Gonville and Caius College and Jeremy Prynne was my supervisor. After a little while I decided that my original topic wasn’t going to work out so he suggested I look at some poets whose work interested me and at the same time handed me a copy of the Graham collected. I was hooked right away, especially by the ‘Malcolm Mooney’s Land’ and ‘Implements in their Places’ sections. Jeremy was more taken with ‘The Nightfishing’. I was really moved at first by the later poems, the combination of paradoxical language play and powerful feeling in reduced circumstances, the faltering rhythms of the later work appealed to me: ‘The Dark Dialogues’ especially but also some earlier pieces that are not so worked up as ‘The Nightfishing’ (which is wonderful too) ‘The Lost Other’ and ‘The Children of Greenock’: ‘Barefoot on authority’s alphabet’. So for a while it was my job to write about Graham’s poetry and I taught the American lit paper for some colleges and supervised some undergraduate dissertations. Life of Riley. I met all sorts of interesting people there. But for various good reasons it took me quite a long time to finish the work on Graham. I did write some poems under the spell of Graham, but that was a long time ago. I was finding my own way with cutup from the early 70s and I suppose that being an Essex student and then writing a PhD altered what I wrote for some time but it was still a writing activity and all connected in terms of my experience, even if it looks very different officially. It was much more difficult to get to be a student, but if you got in the financial circumstances were much better. So academic writing and a bit of teaching paid the way for a time.
ST: Whilst wanting to acknowledge, as you say, your independence from Graham in your overall development, I did feel that what you said about his work: the ‘paradoxical language play and powerful feeling in reduced circumstances’ struck me as a useful emblem for some of your own poetic concerns. Can we clear a space to consider the key factors that motivate your work at this time? Would you choose to articulate a politics of form, for instance, and/or other vectors that generate enabling tensions for poetic practice?
TL: You said a while back that you had been reading False Memory. You can see from that how my work is fashioned by facing outwards, I am working with source materials, pre-existing text in books, magazines, academic and popular journals, anything printed, and working with it to make something else again. A politics of form would for me involve making that process obvious in the work (not with a reading list but in the writing) but also making work that has an impact beyond the world of poetry. That’s become absolutely essential. I have three books on my desk at the moment. One is in proof: a collection of essays (Meaning Performance) due out from Salt in early June. Another, a book of poetry, is mostly done and set aside because I need the essays off my desk to get it to the finishing stage. I need to go back to that and concentrate for a period. And the third one I’m actively writing: a long poem that will be set out as prose. I have tried bits out at recent readings and I have a clear sense of the book as a whole now confirmed. It will probably take three or four years to write, the process is really quite slow. Thinking about it, I don’t have a model that survives from book to book, I know I currently have a viable form and am able to pick up and work on the current book – but I have not been in that situation for a long time, not since I finished writing False Memory early in 1997. That didn’t come out as a whole book until 2003, but that was about publishing, not writing. So, key factors that motivate my work are honestly (honestly) quite opaque for me: the process of working over some material and gathering what I need from it, that is one strand. Another is combining the materials and that is never simple. There needs to be some kind of engagement with the material. If I look back over what I’ve been making recently there are threads and concerns that become very obvious, but I doubt that I could do that, identify them clearly, in advance. So much for blue sky proposals.
ST: This approach where the engagement with materials becomes retrospectively clear, but emerges in real-time as it were, is one I recognise in poets such as Maggie O’Sullivan and John Wilkinson. Allen Fisher’s notion of process-showing seems relevant here too in your acknowledgement that a politics of form for you would consist in making the process of ‘facing outwards’ obvious in the work. A few threads off that one. Would you, for the benefit of readers new to your work, be prepared to point out the range of sources going into a specific piece – say the section from ‘Assembly Point D’ in False Memory that begins with the quotation from Robert Browning – and possibly to sketch the scheme of connection as you now see it? Also why you utilise the sonnet form in that sequence? I was also interested in where and how you see your poetry making its essential impact beyond the world of poetry. Also given the nature of this facing outwards – what has become of the inward? Is for you the possibility of a poetry based on the expression of subjectivity an unviable approach these days? Perhaps this is what you see yourself doing – but we may need to clarify terms!
TL: You mean the opening of ‘Assembly Point D’ I think, where I begin with just a line from Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’ and where Browning, following Chatterton, misuses the word ‘slug-horn’ (which is an early spelling of ‘slogan’) and makes it a physical horn on which the title of his poem (from Shakespeare’s King Lear) is blown as a brave and stirring call, probably hopelessly, as a Romantic and theatrical gesture before a confrontation we never get to see. So the line is itself very arch and literary (more so because of the inherited error) and my re-use of it indexes a series of quotations from Shakespeare, Chatterton, Browning, and the heroic imaginary terrain of knights and quests with the suggestion of the military origin of business and political language (slogan) from our time. I recognise a contemporary (to the time of writing) news story about ‘names’, meaning freelance insurers who are members of Lloyds of London, ‘badly treated by crowd behaviour in the market’ that is going broke because they were exposed to unforeseen risk, and that story has been spliced with phrases stripped out of a business article (looking at the rest of the poem, I must have found it in one of those flight magazines) where a business writer is using the New Testament story of the adulterous woman who is rescued by Jesus from being stoned to death. So that the language ‘our man was calm, drew figures in the sand’ etc is taken from the business article itself about the way that a traditional and literary religious story can be used metaphorically for business executive training. So ‘our man was calm’ and ‘Spoke to them as individuals’, sort of adapts the bible story into a parable of thinking leadership for a managing director or maybe president of a really big company, how to manage shareholder pressure, campaigns and grievances (such as the names protest against the Lloyds management). I didn’t keep the magazine and would have got it in the obvious way while travelling. The next sentence locates the whole poem in time for me, because I remember a TV programme to accompany a big retrospective De Kooning exhibition at Tate Gallery, London (before the Tate split) the exhibition originated in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and was curated by Marla Prather, Nicholas Serota, and David Sylvester. The TV programme might have come some weeks or months before the exhibition. Anyway the TV programme showed Willem De Kooning working in his specially designed studio producing large paintings. The canvas is in a trench so he can reach the top of it without having to perch or balance on a ladder. He was, late in his career, suffering with senile dementia, but he kept on working and producing large paintings. The motor skills were unaffected and the late paintings, the ‘Alterstil’ have their own qualities and even serenity. De Kooning’s paintings were in the early to mid 1990s worth about a million dollars each. So the TV programme is the source, I have the book of the exhibition, but I think I saw that later, a wonderful show. ‘Cartoon prawns and crabs etc’ is a transcription of a TV ad for Eurostar and Channel Tunnel services from that time (Eurotunnel is the name of the company that raised city of London finance to build the tunnel) including the Zydeco music in the ad. Another time cue for me is John Redwood the politician (Secretary of State for Wales under John Major) who challenged John Major for the leadership of the Conservative party. His name is the name of a North American tree, so he gets an ambiguous entry into the poem like the ‘slug-horn’. The episode involving a teacher and child was a current news story, but it begins to develop a theme of mouths, doing all the things that mouths can do, through the poem. Hence ‘slug-horn to my lips’, ‘bound and gagged’, ‘daydreams of oral sex’, ‘scholars pay lip-service’, ‘spaghetti vongole’, ‘clam chowder’, ‘oysters on ice’, ‘down on his donut’, ‘Daryl Hall sings’ etc. So that is a newspaper story and the Spanish ‘Nastro Adesivo: 3M’ is what you see if you look inside a roll of 3M brown plastic parcel tape that would have been on my desk at home and still is. But of course it is the emotional effect of that episode, of misused trust, of the social order going wrong. The obvious social anxiety in the section is a main motive of the book as a whole, the effect that is developed in switching registers and unstable vocabularies. If it works it is more than a style decision. ‘Holding back the late works’ refers back to the market in Willem De Kooning paintings and connects with later passages in the poem where I invent an imaginary market in secondary rights for Abstract Expressionist paintings on credit cards and a futures market in concept art. The last couplet was picked up in a review of False Memory by Edmund Hardy in the internet magazine Terrible Work, as a definition of what it means to be human. I thought that was funny and quite right: the first sentence comes from Nature or from Scientific American and is indeed about metabolic processes and the complexity of the body’s functions. I think that begins to show the kinds of sources that are mobilised and the ways that they might fit together.
I think of ‘Assembly Point D’ as a single poem, a sequence of quatorzains or fourteeners, but the sense runs across the sequence. So the use of the sonnet form is not the final form of composition in those sequences but fourteen lines is a unit of composition, as is the sentence. The sentence is equally important; the two are played together. The sonnet is a form with a history, which is an aspect of writing poetry: using a recognisable cultural form and doing something else, something contemporary, with it. For me obviously the elevated rather artificial speech of love sonnets and Shakespeare’s powerful reversals into authentic feeling (as in My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun) is a lovely knot to explode and reweave with our contemporary instrumental language of debased capitalism taking on Romantic image and Biblical traditions, business leadership, advertising, art marketing, art and music in advertising, politics and science reporting. Elsewhere in the sequence lots of different registers and vocabularies are brought in to explore the possibilities of authentic feeling and individual consciousness. I notice that the possibility of an ending couplet is a kind of motive in that first fourteener (the rhyme ‘machine/urine’ also) and it is also there in the pastoral Virgilian ending couplet of ‘Assembly Point D’. So there is a sense of finishing and use of memorable form that motivates the poem, even at its most parodic.
The ‘inward’ is interesting and I didn’t see it in advance. There are bits of personal experience in False Memory (how could there not be?) but you are right that the project is not really about communicating my experience directly and I’m not really interested in that. I know that for many people that is what poetry is but I’m not very interested in learning bits of someone’s life story, anecdotes, in rather sloppy or even snappy and bright free verse. It’s so earnest and dull to say what your experience means, even if you belong to a minority group (who doesn’t). I think any poetry that earns itself an audience has a validity, but I don’t have to like it. Someone moaning about their parents or past lovers, so what? Anyway it turns out that even if you don’t write ‘My Way’ episodes, but work with specific sources, you define yourself absolutely by your choices and by the way you make combinations of materials and by the emotional matter that your work touches on. If you are writing over time and you have enough work out there then characteristics become clear. Even if you wanted to, it can’t be avoided. I suppose that we are our training and the kinds of combinations and emotional complexes we have become visible in the work.
ST: I was thrilled to bits by your extraordinary post full of detail and generous insight. The reading of the poem alone is extremely valuable in itself as a kind of process showing, your illustration of the theme of ‘mouths’ reminding me of John Wilkinson’s metaphor of metastases to describe a kind of metonymy through the poem. I’ll attach my own close reading of this section which I did for the lecture I was writing on your work when we began the interview! The reflections on the use of sonnet form are also instructive as are your more general thoughts on the kind of poetries to which this practice offers an alternative poetics.
What I’m interested in at this point is your attention to ‘authentic feeling’ and emotions in poetry – not as a poetics of self-expression as such – but as something that is either thematic, in terms of social anxiety (something akin to tone?), or as somehow inherent in work that is built over a period of time – almost like a gestural repertoire (to use another John Wilkinson term). A poem of yours which seems more directly to address an emotional situation is ‘Holding On’ from Stress Management – which it does with rigorous measure and formal wit. So I’m wondering if you would like to say something more about how you perceive the relationship between poetry and emotion, between poetry and authentic feeling – when these are still terms that younger writers like myself, brought up under the sign of post-modernism, have been taught to distrust, but which, well for myself at any rate, seem increasingly desirable to reclaim. It may be that the notion of individual consciousness is relevant here also – tho’ I like the way in which Andrew Crozier in his preview of The Figures publication of part of False Memory suggests that you reverse the notion of ‘the private is public’. I suppose I’m wondering what kind of model of subjectivity informs your poetics – if it could be called a model – although I’m aware I’m thrashing around a bit at the edge of issues which are far from crystal clear for me. It’s very interesting how these kinds of terms are placed against the constructional paradigm by which your poems get built, which seems to me a terrifically productive tension.
