The poetry of Aaron Kent is unpredictable, it swings from moments of lyric vulnerability into a feverish splintering of dream logic; it revises and revives itself until nervous compulsion becomes surreal convulsion; neither hesitant nor confrontational but itching uncomfortably in a volatility between, it is at once a fragile meshing of personal codes and the overarching socio-historical conditions that inform his cryptography of such meanings. Alongside his poetry, Aaron has also made experimental short films, written screenplays and founded the diverse and expanding poetry press, Broken Sleep Books. His work as an editor, like his poetry, has an energetically varied approach: welcoming poets from vastly differing aesthetic and thematic commitments into the same evolving momentum. It is a propulsive creativity that, however eclectic or unpredictable, braids into its growth returning strands. The constellation of reoccurring symbols, references and obsessions throughout Kent’s ranging pamphlets begins to cultivate an unsteady tilt, a kind of unfinished cosmos that stares into its sleep-deprived reflection in the early hours to discover how much has changed, what is changing and, on moving back from the mirror – stepping onto the toes of another world in waiting – the possibility of another self, another space and time:
amongst wasted noises
leaking into the gaps
and waiting – O
(from ‘Melatonin Spring Collection’)
I would like to open with a question relating to The Rink (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018), it was my first introduction to your writing. I was excited by the busy collision of your themes, whereby the anxieties of nuclear war inhabit the anxieties of family – and both are brought into charged, almost gnomic, dialogue with a history of working class experience: how it filters through and fragments the poetics of a political stance, and equally, the politics of a poetic stance. What I loved was also how this book introduces a recurrent fascination in your work, the cumulative repetitions of constant revision, remembering and editing. For this all to be collaged over found texts, mirror texts, photocopied illustrations and scrawled drawing demonstrates the restless scope of what, for you and your readers, poetry can be. Whatever idea or topic is held by the poetic text is also slipping and turned over, returned to, in the stop and start of a sleepless imagination. A restless activity that ties into your own experiences of broken sleep and night terrors…and also, presumably, being the motivation behind titling your – increasingly expansive – poetry press, Broken Sleep Books. Your writing manifests this incredible complex of ideas, experience and formal energy, with a constant and vivid evocation of the visual: what is concealed and revealed becomes a rhythm of poetic seeing that draws together intimate psychology and historical violence as a kind of cinematic drama – a waking dream – played out in language. Could you say a bit about your own background in poetry and how your poetics & priorities have developed? At what point did you begin to connect a more filmic vocabulary and imagination to what you were doing in language?
I sucked at poetry for so long, like really was terrible. I wrote this one poem that was:
A drip drip dropping of emotional pain,
A drip drip dropping of emotional rain,
A drip drip dropping of reality’s truth,
A drip drip dropping of me to you.
Like, how utterly terrible is that? And that wasn’t even my worst. I was garbage, and it was because I didn’t read poetry, or know poetry, and I was never taught it. That’s kinda the thing though, when you’re in some awful school near the bottom of the country school rankings, and the teachers are just hoping to get through the day, you ain’t gonna be absorbing Donne or Plath or Zephaniah, are you? I was so bored at college (where I took Film, English Lang/Lit, Law, Psychology) that I dropped out after less than a year. I worked in coffee shops and wrote garbage song lyrics on receipts when customers weren’t in, and then I joined the Navy. I was lost and confused, and utterly aimless. So when I left the navy I drank and I kept things bottled up, and I decided to end it all by driving my car into a wall.
Eventually I got into university, I read more and I read better, and while I’m not certain I found my way there, I did find the beginning of the path, or the instructions on how to find my way. I decided to stop the slam stuff after a really scathing (and utterly correct) review. I decided I wouldn’t write again until I had actually read. I read poetry, criticism, theory, journals, great novels, garbage novels, film scripts, children’s books, non-fiction. And then I began writing again.
It wasn’t until I started my MA in Film & TV that I connected filmic vocabulary. I was also working as a cinema projectionist at the time, and I learnt to absorb film in the same way I absorbed literature – to treat it with the same regard, to combine it.
