‘Do you really get to sit there?’ An Interview with Steven J. Fowler

Steven J. Fowler is a British poet and artist working in the modernist and avant garde traditions. He has published, to date, six volumes of poetry, alongside sixteen chapbooks and collaborative poetry books, and has had poems featured in over ninety magazines and journals. His work has been translated into thirteen languages. He teaches at the Poetry Institute and is the poetry editor of 3:AM magazine.

SJF photo


The moment of this encounter is somebody else’s question at a panel discussion at a conference which I very nearly did not attend.

It happens in Berlin’s Lettrétage in Kreuzberg, and the panel discussion is the Friday-evening come-down of a conference by CROWD (CReating Other Ways of Dissemination) – a network of independent European literary activists hoping to change the landscape of literary engagement. I am sitting in the audience, about four rows back, and the discussants, including Steven Fowler, are poets and publishers from a handful of European countries. The first thing they are asked to do is to present a poem that brings into focus their engagement with poetry. There is a short Icelandic poem, there is a long Italian piece in translation. There is a poem by Beckett (this is Steven’s choice). There is a screening of the Palastinian performance poet Rafeef Ziadeh’s ‘We Teach Life, Sir!’ and it provokes shuddering applause.

The discussion turns to the nature and difficulties of collaborative literary work, to the difficulties of selection and publication, to the importance of supporting young independent voices. Turns to the fickle relationship of poetry with politics. And the audience question at the end is a very unlikely one, given the conversations that have just gone on and since the time for the Q&A has already run out; and it is a question that makes everybody in the room, palpably, raise their hackles:

 Don’t you think Berlin is too political?

Steven and I chat on the following Monday.

Polly Dickson: I want to begin by asking you about that rather audacious question asked on Friday evening. It was trying, I think, to get to that sense of Berlin as a city being over-saturated with a certain kind of political consciousness in art which can come across as being heavy-handed, or over-stated, or contrived. You responded at the time by talking about how people here have more time to construct an identity for their artistic output — more time than, say, in London, where time is hurried around people’s work schedules. I wonder whether you could say more about how poetic life is formed, or shaped, or crippled, by the place of its happening.

Steven Fowler: Absolutely. A massive preoccupation of mine. The notion of a curator in the literary world is fundamentally misunderstood, or broken, precisely because some of the terminologies of literature are so retrograde that they don’t really fit any of the auspices of how we use poetry, how we create events, happenings, how we write. Even in the sense that a curator in a gallery would innately know that putting one picture before another would change the second’s perception, in poetry there’s almost no awareness that one poem will relate to the next on the page. 99% of poetry doesn’t even have typographical or material sensitivity, and that absolutely plays in to the aesthetic notions around writing poetry – in the sense of your mood, or what you’ve read. These kind of profoundly damaging myths about the poetic process which come from the Romantic tradition are orientated in the idea that the poetic experience is bracketed off. It is theological, as Walter Benjamin said; like the poet receives the message of inspiration and generates the poem, rather than the perhaps the more artistic or Poundian, modernist notion that we’re refracting the world of language around us, that our subjectivity is not located or centralised. And I think this really plays into notions about city space, and pace of life, and rhythm of life, and how that affects the actual text, and how that affects the actual experience of reading those texts as well.

And I really, profoundly feel that my only true knowledge of Berlin has been against my knowledge of London. I know London, I’ve been there a decade, and I’m not a Londoner, which makes me even more of a Londoner, I would say, because I’m highly sensitive to its energy and size and pace. I have a similar intensity. And, by accident, it’s also taught me that there’s a great central humanity, community, humility, in a lot of the work that’s happening in the poetry scene in London now, because it’s so big that it almost immediately evinces hierarchical implementations. When I’ve been, for example, to readings in smaller European cities, it’s very clear who’s the big boss in the room. And in London you can be the big boss in a room, but there might be three other readings happening that night with a very different idea about who the big boss in the room is. So the hierarchical structure of London is really tied into this culture of size, manners, growth, speed. The unfortunate economic and pragmatic reality of that? Everyone’s getting smashed by rent and by travel costs. No one has the time to consider their own identity in these traditional forms. And I wouldn’t want to generalise about Berlin, because my knowledge is relatively shallow, but I do absolutely know that there is a familial relationship between London and Berlin in Europe in the way there is between no other two cities. They are talking to each other but their postures and their body languages are really different, and it’s because of this notion of time and context. I think Berlin has a great, beautiful awareness of context, and of some art concepts, that London doesn’t have. But with that comes a certain self-regard.