TL: Your questions are very searching and effective – how can you work with particular sources and make something worth reading unless you have an emotional connection of some kind to what you are working on? Well you can’t, but the connection might well come in the process of working, because of the complexities of language and of contexts, you can come up with connections and combinations that are meaningful, even surprising. And then there is whatever happens in life to make you somehow vulnerable. That just happens. Fear, anger and stress will sharpen up anyone’s wit. I liked your reading for the lecture [ST sent TL a copy of ST’s lecture notes on False Memory], the process of working through a poem without closing anything down, seeing why it is that a shift in tone is interesting ... and sharing that process of uncertainty. You can’t have any poetry unless you are emotionally engaged so there really has to be a way to communicate powerful feeling even if you can only find negative or oblique ways to do it. It’s interesting that you should evoke John Wilkinson’s critical language and say what you said about ‘Holding On’ because he developed a very negative reading of that poem in a review he wrote of my book Stress Management. I remembered it as something in Angel Exhaust – but I just looked through the issues and couldn’t find it there. Maybe it’s in another magazine. Anyway ‘Holding On’ does put together domestic experience, family feeling, and political ideas like the fluctuating price of oil at the time of the first Gulf war, seeing a man using a metal detector on a sandy beach: he’s not looking for mines. It’s a love poem. I couldn’t access that simplicity on demand. But I do remember it was written as a list of things absolutely necessary to hold on to in difficult circumstances, hence the title. Reading it again now it seems to have Housman’s ‘blue remembered hills’ in mind. I really don’t have a model of subjectivity up and running but I’m sure it could be worked out. I try things out in the process of writing by reading aloud: I’m sure that I’m reading for the possibility of a confident and assured performance – and that is based on an emotional test that I haven’t worked out – why this or why that – it either goes or it doesn’t.
ST: This is a really useful response, particularly in the recognition of the necessity of that emotional connection and its expression alongside acknowledging how feelings may arise in the process of composition itself. That you try things out by reading aloud during the writing process as an ‘emotional test’ reminds me of Oppen’s ‘Statement of Poetics’ in which he states that ‘the ear knows’ before linking this to issues of sincerity: ‘[Image].. cannot be altered and it cannot be falsified without one’s knowing it. Prosody is a language, but it is a language that tests itself.’ And Oppen also links this to emotion.
I think the comparison/contrast with Wilkinson’s poetics as they are revealed in his review (in Fragmente 7) are very interesting. I hadn’t read it previously as a negative review, oddly, but now I can see how it can be read like that, although Wilkinson does acknowledge in a footnote that, having seen the initial publication of False Memory, you were doing other things also. What interests me in the review is how, despite recognising the extent to which ‘Holding On’ uses ‘romantic-modernist tropes to anti-modernist, anti-romantic effect’, that the limit for Wilkinson is how you use the pronoun ‘I’. As he argues: ‘what [the first-person position] cannot afford is that the world it translates should reciprocally act upon it’. Tho’ admitting that ‘the first person position does not necessarily subordinate’ he concludes that what is problematic is that ‘[L] cannot risk his authority because he feels so responsible’.
What makes this feel unsatisfactory as criticism is the extent to which Wilkinson seems to want to have it both ways, or rather neither – that the first person ‘I’ should not be an evaded responsibility, but that it should not be too much of a responsibility either. It seems that this is a tension that not only informs the poem itself, but would have been more clearly seen had Wilkinson tested this notion in relation to other works. It is clear to me that Wilkinson is grappling with his own demons here in a way analogous to his readings of Prynne’s moral authority (taken to task in Robin Purves’ essay on Prynne criticism in The Gig 2). I guess to find a question out of all this – what do you think is at stake in these notions of responsibility vs authority? Can we have one without the other? Cannot one risk one’s authority precisely out of a sense of responsibility?
TL: I do understand only too well the motive of John Wilkinson’s piece and I agree with what you say about him ‘grappling with his own demons’ but I am not sure whether we have just the same demons in mind. Your question about ‘responsibility and authority’ gets right at it – but I don’t think that I can really answer a general question about ‘risking one’s authority’ in relation to my poem or to Wilkinson’s reading of my poem, it just doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t write a poem by ‘risking my authority’, that would be another kind of venture and that conceptual authority would not help me to write about love in a family or anything else. I don’t want to argue with a review of my poem, though I do think that its ethical framework: that love is involuntary, would be defensible only for an adolescent, but that is already becoming an argument. I do notice that my poem is misquoted, that the phrase ‘In bed in a favourite book’ in the fifth line of the poem, has been misquoted in the review as the cliché ‘In bed with a favourite book’, and I take that, in a review such as it is, as bad faith. Even so I remember being glad that someone was noticing the work and setting out a response. There had not been much printed at that stage.