Could you say a bit about your research, as collaged in The Rink, of the iconic Japanese Kaiju films and the transition of Gojira into Godzilla through American Cinema? The cultural and social movement between countries and what is saved, smuggled through or left behind runs throughout your poetry; are there particular poets or filmmakers that inspire you when addressing the traversal of social, geographical and cultural change?
My BA dissertation was about Godzilla, and how American cinema had taken a metaphor that represented the trauma they had inflicted, and cashed in on it. Essentially Gojira is representative of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I remember reading a comparison in that it would be like Al-Qaeda making a blockbuster film about 9/11. Now, that’s a bit of a reach, but the idea that America has profited of the suffering it caused is clear.
The monster comes onto terra firma and destroys the city, but there are deeper moments in there – such as a mother cradling her children, telling them they’ll see their father soon. The final weapon that can stop Gojira is liable to cause more damage if it falls into the wrong hands: humanity. So there arises a ‘fight fire with fire’ situation, in that, as Chon Noriega states, the monster created by the bomb requires the bomb to kill the monster.
I’ve been reading a lot of translation recently, and am particularly enjoying the work of Szilárd Borbély, how memory and trauma are interlinked and play off each other. I question my memories, because they’re films in themselves. Have I changed the plot? Did the cast shift in time? How do I know the narrative is true? These things make up the bulk of our character, and who we are but we have no certainty that there is truth in our personal truth. But, if somebody just outside of the frame, or somebody catching a different part of the sentence were to report the memory it would take on a different shape – but still bear the same burden of truth as my reportage.
The way in which you constantly connect elements of Hungarian history with the UK and, specifically, Cornwall, speaks to the way in which your poetry often collapses the historical into the psychological. The past of your family background and the futurity of family in becoming a father yourself seem always to be embedded in, and woven through, the turbulence and change of wider socio-historical events. Could you say a bit about how the personal and historical inhabit one another in your poetry…and what, throughout that exchange, is the significance of memory?
I guess the personal and historical have always been at the core of who I am. I’ve tried to escape some horrific things that have happened to me, and I’ve failed. But in that failing I’ve found that I am able to shape how I perceive it and how I demonstrate it. At RASAC group therapy I finally learnt that forgiving myself is just as important, as cliché as that sounds, and when I let go of the pain and guilt and shame I felt about me, I was able to move forward.
I remember this one counsellor set up a chair and told me that my child self was sat in the chair, and I hated it, and I hated me as a child, and I wanted to swear at him and shout at him and I think I just cried. I never went back.
I also feel that personal/historical is so laden with identity. My dad is from London, and his family too, my Mum is from Bristol, but I’m from Cornwall. Am I Cornish? No, because the Cornish like it to be generational. But I identify as Cornish, up until last year it was the only home I knew. I lived it, and loved it, and was raised by Cornwall, more so than some people who moved as young kids. Then my Bampy is a war refugee from Hungary. I’m very working-class so how does that affect who I am? The working-class have been historically trampled underfoot. All of these things that make me who I am are the combination of historical influences and my personal identification. Where do I start with exploring that through poetry?
I was thinking also about the sense of a growing cycle and recycling of words and images that appear, with conscious repetition, throughout The Rink, St Day Road (BSB, 2018), Tertiary Colours, A Post-Traumatic Verse (KFS, 2018), and Melatonin Spring (Invisible Hand Press, 2020). The thread and fray of imagery around angels, moths, the moons of Saturn, Kintsugi and Tin mines; or the repetition of elements of a kind of cryptic personal language (further explored in the publication, Blood Fjord 89, Glyph Press) – like the never far-away utterance of ‘Pikkatrap’. In St Day Road, as part of the book’s opening explanation for its constraint-based methodology (‘BLOOD FJORD ’89 MANIFESTO’, like a poetic allusion to Film’s equivalent, ‘Dogme ‘95 Manifesto’ written by the Danish filmmakers, Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg), in this manifesto you stipulate: ‘poems must call back to other poems by the writer’. It seems as if you are, throughout these chapbooks, creating a personally constellated poetic vision (at once psyche and historical cosmos), something that is unto itself, the vocabulary of enigmatic memory and connection. Has this approach, of calling back and linking between, always been central to your writing?