And the quality of snobbery in Berlin is political engagement. It’s like, if you’re not ‘political’ then you’re not really ‘Berlin’. And I would argue that apoliticism in poetry is where the politics lies. Direct political engagement in poetry is an absolute misunderstanding of what poetry is. Because politics is a massive, ambiguous, ephemeral field with multiple levels and if you just address the immediate political concern in a poem, you’re simplifying the world. A poem should make the world more complex. To reduce something is to murder it. It’s a violent poetic act. So there’s a great paradox there.

PD: And that makes me want to pick up on something else you were talking on Friday: that you seemed to believe slightly less than the other discussants that evening in the transformative power of poetry – beyond the personal transformations that it can affect. And I wonder, trying to be willfully naive about this: if poetry is unlikely to bring about concrete, social change, on what terms is it, then, political? – if it’s not a call to arms, why is it not just a luxury, or a solipsism?

SJF: It is. It is absolutely that. And I think in the acknowledgement of that, that’s where the transformative power happens. I think the terrible damage of poetry in our era is that notion of poetry being inherently positive and progressive and educational. It’s the worst possible thing. In fact, in England, it is the reason why no one cares about poetry. It is precisely because of an innately elitist medium’s desire not to be elitist that it’s become utterly irrelevant to people, because it doesn’t even show warmth to those who would give it warmth, whilst searching for people who have no interest in it. It’s Poetry Day and Poetry Week and kids must get into poetry so let’s support Spoken Word. Spoken Word is a massive phenomenon, because it’s pedagogically accessible to young inner-city kids. Poetry in and of itself requires focus and concentration, and that doesn’t suit people. And this is based around a fundamental misunderstanding, in my view — it’s subjective — of what poetry is: people look to poetry for comfort. It is not about comfort. And it’s not about intervention. An essay, a piece of journalism, a piece of television, is completely honest and it’s designed to be comforting. These are all mediums that are designed to allow all people, clever or not clever, to chill out. Poetry is about complexity, it’s about taking the building blocks of communication and thought and coding it, making it harder to understand.

So I think that’s the aesthetic way of looking at it, that there’s a terrible misunderstanding of trying to give people access to poetry as though it will immediately improve them. It absolutely will not. And those things that we use to try and get those people to be improved by their very nature make the thing not poetry, or make it bad poetry. And in that sense, they lose the purpose of trying to get people improved in the first place.

And then on the left-wing, ‘call-to-arms’ tradition of poetry, can it change people in action? People have no sensitivity that the world has changed. It’s unfortunate that poetry doesn’t have the currency of Taylor Swift — it did, when the dominant class ruled complexity in culture and therefore poetry was the vocation. Now it’s pop music that’s the thing. And they can do it: Russel Brand can change the world. And he tries, and I think that’s really admirable. But I’m interested in poetry. And the real work that can be done isn’t done by the poet out on the street reading a poem against Putin. That guy does nothing. What it does is much deeper, much more profound, and that’s showing that our language is being controlled. We have thought control, in our language, we have media branding. A poem that requires real erudition, concentration and time, a poem that works in abstract break-ups of language and visuality, real avant garde methods, can’t be used as propaganda. So that’s my feeling: that there’s real political impetus behind it, but the grounds of those debates have been misunderstood.

PD: So, what does poetry do? Does poetry ‘do’?  If it demands so much of its reader, is it ever a ‘doing’?

SJF: It’s obviously such an enormous question. What a poem can ‘do’ is accelerate the complexity, accelerate the density of life and existence, which is essentially complex and adversarial, and therefore make people who are aware of that feel more at home in the world. The actual thing, the actual block, the actual piece of poetry, it won’t make you feel better. It shouldn’t make you feel better. But when you experience it, it should make you realise that you’re not alone in knowing that things might be hopeless. There might be no point to everything. And that’s okay, because other people feel that way too, and I think that’s very beautiful, but it takes a kind of care and patience to get to that most people are really not interested in. They just want poetry to give them this glow, this tingle in their spine. The world’s full of shit that makes people feel I’m okay. You’re not okay, fucker! You’re gonna die! That’s the real root of it, and this is one of the few mediums that I think is supposed to be about that.

PD: You do a lot of collaborative work, interactive work. I wonder if, in doing that kind of work, you forego a typical readership, the kind of ‘silent communion’ relationship of a reader with an author’s words in the moment of reading, in favour of an actual seeing, hearing, physically intrusive, interruptive audience that sometimes asks you surprising or awkward questions. Would you agree?

SJF: Yeah. I think that I’ve been really careful to try and have a contextual sensitivity to the different worlds that they work in, and maybe draw from one towards the other. So I publish books that are just formally understood as books and are full of poetry, much of which is far more accessible than I think people would imagine. And that’s been a huge part of my output, publishing a lot of poetry people can read. But just as in the live moment, I try to ignore the audience, utterly. I think it’s a terrible path to ever be thinking about the complex and often quite broken people who can be in front of you, who have a vested interest in your failure, and, without being pessimistic, I find the notion that I would worry about what someone might think — which is quite a twee thing to say — is going to impinge upon what might be authentic. I really worry about my authenticity. My background has no poetry in it, it’s a relatively working-class background where there’s a lot of shame in being creative. So I really need to worry about being pretentious and the only way to do that is to try and get my hooks into something authentic, and if I worry about what people think about me when I do it, I’m going to be in terrible trouble because I’m going to be full of doubt and shame. And I think it’s similar on the page. The advantage of doing something experimental is that you’ve got a small audience, and not a lot of money, and I think that’s a beautiful gift, because I really don’t ever have to interrogate whether I’m selling out or not. There’s no room to sell out.

I think when I write for the page, I really worry about the page, because I’ve personally benefited greatly in my life from experiencing the privacy of reading. I think it’s a very beautiful act, because it’s not for anyone else. You can be alone in a room with a poetic text and achieve a clarity of thought or a bracketing of experience which is really profound. And then I’ve been in live moments where I think I’ve probably provoked something that’s valuable in people, probably normally a bad aesthetic experience, which is completely fine in visual art – it’s seen as a good currency – but not in poetry. Discomfort in poetry is considered ‘bad form’, in England especially. And I think that maybe in quite a childish way early on, in my performances I would do a lot of things that were trying just to be provocative. Not because I wanted to be mean-spirited, but just because I thought: do you really get to sit there? Because everyone assumes that.

And yet I still do really worry about being generous to people and polite, I don’t know how to balance that, but I’ve failed a lot trying to do that, I think.

PD: I want to ask you about your academic work. I want to know whether you think there’s a friction between academic practice and your poetic practice – in the sense that academic work is often very bound up in referentiality, in convention, and yet experimental poetry is supposed to be about doing away with received structures. Do you feel any kind of disconnect between one mode of working and the other?

SJF: I definitely understand your question. I think that experimental poetry is as full of those problems as academia. I really do: I think that all humans subconsciously create these things. And I would say that the way I try to deal with academia is the way I try to deal with what we were talking about with Berlin, it’s the same way I would try to deal with a rude person. I hope I would just ignore them. And I suppose sometimes we all fail in ignoring rude people and we just push them over. With academia, I really try to just take what’s best. By forcing myself to be involved in academic discourse, I create a consistent demand against myself, and that’s an important point that you mentioned to me earlier in conversation [about academic work]: we chose this. And that’s an inherent part of it. I force myself to always read to be mindful and to be open to ideas that I might profoundly disagree with, and I think that’s really helped me. Even in the answers I just gave you, some of them probably came from forcing myself to read things that I didn’t want to read that led to one thing and another. And I think that’s quite arbitrary.

I believe all poetic texts and all conversations of learning come from things that fall in our laps. Every piece of writing comes from some thing, from some awareness of experience, limited by your brain and the cognitive function of your world. And academia is just a way of channeling that, just like reading a newspaper is or reading poetry. And in a way I like being in that world because it’s good to know it’s there. It’s good to know there are people who spend their whole lives in an office analysing someone’s poetry. I would rather not do that, I think it’s bananas, but I like having a toe in it. It forces me to read, it forces me to think, it forces me to be patient, it forces me to deal with people I wouldn’t normally deal with, and it makes me realise that some of the things I am doing are the right things. The things that are active, the things that are about humans, that affect their lives. They’re not really part of academia. So I think that’s why I keep doing it, it’s humbling, it’s a good boundary. But of all the things that I do, it’s the thing that I could give up in two seconds.

PD: What does it mean to you to be a public poet? Engaging with people, doing collaborations, going on panels and discussing your work, teaching.

SJF: I think the best way to engage with that idea is that everything that I’ve done is responsive because it is chance. It’s all contingent. A series of very random circumstances led me quite late on to be interested in and then to write poetry. And as I was doing that, a series of behaviours of mine that were not predetermined on my part, because of previous non-poetic experiences, led me to engage with people, which led to invitations, which led to new paths. And all along the way I found myself feeling like maybe the greatest achievement of everything I’ve done has just been being quite happy with it. I’m very happy. Because I’m not really over thinking that process. And the only thing I know for sure is that there’s nothing I do not enjoy in my life: not a thing. Because this is all I do now. And it’s an unbelievable set of circumstances. None of these paths came to me because of my wisdom, or my decision. They fell into my lap, I feel. Whether that’s true or not, I feel that way – and that’s important, that I feel that way. So even if I’m doing an event or a reading that I really don’t want to do, and I’m tired — like how I didn’t want to come to Berlin because I was so tired after a event in London — I knew in the back of my head it’s the right thing to do because unless I put myself in situations where I’m nervous, then we pay in another way.

Exercise has always been a huge part of my life, I’ve done martial arts my whole life – I really believe in corporeal fitness for a fit mind (it’s a weird thing that academics don’t think this). And I’ve always said the same thing about exercise, it’s struck me ever since I was a child: you’re going to suffer. You can choose it. You can choose to run up a hill, and suffer that way, or you can have diabetes. It’s up to you. I know who I am. I want to choose my suffering. So I can be nervous and maybe make a fool out of myself on Friday night in Berlin, or I can stay in London in a room and work a nine to five. I chose the Berlin suffering because it’s exciting and people are nice — we’re talking now! Two human beings who never would have met. When I was a younger person, I was negative, and worried, and anxious, and metaphysically preoccupied with the purpose of the things I was doing. Now I just do things.

PD: I’m not sure I buy that it’s contingency. Or, I think that that’s a way of thinking about it, rather than what actually happened.

SJF: I don’t believe in fate but I definitely believe in chance and that the spiritual underpinning of all human culture is how to deal with chance. Chance is all, I think. I really believe that. People can’t deal with chance. And I just think that my life has been a very, very fortunate series of random chances, hard chances — I was in a car crash, for example, loads of things that were huge chance, pure chance — and they put me on a series of paths. None of it means anything. None of it was my design. None of it has an end purpose. It’s all about how I react to the chance. And that’s decision, that’s will — do I take chance and embrace it? It’s taken me thirty years to get to the point where I can enjoy that. So that’s what I mean, I’m not evincing responsibility, but it is chance, and it’s also chance that I’m a white male in the twenty-first century… That’s all chance. That’s all I mean. I just don’t want to have an underpinning meaning to things — I find all that terribly problematic — even people who reject all those metaphysical notions and all those social notions still have a belief that their stuff is worthy of something. I don’t know what it is but I feel more confident when I’m disinterested. I feel more rooted into the moment. Now, I’m sitting here and speaking to you freely, and with joy, because I’m only interested in this conversation, now, and to get to that – it’s taken me so much fucking nonsense to get here.

* * *

After the interview I ask Steven whether not being not rude, whether being generous and not unkind, whether being open as a human, as a poet – open to encounter – is the best thing we can aim for. His response is to ask me the same question. And neither of us is really sure.

Polly Dickson is working on a PhD in nineteenth-century French and German literature at Cambridge University, where she also completed a BA in French and German and an MPhil in European Literature. Her project focuses on the writings of E. T. A. Hoffmann and Honoré de Balzac. She tweets at @pollyletitia.