ST: I take your points about the issues raised in Wilkinson’s review. I guess my sense of what was at stake was, to put it crudely, whether one writes purely out of impulse or from a more considered viewpoint – perhaps an old Romantic stand off between emotion and reason. Therefore if one risks the authority of one’s reason by responding to impulse, one might wind up seeming trite and irrelevant, but one might also enter into a critique of taking responsibility – if one sees reason and responsibility as leading to a kind of bad authority. Perhaps this thinking is too far into my own preoccupations to be usefully communicable – so perhaps we can leave that line unless you see anything worth pursuing.
I’ve just read your incisive piece on the Pores website about the state of poetry in general and the differences between the US and the British scene and suggesting some of the potential action that can be taken – annoyingly (!) answering a number of my outstanding questions. It’s a sobering reflection of what I still recognise as the reality of the conditions of poetry production and reception in this country: yes, there is a great deal of hope and optimism generated by publishing initiatives such as Salt and Shearsman, but there still remains that suspicious, competitive edge too – which to me seems at odds with the otherwise, for me, valuable amateur tradition of writing in this country. Without risking going back into responsibility and authority again, I guess I would see this more fugitive, embattled sense of writing as potentially productive in a sense that it avoids becoming institutionalised and commodified, and yet, inevitably, this might also indicate a failure of nerve and/or responsibility in really following through the implications of one’s creative practice.
What comes to mind as a possible approach to this state of affairs is the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz’s take on the Polish émigré scene from Argentina, where he decided to stay when war broke out during his visit there in 1939. He stayed for 25 years. Gombrowicz in his diary and elsewhere excoriates Polish writers in an all-out war on hypocrisy – his advice is to examine the difficult feelings one has about oneself in order to overcome them:
I was born to spoil your game. My books are not supposed to say to you: Be who you are. They say rather: You pretend that you are who you are. I would like that which you have long thought barren and even shameful in yourselves to become fruitful. If you hate acting so much, it is because it is a part of you. For me, acting becomes a key to life and reality. If you are repelled by immaturity, it is because you are immature. In me, Polish immaturity delineates my entire attitude to culture. Your youth speaks with my lips, your desire for mirth, your elusive flexibility and lack of delineation. You hate that which you try to eliminate in yourself. In me, the hidden Pole is liberated, your alter ego, the flip side of your coin, that part of your moon that has been unseen until now. Ah, but I would like you to be conscious actors in this game!
I think this is quite a powerful statement in the way it suggests that one has to acknowledge those things in oneself that one wishes to deny – it seems part of the function of your piece to remind writers in Britain that there is an awful lot of stuff we are not dealing with in our writing and that it holds us back from greater community, greater and more honest dialogue.
I’m also interested in what you say in the Pores piece about the task of standing out in the increased flow of stuff being published. How important do you think originality is for the contemporary writer? Does it exist? Can it be achieved? Where would you like to see poetry going in the near or not so near future, for yourself and/or for others?
TL: The answer to your question about impulse or reason has got to be both. You work out of reason whenever possible because it becomes a training and readiness for when the impulse appears: a moment of anger or love or useful perplexity becomes productive but if you were working you could be engaged with something outside of yourself and your own concerns.
I’m not sure that my piece in Pores takes away the need to explore those issues. It certainly wasn’t exhaustive. Your quote from Gombrowicz is against fixed knowledge, against settling into certainty – but also a call to conscious action. Terrific.
The idea of an overwhelming flow, an overproduction, is connected for me to what I said earlier about the wish to communicate beyond the world of poetry, which is crucially important and becomes more pressing. I remember talking to Doug Oliver about difficult writing the last time he visited, he was writing his African poems and said that he was concerned to make work that was completely obvious, it was an urgent matter. That was his take on the politics he was working through. I don’t think I’d come up with exactly the same solution but I do feel a sense of the necessary pressure to get certain issues underway. The question is, with all that there is vying to be noticed, what is it that is worth our attention? Something important to us, generally important, needs to be in play.