There’s a couple of things that moved me towards both the manifesto and the desire to call back to myself. Dogme ’95 was an inspiration, the desire to remove optical filters, to use hand-held cameras, 35mm film – it felt like a real response to technology (sometimes) causing an alienation from a creative’s work. That’s not a ‘back in my day’ jab as technology has so many wonderful uses, but it is interesting to see how practice changes when the creative changes their approach to the work. With BLOOD FJORD ’89 MANIFESTO, how does it affect your work if you can’t leave the desk while typing? If you force yourself to have X amount of drafts? If you have to allow the mistakes their space on the paper? It changes the way you devise compared to Microsoft Word where you come and go, redraft without saving previous drafts, and delete mistakes without a second thought. You find yourself attached to the work in a different way, your body becomes essential to the creation in the same way as the words, or art, or images. Space, both personal and temporal, is a part of the process in a more conscientious way, and the act of creation becomes as concrete as what is produced.
The other thing to inspire me, particularly with calling back, is the band The Wonder Years. I’m not a mega fan, but I really like a lot of their work. They have a very clearly defined habit of re-using lyrics from songs from previous albums, or previous tracks on the same album, and slightly changing them to consider the difference since the writing. Like, they had a song ‘Me vs the Highway’, which was a B-side on their best album, Suburbia I’ve Given You All and Now I’m Nothing, in which Soupy sings about dreaming of car crashes. Then on The Greatest Generation, Soupy sings ‘the highway won’ on the track ‘Passing Through a Screen Door’. And later, on the album No Closer To Heaven, Soupy sings about those same car crash dreams on the track ‘A Song for Patsy Cline’. So, we aren’t just listening to his life in that moment, we’re looking back to where he’s been, how he’s changed, who he was against who he is. This is how to build a body of work – a living, breathing artefact in which the artist is responding to the artist, and allowing the audience in on a more private level. I want readers to read my poetry and find a line they recognise, and then to go back and follow a trail to the very core of this thing. To be able to unravel the thread with me.
(I also read an interview with Soupy where he mentioned how he puts real people’s names in, real friends of his, because that’s part of the intimacy of his writing – allowing others in on a deeper level.)
I have to ask you about the relationship between your experience of sleep and the way in which you write your poetry. Mentions of what sound like a truly punishing and disorientating difficulty with sleep, exist in many of your poems, and the title of your latest chapbook, Melatonin Spring Collection, refers to a natural hormone produced in sleep that, following the birth of your children, seems to be (thankfully) in a kind of awakening ‘spring’. Elsewhere, a half-conscious state and an unnerving world of dream become the porous climates for an often-nightmarish Surrealism in your poetry.
In the extraordinary, confrontational and hallucinatory long poem, Tertiary Colours, trauma and memory open themselves up to an incredibly raw cinema of expression. I feel ‘cinema’ is a helpful metaphor as, like ‘Cesare’ the somnambulist in The Cabinet of Caligare (dir. Robert Weine, 1920) or Dante in first full-length Italian feature film, L’Inferno (1911), both of which are referenced in St Day Road, there is a natural link between the underworld(s) of the unconscious and the sleepwalking landscapes of cinema. The Surrealists imagined entering the dark auditorium as a kind of wilful sleep; the projected image of film is the light in the dark, the movement of a dream. Could you say a bit about the relationship between sleep and poetry and then also sleep and cinema…do you ever find yourself watching films, writing or reading in times when sleep? Are there any filmmakers / films or poets/poetry that you feel also cover this atmosphere or experience in ways that provide solace, or perhaps something that chimes with your own experiences?
