Tag Archives: poetry

Writing process blog tour


I got tagged by the brilliant Julia Bird to take part in a blog tour about writing processes. It’s the questions that are touring so no long train journey for a change… Here are some previous responses….

Julia Bird

Katy Evans Bush

Anna Robinson

Gemma Seltzer

A B Jackson

Adam Horovitz

and looking at them will take you to others…

What am I working on?

I’m working on a new solo show called ‘Schlock!’ – which comes from the Yiddish word ‘shlak’ and means something cheap, shoddy or inferior. – A risky kind of title, but in theory it refers to the literature that I’m working with rather than the quality of my performance. The schlock I am using to make Schlock! is Fifty Shades of Grey. I’m ripping out pages, scrunching it up, doing searches for sentences that contain the word ‘pain’ or ‘love’ or ‘hurt’ on my Kindle version. I’m also working with Kathy Acker’s novel ‘In Memoriam to Identity’ and the project is influenced by her writing methods and writings about the body. It’s been commissioned by the (very brave) Aldeburgh Poetry Festival for November and is produced by Penned in the Margins.

Fifty carcass

I’ve been commissioned to write a short monologue by Women and Theatre, an organisation based in Birmingham. It’s my first writing commission in Birmingham since moving here last summer, and I’m honoured to be working with such an inspiring organisation. Women and Theatre have been making theatre for 30 years and the monologue I’m writing is one of a series of pieces focused on women who have been in their particular field for thirty years, my field is business, and so far the women I’ve interviewed for the project couldn’t be more different to each other, so I’m considering writing several characters within the one monologue…..

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Of course we do all write differently to each other, but we also all borrow from each other, themes and forms and styles and sentences are recycled. Perhaps with my work the first stumbling block is ‘genre’. I’m not sure poets write in ‘genres’ …I like work that sits between genres and disciplines and I’m interested in wearing a word like ‘poet’ and making it mean something a little different than it did a hundred years ago.  But basically I like playing with words and the sounds of them, so that makes me a very typical kind of poet.

Why do I write what I do?

I write about things that I find interesting, or disturbing or shocking, or that I don’t understand….or maybe just because I enjoy playing with sound… I don’t tend to write from personal experience. Perhaps I need a bit of distance.

Someone once described a poem to me, it was an idea of a poem, and I can’t remember the exact description, just a sense that words would morph into new words and meanings would be broken up and transformed and then come back together again. I often try to write that poem.

At the moment I’m working with Fifty Shades of Grey (that book about a virgin who doesn’t want to be hit) because reading it makes me feel very sad and I only almost know why. I’m working with Kathy Acker’s novel because when I discovered her books in Dartington library years ago they were unlike anything I’d ever read, and I was really excited by her work in spite of (or because of) the lack of coherent narrative. I remember sitting somewhere strange and reading it. Behind something, on the floor, like it was illegal. Probably because I was supposed to be stacking shelves at the time. For a couple of years I wrote like her, now I’ve shaken her off so I think I’m ready to let her in again.

How does my writing process work?


I’ve never been very interested in when or where or with what when it comes to writing. But. That all changed when I got an hourglass (leftover prop from Sadie Jones tour). So, what I do now, is kill my internet connection through MAC Freedom. I realise it is pathetic that I paid £7 for willpower but best £7 I ever spent. Then I turn the hourglass and force myself to work for an hour. After that I get a cup of tea. In terms of the actual writing….I have many ways around it….I spend some time copying and cutting and pasting…I get some words on a screen and then see if I can make other words out of them…I explore sounds out loud and it makes me happy when a word  transforms into another, sometimes I think of writing as composing and I make poems out loud, using a loop pedal to layer sounds and words and meanings. I like the way the loop pedal interferes with linearity. With playwriting it’s a bit more organised and I have to make myself play difficult games with structure and narrative. Recently I’ve tended to splurge a mess of text that comes from various places but explores a particular problem…then I enlist David Lane to help me see it more objectively and organise my thoughts. Occasionally I’ll just sit down and write a poem.

organising splurge with David Lane

organising splurge with David Lane


I’m tagging two poets who I don’t know lots about but want to know more: Andra Simons who I met for the first time at a recent event for Archive of the Now. He’s a Burmudian poet based in London and his work tips into visual art and performance art and sound poetry. I’ll host his responses here. I also tag Emma Bennett who is pretty cool and can make her voice into birdsong….go to her website and have a listen. 

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The Prolific Myth: Interview with SJ Fowler

SJ Fowler and the bears

SJ Fowler and the bears

Last year I had the pleasure of working with the poet SJ Fowler on two projects: Electronic Voice Phenomena (a touring experimental literature and new media show produced by Penned in the Margins and Mercy)  and Enemies (the result of collaborations with over thirty artists, photographers and writers). Both projects have been shortlisted in the Saboteur Awards.
During Electronic Voice Phenomena Steve dressed up as a bear and read a Russian novel (or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – when we were in the Shelley Theatre). He delighted in getting a confused or angry response from his audience, although I suspected that he enjoyed the laughter too. When he’s not attempting to contact the dead, throwing up on stage or wearing a bear outfit, Steve organises large scale collaborative poetry events, like this one at the Southbank Centre, and writes vast amounts of poetry. I did an extended interview with him for the British Library sound archive, here is an extract in which we discuss his approach to publishing – grinding it out and moving on.
SJ Fowler in Electronic Voice Phenomena, St George's Hall. [peter guy's blog]

SJ Fowler in Electronic Voice Phenomena, St George’s Hall. [peter guy’s blog]

SJ Fowler:

I think that the huge factor in the volume that I’ve published has been to do with a distinct, decided engagement with a writing lifestyle. I write a lot and I write in a very specific way, which I think, because of the more traditional modes of writing poetry for the page especially, is often seen as strange. I’m interested in finding a subject that I’m very passionate about, and then somehow without too much forethought or analysis, mulching that subject into a text, whether that’s through very obvious approaches like found text, or through boiling myself in the bath, or working when I’m tired, or just some organic, natural methodology for engaging with something that I really care about. Each one has very naturally produced different kinds of writing. That’s been a real pleasure for me, engaging with people who have read one of my books, who then automatically think that all of my writing is like that. Each one of my books couldn’t be more different. So because I’ve had quite a reasonably easy, menial job for the past six years, where I’ve been able to just sit down all day and write, I’ve produced these huge volumes of works, and about half of what I’ve produced is published. So there’s a huge amount that I’m glad I didn’t publish, or that is waiting to be published in the future.

That approach does a lot of things against you as well as for you. I think there is a really specific notion around what a first collection must be, and it goes forward for these awards, etc…But I published three books at the same time – three books in three months, and I realised that nobody really read any of them, and I didn’t really care about that. I found that out, I found that it wasn’t about readership or engagement with other people. It’s nice that they exist now, as time goes by they’ve come to mean something different to me. I become quite obsessive about a certain idea, I use other poet’s work, anything I can to get to where I need to get to. I know essentially if it’s authentic or not authentic. I put it together, I deliberately create relationships with publishers or people who are engaged in that environment, because I think that it’s the only thing I would never do in poetry. The one thing I would never do is publishing, because I think it’s absolutely thankless and brutal and if it hurts me that a few of my books only sell a few hundred copies, that lasts for two minutes, I’m writing the next book. But the publisher lives with that and the financial reality of it for a long time. I don’t envy them that at all. I move on, I don’t think about that work at all, and when I come to do a reading and someone has read one of my books from years ago and makes a nice comment about it, I honestly don’t even really recognise it, I don’t really know what they mean or are talking about, because I don’t really remember what’s in some of them.

I’m glad about that but I think that it would horrify some people, that this thing exists in the world that represents you, that’s got your name on it, and people can read it and you can be ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’. That happened to me recently. Someone published an extract of one of my poems, and I was like, where did you get the title from? He said –it’s one of your poems, I said I’m pretty sure it’s not, but alright…I just don’t care about that. There’s poets who have done this, and might not be in the public’s consciousness, who I really admire. People like Pierre Joris and Tom Raworth who just pump out book after book, I’ve always believed in that. When I was interested in film, it was people like Bergman, who’d create radically brilliant, often different works, year after year. I admire that approach because they are I suppose professionals. That’s how they saw it/see it. It was a life engagement, not about dropping their rarefied thoughts on the world, but about grinding it out and if it pops out and it’s genius you can just see them smiling ‘oh alright that was genius, onto the next’ – that’s how I feel, if people say something I’ve done is rubbish, or brilliant, I don’t care. I care about writing, I love writing, it’s helped me be a better human being, it’s helped me mediate the world around me, it’s helped me sublimate really fundamentally aggressive energies in the world and I feel better for that. I’m not going to slow down or strategically launch the books so that people can take the time to actually read the work I’ve done in order to somehow mitigate the form…I think there’s a myth about being prolific, that it harms you, but I don’t think anyone will read me anyway and if they do I’ll be dead. Why not just do fifty books, and then they’ve got lots to read?

I’ve had some great conversations with people about their first collections, and I’m really interested in it, like Jack Underwood was in the faber young poets pamphlet and I don’t know what happened, something with faber, and now his next book is out, he announced on twitter it’ll be out in 2016, he announced this last year, and that to me is amazing because what that says to me is that …he’s going to get a huge reception and I hope he wins prizes, he’s a sweet man and he’s well known, he’ll do so well and he’ll be known by so many more middle class people than me!…But, the reality is that to me that says he’s going to spend the next year and a half not writing, because if he writes hundreds of poems in the next year and a half they’re just going to be in a dusty drawer…maybe not, but that’s just how it feels, that’s my instinct.

I’ve spoken to a poet who was told off by his PhD supervisor for publishing an extended chapbook because the guy was like: your first collection is the most important collection, you must go to these people and make these connections and slowly breed these relationships over five years and then launch your book when you get to around thirty. That to me just seems like an absolutely crazy backward view of what your work is.

It comes down to this fundamental thing – if I see musicians, like Radiohead, their work has changed, that’s the way it should be, but when I see someone doing the same music, like Korn for instance – I grew up listening to new metal – and they’re still doing the whiny music twenty years later – they’re moribund…I don’t want my work to ever be the same. I’m glad to be ashamed of stuff I’ve put out because I’m a different person now.

My publishing happened because I invested in getting to know the people who were foolish enough to do ground-up avant-garde presses. They were interested in how I was doing things. And half of my books have come about through me relentlessly badgering people, and the other half have been people asking me, which makes me feel really gratified. My first book, Red Museum, was the fourth book I wrote, but it just happened that a publisher asked me for a book, so I just sent him it and he said he’d take it, and that I didn’t need to change it. That’s my first book! And then my prison book I did in two months because the publisher said ‘I’ll do one of your books’ and I didn’t happen to have one that was ready. I wrote it, didn’t look at it, just sent it to him. And it’s my favourite book by a mile – it’s really good because it feels like someone else has written it.

The whole publishing process for me has been a complete mélange. I take real, genuine pleasure in holding new objects in my hands, and moving on.


[whilst I was transcribing this interview, Steve has published another poetry collection, it’s called ‘The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner’ and he’s launching it on the 21st May. ]

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Our language; Nuestra lengua

When I get asked why I play with language

…. and voice…sound…words and silence

This would be a very good answer. 

 Zacatecas 1997. Opening address at El Congreso International de la Lengua Española.

By Octavio Paz

Octavio Paz

Octavio Paz, 1990 Nobel Prize winner

El amor por nuestra lengua 

Callings are mysterious. Why does one child tirelessly draw in his school sketchbook, whilst another makes boats or planes from the paper? Why does one construct canals and tunnels in the garden, builds cities of sand on the beach, whilst another forms football teams and leads bands of explorers, or locks himself alone in a room solving endless jigsaws? Nobody knows for certain.

What we do know is that over the years, these inclinations and affinities become crafts, professions and destinies. The mystery of the poet’s calling is no less uncertain, yet more enigmatic.

It begins with an unanticipated love of words, their colour, their sound, their brilliance and the array of meanings they display. As we sound words, we hear meanings. This love soon becomes a fascination for the reverse of language, silence. Each word at once speaks and silences. This understanding distinguishes the poet from the philologists and the grammarians, from the orators and from those who practice the subtle art of conversation. Unlike these masters of language, the poet is known for their silences as much as their words.

From the beginning the poet knows, indistinctly, that words are inseparable from the grave and womb of silence. The word buries silence; the earth germinates the word.  We are children of the word, it is our creation and our creator, without it we wouldn’t be. In turn, the word is the daughter of silence: born and taken by her depths.

Octavio Paz, 1997

translated by Hannah Silva

 Read and hear the original. 


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Social animals need to stay in touch

Hannah teaser launch

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November 13, 2013 · 2:43 pm

On the ‘minimal performance’

Interview with John Hall

Part III

HS: You were talking about the minimal … do you want a cup of tea?

The ‘minimal performance mode’ I’m interested in that, where performance is, in readings.

I think it was Chris Goode who was saying at the talk that he’s increasingly suspicious … I will quote him wrong … of learning texts … he felt he wanted the script in front of him, that it somehow felt more authentic … and I’ve heard poets say that, about readings, I’ve heard poets say they don’t learn their poems because it would somehow not be authentic.

[Chris Thorpe talking to Diana Damian:

…The deliberate choice of reading rather than memorizing points towards the immediacy of the act. ‘It takes the focus away from the memory trick of knowing and learning. I want to take away the kind of tight rope walk that can distract when you’re watching someone speak a lot of text… it’s not about watching someone perform a skill, but engaging with storytelling as a form of conversation…’ ]

JH: I’ve heard the opposite too, if you can’t learn them they’re not authentic … Chris Goode, Andy Smith, Lone Twin … there’s a distinction between the bits they call ‘Lone Twin Theatre’, which are pieces that the actors, or performers, learn. When Lone Twin perform themselves, they make a point of a clipboard.  Which I find interesting, because it feels to me it immediately signals that there is a text that is absolutely present, and that you or I could pick it up and read it.

Lone Twin 'SledgeHammer Songs'

Lone Twin ‘SledgeHammer Songs’

There was one night during Chris’ residency, where Chris and Theron were going to perform, to read, perform, some texts by Andy Smith. They tossed a coin to see who should read what – which exaggerated the sense of the provisionality of the actual performance in the moment. But there was this text, like with the kind of poetry I was brought up on – there is the primacy of the text.

There is a kind of minimal performance mode, which in a way says – you’re lazy, you should be reading this in the quiet of your room. However, I’m reading here, and I shall do my best to approximate to how you might read it – which of course doesn’t work … you’ve got an audience, no two of whom would read it in the same way.

There’s an interesting thing that happens with poets, who are in many senses reading extremely well, poets such as Ed Dorn, interesting page poets, but what happens is that once you’ve heard one of their very effective readings, you’re locked into it. It’s a sonic spectre, there every time you read the text. It’s one of the reasons why Jeremy Prynne refuses to do readings … why should the poet’s reading of the work be privileged…?

HS: So in a way, by having the text there, the reader or writer is signalling that this is not how it should be. Poets who learn their work are saying – this is the version of the text, this is how I want it to sound … but a poet that mumbles from a page is saying – I don’t want to be here, this is not how this work should be communicated, please look at it, please buy the book.

JH: Yes and if you belong to the privileged audience, you’ll be able to ‘get’ the poem anyway … I would distrust myself if I was in anyway theatricalising the text. If I were bringing the elements of theatre to it. Poems are not theatre, on the whole, although it’s quite possible to read poems that are mini theatrical sketches.

HS: But then we have to go into what is theatre, the differences between poetry and theatre … because aren’t theatrical elements … probably we mean something different by those words because for me, that ‘theatricality’ is part of the writing, part of the poem.

JH: You’re right, I’m not going to disagree, I’m just making the distinction between work that uses the conventions of theatre, theatre, even Chris Goode’s work, even Lone Twin, call on some of the Aristotelian oldies. Certainly in the case of The Disappearance of Sadie Jones, there are characters, personae, in a very particular life situation or set of life situations.

HS: Yes, but that is not what defines these pieces as theatre, because you can also have pieces like Crimp’s Attempts on her life, Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis, that have no character specification, no location, none of the things you mentioned –but we still see them as theatre.

JH: I don’t know those pieces so it would be good if you could say more…

HS: Attempts on her life is 17 scenarios for the theatre, each scene is very short, there are no characters, just dashes for different lines, you can perform it with any number of performers, sex, age …The only thing that is similar in the different scenarios is that they are always talking about ‘her’… Attempts on her life. So one scene is very much like a cut-up poem in that it’s using text from car advertising, she drive at this speed, she’s shiny … they talk about her as if she’s a car. Another is called ‘All messages deleted’ – there are messages from different people on her answer machine. But the messages don’t align with each other.  Every time something is established it’s then destabilised so you can’t get to the end of the piece and say ‘she is a young woman, she is like this, etc’ because she is constantly being rewritten. You can perform the scenes in any order…

But I’ve always thought, and this can also be applied to poetry, that although lines are not assigned and characters aren’t specified, as soon as you put something on stage you are making characters. As soon as you say to a female actor, read this as if you’re a news presenter, you are assigning all those things to the text that the writer left out. The same perhaps could be said in poetry, as soon as you have a person standing on stage in a particular time and place, we are giving it the properties that make theatre.

JH: One of the answers might be, with the two authors you’ve mentioned, is that they have identified themselves up until those pieces as presences in the world of theatre; these aren’t trivial categories – you place yourself.

HS: It’s not trivial but it can be accidental. It can depend on where you studied, who took up your first work  … Tim Crouch for instance, he’s identified as a playwright, working within the theatre world, but I’ve heard students and other writers say that his pieces ‘aren’t really plays’ that they are ‘performance art’. The problem is that they say this in a dismissive way, as if this means that ‘playwrights’ don’t need to consider his work.

JH: I would be really interested in what can happen when something that is, by whatever set of accidents or choices, usually billed as theatre, gets billed as poetry or the other way round. This must happen to you: you are given a choice or not a choice.

HS: I’m not given a choice!

JH: So you know what I mean. So much of what has constituted late modernism has been people within a certain genre, fighting it. Fighting it from within it.

HS: Yes, and if they were not in it, would their work lose its urgency and its interest because they wouldn’t have anything to fight against? It’s the borders that make their work …

JH: Probably, we’d need to look at real instances. These are crude –  let’s call them economical and sociological ­– signals about what kind of thing this piece of cultural activity is, which bit of a library it will appear in if published, or shown. Yes, that is absolutely part of the tension it seems to me. I’d be very surprised if you or I don’t expect the stuff that interests us to be extremely knowing about its generic provenance, to be absolutely knowing within it. I don’t mean like ‘I’m a poet I’m going to write sonnets, let’s get on with it’  – not that kind of knowingness, but the knowingness that says, ‘how come we’re still hooked on sonnets, what are they?’

HS: Yes, work that acknowledges its frame, that says ‘you are walking into this theatre with a particular set of expectations’. A lot of the work I’m interested in does that, the playwright Will Eno for instance, he acknowledges the form and he finds drama in the fact that there is an audience sitting there, it’s half seven in the evening, and these are actors. It’s strange to me that ‘drama’ assumes there’s a need to forget the reality of audience, stage and actors.

JH: One of the things that interests me about poetry in its live reading mode, is that it’s an incredibly insecure public genre. On the whole, people don’t know how to behave … The poets performing are muddled at best, but in spite of all the years, audiences don’t know how to behave either. If you watch a classical music audience, they know exactly how to behave, and that’s part of the pleasure.

HS: Yes, and perhaps that’s why spoken word is so popular, because audiences know how to behave and performers know how to perform, they’re not scared of microphones, they know the rules of the game.

JH: I knew Andy Smith as an MA student in Dartington, we kept a bit in touch, very often there is this troublesome ‘I’ – one of the distinctions between lyric poetry and theatre. Lyric poetry is supposed to be unembarrassed about the ‘I’ while theatre is aware it’s a problem. So in Chris’ residency I was seeing the ‘I’ of my friend  Andy Smith being taking on at a toss of a coin by Chris or Theron. There’s a Lone Twin example, ‘Daniel hit by a train’ – on the night that I saw it the performer was Cynthia Whelan, certainly a middle aged, woman, her lines are ‘ I am Gregory, I am eighteen’… she was playing a male eighteen year old. If it hasn’t already happened, you realise at that point that this is not someone filling out a character but someone performing a liturgy…

Tim Crouch and Andy Smith. By Katherine Leedale

Tim Crouch and Andy Smith. By Katherine Leedale

HS: Although you don’t lose character, you have more characters. Because then you have the character of the woman, the performer, and you have the character of Gregory, who we will see as a character.

JH: It’ s not Gregory, I’ll have to remember the name.

HS: Shall we call him Gregory … it depends how the piece works, but we are used to storytellers taking on other roles, other voices, other characters, and it doesn’t stop them from being characters, it’s just more revealed, more explicit, the performer and the persona.

JH: It’s borrowing some of the joys of playground simulation … you be Gregory… and I’ll be … I imagine that’s pretty universal in children’s games.

HS: Tim Crouch works with objects in interesting ways … they become characters … Can we go back to this thing of theatre, the way you used the word theatre?

JH: I’m already beginning to regret that.

HS: It’s just something that I have to wrestle with in my work so it’s useful to talk it through. I wonder about what happens when we use labels that are not in our own disciplines, so for you, ‘performance writing’ will always be used correctly as that’s your area, that’s a label that you own, if you choose to use it, you very much own it as it was coined at Dartington, so it can safely be used to discuss your work. However, you don’t work in theatre, therefore I wonder if when you use the word ‘theatre’, you’re using it from an outsider perspective … when we use labels that are outside of our own work, we tend to think of the worst aspect of those labels. So when people use the word ‘performance poet’ they will think, like a bad stand up comedian, not very literary, cheap rhymes. And when you say theatre maybe you’re thinking ‘over acted’, ‘dramatic’ – aspects that are indicative of bad theatre, the clichés. When you use the word theatre in a negative sense, as in ‘poetry is not theatre’ – I wonder if you’re thinking about those negative elements of theatre.

JH: All I can say is a fair cop, I probably introduced it as a word, ‘to theatricalise’, I was probably thinking of it as one of those things people within theatre would also want to avoid.

HS: Yes, ‘theatrical’ is often seen as a negative thing.

JH: I talked about this with Chris [Goode]; if I remember rightly, the word ‘theatre’ is important to Chris, and it’s important at times for his stuff to be thought of uncomplicatedly as theatre, and so I suppose what I wouldn’t back away from is a number of things … one is that I don’t think any of these terms have become redundant, no one’s done away with them however much they tried to, so there is a mistaken essentialism that says there has always been something called ‘theatre’, something called ‘poetry’ and we can distinguish what they are. That’s mistaken partly because historically, if you take the two forms, loosely, poetry is never going to be the same again once literacy is established: where poetry is written, it is going to go through a radical transformation, through technology, a profound change …

[…detour about liveness]

HS: I suppose what I was saying with the poetry thing is, is it not still poetry to write a piece in which the way in which space is used, even if it’s simply, is within the text itself … so the poetry doesn’t happen until the performance. Is that not still poetry?

JH: First answer is, does it matter? But that’s undercutting what I said … One of the things about the tradition of poetry I find myself in is that it doesn’t have stage directions. I’m not saying that’s the thing that defines it … it doesn’t say read this bit quietly, walk on … think how few directions there are in Shakespeare, there are those divisions into scenes.

HS: Whereas Beckett’s stage directions are very specific. They are part of the writing.

JH: Defining it.

HS: Yes, he has pieces that are only stage directions.

JH: I suspect with a bit more time and thought we could put our minds onto things that are manifestly poems that have invoked the conventions of theatre by building stage directions into the poem.

HS: Possibly. Or do they even need to be written? Poems written for performance may not have stage directions written in because it’s not about the script. Because no one else needs to pick up that script and perform it. For instance with my work, some of it I can’t write down but I know there’s a specific way of performing it. It’s not about the written text, it’s not written down.

JH: If we’re thinking about a reading … one of the things coming up is that there is no more one theatre than there is one poetry. There are those poets who write for the page and who refuse to read. Not just because they’re terrified, but for very good reasons. They are saying that they don’t want to get in the way of the multiple performance of reading silently that happens when any one ideal reader encounters the text. One of the things that is counter to performance is the poetry that is founded in ambiguity, for instance in there being three ways to negotiate a line.

HS: Yes, as soon as you perform it you’ve made a choice.

JH: You have to, that’s one of the definitions of performance. Whereas the visual representation of the poetry on the page doesn’t. And there are very interesting ways of reading silently I think, that keep it all in play, to hear three versions almost at once.

HS: So when you are in ‘minimal performance mode’ what is that?

JH: Well, the primacy for me – and a huge responsibility – is that the bloody thing that got written before is there, and it’s non-negotiable as a text.

HS: Why is it non-negotiable?

JH: Just as the Beckett estate says a Beckett text is non-negotiable … even after his death.

HS: So you see your texts in the same way?

JH: Partly I do, and that’s partly because I have never worked in a mode that has drawn on improvisation. Very often what writers mean by improvisation is not what performers mean at all. There’ll be modes of playing around, generating text, but I’ve had more than one uncomfortable dream about the need to improvise on the spot. The classic. A massive audience, not one like I’ve ever experienced … With the kind of stuff I’ve written, you can fill in the gaps.

HS: But very few writers improvise like that, only some MCs. – I’ve done some performances that I would say are improvised but I am never inventing the poem on the spot in that way, I don’t know how connected that is with the fixedness of what you have on the page. If I improvise in performance, I’ve always had a lot of language to work with, I’m making choices about what I’m working with, what I choose and what I repeat and the rhythm and dynamics and all of those properties of the text.

JH: I’m sure that would be recognised by jazz musicians – a head score, you are working to something.

HS: I have those dreams as well – usually I have to be on stage and I vaguely know the play but don’t know the lines. But that’s not a reason to then look at your poems and say, this is fixed … I suppose the question is, how are you true to what you’ve written? Performance is a different form.

JH: I’ll put it in a completely different way, without wanting to negate what I’ve said … which is that at the time of the minimal performance it doesn’t matter who wrote the text.

HS: Really? So how are you reading it? Are you reading it as if you are discovering it for the first time? As if you were writing it on the spot?

JH: No, because if I’d been asked to read someone’s else’s work I would always rehearse…

HS: So you rehearse … but then you read it as if it’s written by someone else?

JH: Well, as though it doesn’t matter who wrote it, it’s not quite the same.

HS: And what does that mean?

JH: The earliest poems of mine, poems that I might be tempted to read now, were written in or just before 1966 when I was 21. I’m 68 now. To what extent is that 21 year old, me? I’m sure all people with a body of work would identify with this…

HS: You get distanced

JH: Yes, and sometimes you want to disown it…

HS: True. You don’t normally read those ones in public.

JH: No, but I mean I then get caught up in the fact that those ones I feel uneasy about, people connect with.

HS: Do you have that same feeling of distance from work that you’ve written very recently? If you wrote something today, performed it tomorrow?

JH: Yes, I think so. But that probably has quite a bit to do with a way of writing, and I’m going to avoid the word theatrical … but the poems that are not something that have an emotional or affective shape … outside the language, that the language is trying to reproduce … it’s not ‘this poem is about a terrible experience’ …

HS: Is it going back to the ‘I’? That if there is no ‘I’ in your poem then you will not feel that Identity, personal ownership…

JH: Or that even if there is an ‘I’– at the moment of reading it, who is that? Anybody can write ‘I’; there’s no law against that. So as soon as you start to organise as a writer, to organise material in a way that is not just a surrogate … you were talking about writers of fiction wanting writing to be transparent … but with a poem, what would the transparency be? With some poems it’s clear, poems that are about subjects such as a baby being born, for instance, those are things that are outside the poem. For many people a poet’s job is to be clear to this thing that is outside the poem. To convey it to an audience or readership. If you don’t write that kind of poem, then, the ‘I’ is an irrelevance, who is it? There’s a way of reading that is not claiming an identity between the one who performs and the ‘I’ who is a character…

HS: Is there? Because that seems a very hard thing to avoid … if you are using ‘I’ in the poem and you are performing the work, it’s very hard to stop the listener from identifying those two ‘I’s with each other. Which can be frustrating, or it can be a fun thing to play with…

JH: It’s why so many poems of the last few decades have explicitly made that their matter. As a way of seeing people off, or hoping to.

HS: Even if it’s not about the ‘I’, the personal experience. Isn’t there still some connection, with you … I’m thinking about this thing of distance … I guess it’s about communication … if you’re trying to communicate something in the reading, then you can’t be distanced from the text. Is that true? Maybe it’s not.

JH: You’ve thrown in a far worse word than ‘theatre’

HS: Did I say ‘emotion’? Oh –‘communicate’

JH: And then you added that vague term ‘something’

HS: Should I give an example? I’ve a piece called ‘prosthetics’ – it’s got nothing to do with me, I took a line from a documentary made in the US: ‘forty percent of those with prosthetic limbs will go back into war’ and a few other sentences ‘it’s a positive thing’, ‘Amputation is the next step in rehabilitation’. So I just took that first line and made it into vowel sounds and layered it, applied various procedures to it. But when I perform that poem, I am communicating … something … of war … something of prosthetic limbs…of amputation … of a child looking at her father and describing him as a monster … I’m not distanced from that material in the performance of it, and the performance of it, makes meaning…

JH: You see, I think in that case, I don’t think you or I can claim … communication requires more than one party.

HS: It does, I agree, but you still have communication in performance even when the audience is not responding verbally, there is still a two-way exchange.

JH: But what you stress, we’ll struggle with language now … communication is a process, and there is a theme, a topic, and the topic is outside, it preceded the performance piece, and is being referenced by you. It is probably the source of strong affect for you, which will very likely transfer to an audience … but I wouldn’t go further … I’m trying to distinguish between this notion that this performance is … the blunt way of putting it is that this is quite explicitly about something, you could have a note in the program, the note itself is going to predispose people to hearing it in relation to its subject.

HS: But if you didn’t have that note…

JH: It could communicate affect without the particular meaning coming across

HS: Which would be fine also, that’s the point I suppose, that it would have some emotional impact on the audience.

JH: Let’s make a distinction, your example wasn’t given as if it was about you. I’m just picking up on the idea that you didn’t choose the subject randomly but because it mattered, so there is the autobiographical insight offered…

HS: Yes, you can still say, why did I choose that topic and why did I choose those sentences. But surely you could say the same about your work. There is still an author there making choices.

JH: And those choices continue  being made in the performance.

'o now' by John Hall, in Shearsman Gallery

‘o now’ by John Hall, in Shearsman Gallery


Filed under Interview, Poetry, Theatre

Poets prefer marmalade

An anthology that states it publishes the ‘best’ poetry written today publishes the best poetry written today. There are a range of poetry awards corresponding to the range of poetry being written. It is necessary to categorise poets. All good young poets win Eric Gregory awards.

Black poets are usually performance poets. ‘Performance poetry’ has become a derogative term. ‘Innovative’ poets are usually male, white and sardonic. Poets who use the lower case i are pretentious. ‘Mainstream’ poets are snooty. All poets listen to Radio 4.

If you’re not a white poet you should send your work to a specialist publisher. If you’re not a white poet then you are writing for a niche market. Poetry festivals programme a diverse range of poets. Poets wear sharp suits.

There are as many critics of poetry in performance as there are of poetry on the page. Poets who mostly perform are as respected as poets who mostly publish. Poets who write for the page are bad readers of their work. Poets who learn their work for performance are more interested in performance than in writing. Poets who read are giving priority to the page above performance. Reading is not performance. Performance is not reading. Poets eat shredded wheat.

Rejection after rejection results in poets losing confidence in their own voice. Rejection after rejection breeds ambitious, bold poets who write just the way they wish to. Rejection after rejection results in poets adjusting the way they write in order to be accepted. Rejection after rejection stops poets writing poetry. If you want to get published make sure you write poems that look like poems. Poems look like dandelion clocks. You can learn a poem by blowing its fluff to the wind.

Mentorship is offered to all poets of promise. There’s money in poetry. If you want to be a poet you should do an MA in creative writing. Poets have dodgy knees.

Poets are thick-skinned and dislike freckles. Poets have good dress sense. Poets are middle class. Poets know when to use apostrophes. Working class poets write short, funny poems about their lives.

Publishers shape the poetry that is written in this country. Publishers shape the poetry that is published in this country. Censorship is an inevitable by-product of selection. Small, independent publishers sell as many books as Faber & Faber. Poets have regular haircuts.

There is no ‘mainstream’ poetry. The fact there are several ‘streams’ enriches the poetry scene. British poetry is more conservative than American poetry. Experimentation is actively discouraged. The labels we use to catagorise poets have more positive than negative associations. Poets can hold their breath underwater for ages.

Poems written for performance rhyme and are easily understood on first hearing. Poems written for performance are often political. Poems written for performance sprawl and have irregular line lengths. The spoken word scene is diverse because there are no gatekeepers at its entrance.

Poems written for the page are formally tight. Poems written for the page need to be read several times. The craft of writing poems for the page is superior to the craft of writing poems for performance. ‘Mainstream’ poetry often references Greek mythology.

You can tell that ‘Innovative’ poets don’t believe in the poetic ‘voice’ as they write by cutting up books and instruction manuals and inserting the word ‘Derrida’ now and then. Poets do press-ups.

A poem that works on the page will work in performance. A poem that works in performance will not always work on the page. A poem that works in performance but not on the page is not a good poem. To perform is to be fake. Performance poets are shouty. Poets are typewriters.

There is an equal split of male to female poets writing poetry in the UK. There is an equal split of male to female poets being published in the UK. There is an equal split of male to female poets publishing poetry in the UK. Poets (particularly the innovative ones) can never find the scissors.

Poets self-publish their work when it’s not good enough to be accepted by a publisher. Publishers publish poetry that is good. All good poetry is published. ‘Good’ is not subjective.

There are too many poets. There are not enough poets. Poets wear red shoes. Poets prefer mittens to gloves.



Commissioned by the Broadsheet, launching the Exeter Poetry Festival. I’m performing/talking on the 4th October at an event exploring tribalism in poetry, the supposed borders between different sorts of practice and the usefulness or otherwise of labels such as ‘mainstream’, ‘experimental’ and ‘performance’.


Filed under Poetry

Total Man

‘Total Man’ part of Electronic Voice Phenomena. Commissioned by Penned in the Margins and Mercy.

Our tour starts on Friday! I’ll be performing alongside Ross Sutherland, SJ Fowler, music group ‘Outfit’ and special guests. