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8. Light Glyphs: Steve Fowler

It seems logical that SJ Fowler’s poetry would find itself in, and as, film…at some point. Steve’s poetry has taken his roving attention into performance art and sound art; into and through elements of comedy and theatre; from concrete poetry and the sculptural towards the pictorial, chance-led, accidental, and ritualistic; and in acts of art / poetry (the slash being always present) that move hungrily out of discipline and into abandon…why would the filmic not be there? Fluttering or strobing, as a kind of inevitable encounter, film, and the intensity of its absorptive hold, seems a natural partner (sparring and / or dancing, fighting and / or loving) for a poet so inventively conscious of how a performance can befriend, baffle or challenge an audience. In his KFS collection from 2011, Red Museum, the first poem begins:

& the doors of a second way

open to a third light

which was dark

To start in the conjunctive ampersand, we begin as movement that has gone before beginning and, and only as or in that and, into ‘the doors of a second way’. The poem invites a quick push into revolving thresholds ‘open to a third light’, and we enter Fowler’s breathless space (the descent, in this book, into the burbling entrails of the British Museum) in order to open up if only opening again and again, meeting the ‘light/which was dark’. The poetry is a contested, revolving, and pluralised movement…what better way to greet the possibility of film in poetry?

On the evening of curated film and poetry as part of your Mahu Exhibition in 2015, I remember you were particularly pleased to see a still from Bergman’s Persona (1966) in my presentation….and I think, though I might have misremembered this, that it was primarily his industrious and prolific output that you admired?

That was a lovely evening but I do remember feeling guilty at how small the venue was when I saw your face melt a wee bit. On Bergman, I think so, though perhaps not primarily what I admire about him. I think I mentioned to you that I grew up really with no literature or art of any designated kind in my household (there was lots of creativity, for want of a better word, but nothing people would think of as art) and it was film (through a sky TV subscription and the Film4 channel) that was my first ever introduction to that which might be called complex creative works.

What I noticed then, and was confused by, was that filmmakers, and this is obviously true of authors and all artists, become known for single works often, and people talk about their output, their whole life of work, through the lens of a single work. Which seems unfair. With Bergman, it was the first time I did a deep dive on someone’s work. I watched dozens of his films. I was 15 maybe. It just got into me that is what you do. You take a subject or idea you are fascinated by, you find the right method to reveal it and you go about that, back to back, year on year. You let the audience follow you, you don’t follow them. And my family is very working class and my parents old, and they were all about work ethic.

Since 2011 you have written 7 collections, 4 art books, 7 collaborative collections, a feature film, a book of essays, exhibited at galleries across Europe, taught widely, and continue tirelessly to organise a staggering number of events involving poets across Europe and the UK. Is the prolific nature of your art something you have always aimed for – is it an ambitious work ethic or a compulsive necessity?

I’ve thought about this, tried to think through whether I am compelled, and question myself first. I have regular moments of pretty severe doubt, thinking my work to be meaningless. It is pretty much useless. And I understand completely I drown my own reception through volume. But I am increasingly sure its an expression of something crucial to me. My mind, my body, it moves at pace, I really enjoy prolificism, and admire it in others. I don’t know why it appears unusual? I think, sometimes, people in poetry have a vision of reception that I don’t understand. This is the break. They are always imagining their readers, and in so doing, they are trying to change or affect them. This is so essential to our artistic culture that no one thinks about it sometimes. But I have no desire to alter another human being through my work. That seems presumptive, if not inherently righteous, if not mad, if not ignoring the nature of other minds. I also think there’s a paradox at play. The less you try to change people through your work, the more likely you are to do so. I don’t affect many with what I do, small numbers, but those who respond to my stuff seem to really respond.

Essentially, I create works for my own contentedness. For myself. And I work hard, because it brings me pleasure. I don’t work as hard as I did when I did real jobs. I don’t work as hard as most humans on this planet. I just put in hours of work every day, at everything I like to do. This tends to produce lots of stuff and makes me happy enough. There is almost nothing in my life that I do that I don’t choose to do.

And besides Bergman, who are the poets / artists / filmmakers you look to as models for this ambitious rate of production?

I think with the way I see my work, using poetry as a means of intervention into the language of the world as I find it, as it occurs in my head and out of my mouth, as an artform referent to language whose primary aim is not necessary communication or information but maybe reflection or repositioning for those willing to give attention enough to notice that, it makes sense that my influences aren't poets, primarily. I mean I've said this in loads of conversations and so many poets seem relieved and say the same.

Also, I consume a lot of different and weird stuff. So I'd say huge influences on me in terms of work and being prolific would be people like Chris Morris, Harry Nilsson, Peter Greenaway, Harold Pinter, Tom Raworth, Maja Jantar, Yoram Kaniuk, Alejandra Pizarnik, Josh Homme, Ghedalia Tazartes, Peter Weiss, Henri Michaux, Asger Jorn. There’s loads. They all worked hard. It’s pretty normal for artists to be industrious in certain creative fields. It’s not unusual to generate lots of material outside of poetry.

You and Joshua Alexander’s first feature length film, Animal Drums, premiered at Whitechapel Gallery on December 13th 2018… beyond any distinction between video-art, avant garde film and narrative cinema, it was instead a kind of city-as-psyche-as-performance-docu-art-haemorrhage-state-of-the-aberration-that-is-London kind of a deal…had you always wanted to make a feature film and do you and Joshua want to make more?

I never wanted to make a film as I didn’t want to direct, as that’s very much my personality type and I’ve spent my adult life avoiding positions like that in order to be calmer, without stress, antagonism and so I need not make the sacrifices one has to make to make a film. Animal Drums grew out of circumstance – my friendship with Josh, who is remarkably talented and unusually resourceful, and how we met, working at the British Museum. It grew into a feature after years of meeting, filming, playing with ideas. It became itself over time, and then inevitably captured how the city was changing around us.

How did the process of making a film influence your poetic practice or do you see them both as porously part of the same project?

I don’t know what my poetic practice is, as it changes from book to book, idea to idea, commission to commission, collaboration to collaboration. I don’t have a singular project or vision either, just hoping for interesting things to fill my days before I go. The film initially relied on my poetry to drive it, often with voice overs. I was confident working with language this way into film, the interesting part was trying to successfully marry that with the potentials of cinematic grammar.

During the making of the film were there any filmmakers that were instructive points of reference for either you or Joshua?

For me Gaspar Noe, Peter Greenaway, Cristi Puiu. For Josh, very different folk I think.

As the film features Iain Sinclair and is certainly in a dialogue (literally at one point) with Sinclair’s interests, I wondered whether the films of Andrew Kötting were significant – as not only does he frequently collaborate with Sinclair and Alan Moore (whose voice is alarmingly similar to a lot of the pitch-shifted voiceover in Animal Drums) but his ‘feet-on-the-ground’ bustling of performance and physicality seem close to much of your praxis….

I think so. I saw This Filthy Earth when it came out, I was at university and my best friend was from Kendall in Cumbria and he hated it. I felt the opposite. When I started writing, Iain Sinclair was someone I met after maybe six months. I walked up to him after a lecture and he really helped me, he’s remarkably generous like that. He introduced Kötting’s work to me anew and it must’ve been there in my mind, conceptualising Animal Drums.

Now, here, at the half-way point, let’s move from Drums to Devils: your latest collection, I stand alone by the Devils, and other poems on films, gathers together a selection of poems that are all directed from, or to, specific films. Firstly, I wanted to ask whether this idea had been around for a while or whether there was something in particular that recently (the completion of Animal Drums?) inspired this explicit tribute to cinema?

The collection has been around for years. This happens with a lot of my books; they begin with a single work, grow slowly and an unforeseen event speeds them into being. The unforeseen event in this case was not the Drums but a sudden spate of watching and rewatching films. I just feel back into it, regained the patience one needs. For the first time, I remembered when I was a teenager, a bit lonely, watching like five art films a day for two years. I had never once thought this might’ve been an influence on what I do now, for a living. Which seems stupid now.

Many of the directors you include (Ken Russell, Werner Herzog, David Cronenberg, Nicolas Roeg, Gasper Noe, Lars Von Trier,) and many of the films (Pasolini’s Salo, Vinterberg’s Festen, Zulawski’s Possession) are known for their extremity, shock, or supposedly transgressive nature. It seems clear to me that being drawn towards the challenge of discomfort and our own interpretations of threat and vulnerability are elements that needle through much of your poetry. Did these films help inspire those interests in your poetic practice, or was it more a case of them resonating with a pre-existing sense that art should advance into a troubled / troubling space in order to better question itself and the viewer/ reader?

It’s funny, while I do recognise these films are intense, I haven’t conceived them that way. It’s just what I’m interested in, that serious investment of attention should be met with challenge and complexity. I’d say your question is interesting because you didn’t mention that most of the films are European, especially the 'violent' ones. In European cinema, and European culture in general, it seems obvious that art must reveal the most awful truth of human behaviours, because they are true, through fictional means. This is difficult to experience, but not unpleasant. I know some people seem to think fictional violence is worse than the real thing happening on their street but it’s just my taste that films and art, that are serious, not intending to give you a nice brain fog, which has its place, should not comfort and reassure. So, I’d move the terms of the question and say these films aren't about violence but culture.

Could you say a bit about the process of writing these poems?

There are multiple methods at play but quite a few involved note taking, of dialogue, of scene description, of ideas happening in language while I was watching. So they are found poems in a sense, then blended through edits and additions. Translations in a weird sense, as much as responses. Others were written from memories of the films, what they come to represent for me, idiosyncratically. Others from research, post-watching, digging through books about the films or their makers. I saw myself as only trying to be faithful to each specific piece of cinema, and doing so by choosing not only the language of the poem and its machinery, but also the method of that.

Some of the films you have chosen adopt incredibly stylised palettes for their communication, prioritising and innovating aesthetics as ways to newly become or imagine their content…I’m thinking of the baroque geometry of Derek Jarman’s sets for Russell’s The Devils or the possessed melodrama of the performances; the theatrical flamboyance of Peter Greenaway’s horror; the icy fits of anguish as choreography, or domestic collapse as tentacular tryst in Zulawski’s Possession; or the radical Dogme approach of early Von Trier and Vinterberg…did these stylistic elements propel a desire for your poetry to stretch its form or ‘style’ and whatever that might encompass ?

That’s very possible. Though I do think this enjoyment of film I had was extremely genuine and remains so, in that I don’t notice any of the techniques or aesthetics while watching in a knowing or mindful way. Of course I see them, but for example I cannot read an interesting book of any kind now without taking copious notes, and I don’t ever finish some books because they are too intimidatingly full of material that I feel I need to steal or respond to. Books are joyful work to me, resources for my own things. Films I am passive to, as most people are. But they must have affected me early on. Maybe Peter Greenaway is the exception here, because his films feel very literally poetic.

Another recurrent theme, in the chosen films as in much of your poetry (in this collection and elsewhere) is the prickling shifts, artifice, behaviours and psychology of masculinity. There seems to often be – in your poetry as in these films – the presentation (or exploration) of masculinity as a bullying challenge of violence, muscled out as a language or code that is always inseparable from intimacies of its fear and vulnerability. I think your poetry very often drives at this uncomfortable and violent slippage, between a boasting threat and anxiety, often asserted in spelling changes that dare the reader to label them as errors, along with calculated accidents, contractions and line breaks…could you maybe say a bit about how the performances of masculinity animate these poems, and the performances of literary/literacy as its own code to break and re-make in your poems… and how this connects to your relationship with these films?

I don’t know. I’m not sure I know what masculinity means in this, or other aesthetic contexts (it gets brought up a lot to me), as I think I try to resist the formulations of these ideas made by people who want to systemise them for PhD’s and things like that. I will say simply that I did not choose to come from a working-class background and an intense masculine environment and I have done my utmost to live my life with as much kindness and gentleness as possible. Despite this I can’t void myself of what feels like a necessary engagement with these themes or ideas. I, more than most, wish to mock masculine pretentions because I was horrified and confronted by them as a child, young adult, working as a doorman and when I did martial arts for money. I’ve been some incredibly intense environments that were male dominated. But there is obviously virtue in these cultures and environments too, qualities that do not exist in the bourgeois world I currently inhabit. This is often revealed in the cinema I’m drawn to, in the way they are made as well as the content of the films. Galoup in Beau Travail, Urban Grandier in The Devils (Oliver Reed in general), Harry Angel in Angel Heart, Tomek in A Short Film About Love. Etc… These films are often far more ambiguous, critical and subversive about these issues than people think and I want my poetry to be like that too.

Are you most interested in art (poetry / film) when it seems to challenge the audience or perhaps dares the audience into challenging themselves?

A quote I came across recently. If you try to please audiences, uncritically accepting their tastes, it can only mean that you have no respect for them. Andrei Tarkovsky. It can’t be said better.

Many of your poems manage to probe and inhabit the blunt or damaging aspects of how cruel or upsetting language can become and how controversy can spark productive, if uncomfortable, discussion, as part of a progressive element of cultural/societal interrogation. I’m thinking about the voices collected in Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (2011), the darkness of Disney as a mutilated puppetry of sexuality and gender in House of Mouse – your fantastic collaboration with Prudence Chamberlain (KFS, 2017), or the labyrinth of barbarism in Red Museum (KFS, 2011). These all explore morality, as many of the films in this latest collection, without ever offering explicit reassurance. I was wondering whether you might be able to talk this through…

I am really fascinated with how poetry seems to not view itself as the medium in which we might explore what language is doing now, in the 21st century, as well as (or instead of) the vehicle of particular opinion and self-expression. Often, at the moment, it seems to be about reattaching a power to language that is subjective at the expense of a fundamental concern about exploring what the context is around language itself. Maybe an intellectual, thick skinned literature that explores how we might be giving power away to people who aren’t very clever by taking meaning from words that are something other than they appear might be a good thing.

Minimum Security, for example, is often made up of prison slang or phraseology, that I wrote down way before I got into poetry, and didn’t really know what poetry was, when I very briefly worked in a prison. It scared me, the prison, it messed me up, giving me nightmares for years. It was a maximum-security prison. I found the notebook years later, when writing and realised I must’ve somehow written this stuff down as an outlet. I turned that into poetry, often as it was found, often written through (in two weeks, thanks to the invitation to publish from Colin Herd). I mention this just to offer context as to why I often experience moments of fissure between how I perceive language, morality, poetry, and how I’m told others do.

Your earlier poetry found an affinity with (and endorsement from) the restless cut and wit of Tom Raworth, and the punk humour and occultist parodies of Stewart Home (who appears in Animal Drums). Are there any contemporary poets in the UK that you feel similarly attuned to, or that you look to for inspiration? I ask this as I feel that your poetry often feels quite outside of, or apart from, the most visible or familiar UK trends and traditions – which I find interesting for a poet who has done so much to tirelessly bring UK poets together.

Definitely a big compliment, thank you. There is absolutely loads of people working now whom I think are remarkable. I often am motivated to put on events to watch them, and often think what I see in people’s work, away from a fundamental sensitivity to what appears authentic (whatever that means), is that I want to steal from them. In this way, they are different than this tradition I’m interested in, and it’s because they are proper different than me that I like them. There’s a lot more people working in Europe with whom I have a very close sensibility, like Max Hofler, Maja Jantar, Robert Prosser, Fabian Faltin and loads of others.

And, as an enjoyably unimaginative concluding question: what was the last film you really enjoyed?

Though my poems on films book is finished I am still deep in the watching mode. I watched Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1974) and Barton Fink (dir. Coen Brothers, 1991) over the last few days. Both brilliant, as good as I remembered from 20 years ago.

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