Sleep has always been this elusive thing in my life, this far-away orb that I can’t quite ever fully connect with. I have had night terrors my entire life, and when they were at their worst (five to ten times a night, every night for months), I kinda had this daze where sleep and reality never fully slipped into the other. So I was always on the periphery of both, which lead to some depersonalisation, which lead to a whole boatload of other stuff.
But yeah, I’m getting there. Melatonin Spring Collection was an attempt to create a series of poems where the poems elude meaning in the way I eluded sleep. Sort of. I didn’t want there to be words that could anchor it to reality, so any connectives had to muddy things further, rather than clarify, etc.
With film, Laurel & Hardy and Godzilla are the things that remind me of sleep the most. My Bampy loves Laurel & Hardy, and we’d fall asleep watching it whenever I stayed with him. To this very day sleep is still this enchanted black & white movie – that’s not to say I don’t dream in colour, rather that the act of sleeping sings to me in slapstick tones, in nostalgic theatre, in moonshine and harvest moons. Godzilla also became this beacon of escape in the lonely hours, the clash of cultural metaphor with increasingly outrageous farce was always so sublime. But mostly I just wanted to watch a giant monster crush buidings.
I have this recurring dream about Godzilla. The Big G comes along and starts crushing town, starting with a Tesco usually, and while most people run and scream and panic I do everything I can to get closer. I’m like this giddy child, and I just want to be there in the epicentre of Gojira.
I guess the obvious stuff would be like Aronofsky, but I felt Paterson (dir. Jim Jarmusch, 2016) was a really good evocation of life. I know sleep didn’t play a huge part, but it had the feel of cofmort, of warmth, of being at peace in this whole world built around a bus driver, and I adored that. Synecdoche New York (dir. Charlie Kauffman, 2008) chimes with the restless creativity produced by my ADHD combined with sleep, and the inability to relax as there’s always the next thing to be doing. Michel Gondry is great at evoking sleep and dreams, and he does so in a way that others can’t quite get right. Dreams aren’t messages in a very realistic way, they don’t follow a narrative, they slip and slide and change and twist, and most films/tv shows don’t do this – they make dreams clear and concise. Adventure Time nails this too.
Alongside your book, Bampy (Hesterglock Press, 2018), which links the life of your Grandfather and the turbulence of the Budapest uprising of 1956, you created a series of short films that manipulate the hauntings of old news-reel footage with experimental audio. Could you say a bit about these films? The ghost layering of superimposition makes montage a kind of spectral palimpsest…and this movement is also at play in your short film, Yesterday I Forgot How To Spell My Name For A Minute And It Scared Me A Little…which feels like a modest City Symphony…like a Town Chorus? a perambulating blur of Redruth (Cornwall) and some of the oppressive banalities of working class experience. Were there any filmmakers that particularly helped inspire these, or that you feel are related to their aesthetics/content?
With the Bampy short films, I wanted to connect the exodus of Cornwall with the exodus of Hungary, but, more specifically, my grandfather being forced from his home and his country, and connect that to me finding a home in him. The videos attempt to lace the events of the 1956 uprising, with the working-class redundancies of the Cornish mining industry. The audio was made using my daughter’s playmat. It had like 7 keys that would make farmyard noises, or basic piano noises, when any pressure was applied to them. So for some of the films I used a single note and warped it, others I played a small ditty and messed with it. There’s a sort of nod to Aphex Twin in that, who is from Redruth as well.
When I made these I was working as a media studies teacher at Truro college, and found that the markers/department heads wanted the students’ work to be as clean and crisp as possible. So, while some of the students were making these great, retro, VHS style films, they’d be told to digitise it, and remove the analogue traces. I hated that. I wanted them to look at the works of Mark Jenkin, for example, and how to develop film. How to edit analogue into digital, and how to create in the moment with what you have available. That’s what Yesterday I Forgot… particularly tries to examine; I was out, and I made something.
You also studied for an MA in Film and TV, and have worked in scriptwriting (with one of your screenplays being adapted for the short, Janaaza, in 2018). You mentioned a bigger more Hollywood-orientated screenplay that you eventually pulled the plug on? This sounds like quite a departure for an experimental UK Poet…could you talk more about your interest in writing for film and these recent experiences?