ST: Perhaps it’s your last paragraph in particular that moves things on for me. Douglas Oliver is a poet who is hugely important to me. I’ve taught his work a few times in literature seminars and used the A Salvo for Africa material as a test case for the problems of commitment in poetry, specifically staged as Sartre versus Adorno. I absolutely agree with you about that necessity to communicate beyond the world of poetry, but I suppose I come up against that bit where I think more effective action on certain issues would be, for example, to join an environmental group or lobby my MP i.e. to communicate beyond the world of poetry, which is to say, without poetry.
But what you say about how we can try to attend to what is generally (interesting word) important to us in the great flow of things seems really crucial. Gombrowicz comes to mind again:
How does one revive morality? How does one free it from this theoretical aspect? How does one make it reach me, man? Camus tried in vain to deepen my conscience. My problem is not the improvement of my conscience, it is, above all, a question of how far my conscience is mine. For the conscience I wield is a product of culture and culture is something that has come from the people, yet it is not at all identical with man. Here I would like to say: when applying this collective product to me, do not treat me as if I were a self-sufficient soul in the cosmos. The road to me leads through other people. If you want to speak to me effectively, never speak to me directly.
I’ve been haunted by that last sentence in particular for some years now. How it translates in practice, as well as reading, for me, is as an appeal for a kind of work in which selfhood becomes defamiliarised, but in a non-systematic way – perhaps something akin to the autonomous art work in Adorno’s conception – as a way of operating a broader critique. If anything I suppose I feel the necessity of producing and reading/promoting work that goes as far as it possibly can into poetry, rather than beyond it. But perhaps we are lining up on the edges of two positions here?
TL: I don’t think so. I was expressing a wish to communicate beyond the world of poetry, by which I mean, not doing something else or working outside poetry or dumbing down poetry but communicating to an audience apart from just poetry specialists or poetry anoraks. When we were discussing False Memory earlier I was talking about communicating powerful feeling, even if you can find only negative or oblique ways to do it. The motive of pressing political issues or intense personal anxieties does not take me outside poetry, on the contrary, but outward to the source texts which have to be fragmented and composed into poetry. Do you know Dorn’s ‘A for Ism’?
A for Ism
A poets occupation
is to compose poetry
The writing of it
It’s in Hello, La Jolla a very funny and grumpy book.
ST: ‘The writing of it / is everywhere’ seems to catch it just right: the proposed continuum of poetry and the world reminds one how poiein means simply to make: that is, a model for other processes in the world; cultural, personal, political and so on. I guess I’m still tempted at times to a binary-structured way of thinking about these issues defensively, when I feel pressured by events to respond but find the contribution in poetry always woefully inadequate. But that’s enough of my stalking horses! A more straightforward question to end with: which contemporary poets interest you most and why?
TL: ‘The writing of it / is everywhere’ means to me that the world is full of source text to compose with, not that there is a continuity between the world and poetry. But you asked me about the poets that interest me and the answer is just about any writing that I come across I’ll have a look at. I like reading all kinds of poetry just to make sure I don’t get stuck with what is familiar. I really enjoy readings when the work is of a high standard, I love to hear a programme over several days. Recently I’ve enjoyed readings by Barrett Watten, Carla Harryman, Lisa Robertson, Marjorie Welish. I just published a book of essays on poetry called Meaning Performance (Salt Publishing, 2006). The book is made of talks and essays written over quite a long period and I just followed my own interests (I wasn’t proving a larger argument). I think I do find out about poetry and respond in a different way by writing about it. In that book I’ve written on poetry by Bob Perelman, Gertrude Stein, Lyn Hejinian, Michael Gottlieb, W.S. Graham, Edwin Morgan, Tom Raworth, Ted Berrigan, David Antin, Steve Benson, Lee Harwood, Denise Riley, Allen Fisher, J.H. Prynne, Andrew Crozier, Basil Bunting, Thomas A. Clark and others. Last summer I was asked to write something on Susan Howe and I have been thinking about revising and expanding that piece for publication. I really enjoyed reading Alan Halsey’s Marginalien (Five Seasons Books, 2005) for a review recently, a terrific book.
copyright © Tony Lopez & Scott Thurston