The whole Hollywood stuff was a real exhausting time, creatively. I had interviewed a screenwriter (who I still really like, and occasionally email), and he and I got on well. I sent him a short film and he was really effusive in his praise for how I write dialogue in particular. I just kinda read the words in my head and respond how I’d respond, rather than respond to further the story – the story is gonna move along regardless, you don’t need the characters to overtly usher it.
Anyway, he wanted me to write a feature film, so I wrote a script of the Ray Bradbury short story Dark they were, and Golden Eyed. The problem was, I stuck to the short story too closely, so the dialogue was stilted. So they asked me to come up with my own thing and I wrote Charlie (AKA The Elvis Presley Roadside Museum). Oliver is two weeks away from becoming a father with his partner, his relationship with his dad, Stanley, is close to breaking point. Stanley drinks a lot. Oliver decides for them to have one last shot at reconciling or Stanley can never see his grandson, so they go to an old time, B-movie, slapstick convention. So, after like twenty-five minutes, everybody you see on screen is dressed as Laurel and Hardy or Mae Whitman or Buster Keaton. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s the basic premise.
They loved it, but wanted some changes. I made those changes. They loved it, felt it was the sorta film you’d enter into awards, but wanted some changes. I made those changes. They loved it, compared it to Little Miss Sunshine, but wanted changes. I made those changes. They wanted, then, for me to try and write a new screenplay to give Charlie some breathing room. so I wrote a 40 page outline. They loved it but wanted changes. This went on until I just couldn’t do it anymore. I hadn’t been given an option, I had made no money, and it had been a couple years. Plus my other creative work had been suffering. So I stopped, and I decided I’d turn them into novels instead.
Your poetry has encompassed early success in the Slam world and your contemporary more experimental page poetry and this has drawn into its orbit: invented language, collage, constraints, hallucinatory investigations of memory and history, and a more emotive immediacy that veers between confrontational anguish and vulnerable candour. Has the presence of film, screenplays and script been a recent development, or has this interest always informed your writing? How do you imagine the relationship between film and poetry might change or progress in your practice?
I sucked as a slam poet – I was so cheap, and lazy, and just going for easy emotion rather than anything with depth. I hadn’t read around the work I was creating I hadn’t bothered to research anything. I just chucked words on the page, didn’t bother editing, and hoped people would skip along the many, many gaps. I cannot express enough how bad I was.
I was interested and invested in screenwriting before poetry and prose. I took film studies at A level and dropped out after a year, but found myself entranced by the films I’d been introduced to. Films such as Cinema Paradiso (dir. Giuseppe Tornatore, 1988) . I, eventually, decided to take a shot at screenwriting and wrote a weird, little short film about a guy who become obsessed with James Dean. His relationship breaks down as he finds himself becoming less an impersonation, and more an embodiment. It ends with him spending his nights driving down the wrong side of roads, hoping to emulate Dean’s final moments. I didn’t do anything with it.
I have been working on a project with another poet – a poetry book that takes the form of a screenplay. We take it in turns to write pages, and the narrative, therefore, is shaped by what the other person wrote previously. This way I can no longer determine how, or where, I want to guide things without leaving that up to somebody else’s whim. It has been a fascinating project, and I am incredibly interested in where it goes, and if it would ever be filmable (I think not).
I want to write poetry like that shot in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) where the guy walks across campus for like 3 minutes and nothing really happens. We just watch him walk. Like a field recording, I guess. That’s what I want to do at the moment; evoke the filmic mundanity of life.
I do, though, see myself as a fraudster. Not imposter syndrome – a full-on fraudster. With my first book Subsequent Death, it’s just a bunch of typographical stuff with absolutely no substance. It’s weak. I’m certain The Rink was accepted because of all the stuff around the poems – like, if I were to send those poems anywhere by themselves they wouldn’t be accepted. I almost literally papered over the glaring cracks in my work. St Day Road is ten poems with the edits of each poem, and I published it with BSB, so there’s no arbiter of quality (clearly). I’ve always felt The Last Hundred was more about William Arnold’s photos than my poems, my poems just gave these glorious photos some marginalia. And I don’t think any of the nakjarnorkiman poems would be published if they weren’t half in a made-up language, it covers the inadequacy of the poems.
A huge part of your creativity must have changed with the founding and editing of your wonderful press, Broken Sleep Books. What was it that compelled you to start the press and do you conceive of publishing as a creative venture in line with your own poetic values and aesthetics? It seems that your expanding list includes a very diverse range of work, from emergent poets to J.H. Prynne (please say a bit about the experience of that publication!) and valuing the need for an inclusivity across differing writing backgrounds. What kind of writing are you keen to support with BSB and has this changed at all since starting the press? I also wanted to say a huge CONGRATULATIONS!! to the initiative you started around Black Lives Matter (creating a raffle of BSB books that was then inundated with the enthusiasm of other donations) raising £5364…this was such a heartening moment, to see UK small presses working together with such strong intent and community. I think that, and the Ignota reading( ‘Break Into the Forbidden’), gave some real hope for the positive work to come in support of BLM in UK poetry.
I’d read a couple manuscripts which I loved, but which weren’t getting traction elsewhere. So I started BSB to publish those books that I felt deserved a readership, and should be read. Then the press grew from there. Initially I conceived of publishing pamphlets in cassette cases, and collections in VHS cases, but that was too costly and not at all efficient. I have this laserdisc, Curse II: The Bite (dir. Frederico Prosperi as ‘Fred Goodwin’, 1989) it’s a German sequel and my laserdisc is in Japanese. It’s about this person that gets bitten by a snake, and then their arm becomes a snake. Its trash. But the cover is a fantastically B-movie cover, and I wanted poetry books that had that sort of style. Which has changed immensely as I’m all about minimalism now!
I try not to publish something with profit in mind, that’s not why I do this. I want to publish because that are deserving of a great readership, and that’s regardless of financial gain. I also try (try) to not allow my poetic preference to take precedence. I want to publish books that are brilliant, or have the potential to be brilliant, and not just books that are my exact taste.
I got to know Jeremy [Prynne] a few years back over email, and we kept in contact since. We send each other our newest releases, chat back and forth, and he even handwrote me a letter. I’d always wanted to publish him but knew Broken Sleep wasn’t limited enough, so when I started Legitimate Snack I just had to enquire. He emailed back within a week with the the book, each poem typed in the body of a separate email. He was really easy to work with!
And now, in time-honoured and unimaginative fashion, I’d like to end by asking you what poetry you have read, or have been reading, recently that has excited you? And, naturally, to extend the obligatory question…. have you seen any films recently that have particularly inspired, confused, or entertained you?
I’ve just moved and put all my books out, after they’ve been in boxes for two months, so I’m diving into poetry books on a whim: Walt Whitman, Alice Oswald, a bunch of surrealism, Spenser, Gillian Clarke, Mary Jean Chan, a bit of Blake, Roger Robinson. I read a lot of fiction too, and have really enjoyed The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley, The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, and Saltwater by Jessica Andrews. Chris Ware’s graphic novels are a perfect mix of film and literary fiction, as are Adrian Tomine’s.
I haven’t had much of a chance with film recently, as having a 6-month-old and a 3-year-old means I absorb Peppa Pig more than anything else. But Rue has enjoyed Adventure Time recently, which is great for me because it’s fantastic – it is so enchanting and gets that wonderful mix of humour that works for both kids and adults. It’s incredibly forward thinking, it doesn’t push stereotypes, and it showcases the joy in adventure regardless of who you are.
I am interested in films of field recordings at the moment, life carrying on, the routines we don’t even notice. My Bampy watches this film of people going to work at the turn of the 20th century. I think it was one of the first pieces of footage ever recorded, and watching these people just going about their day, the same monotony as now, fascinating.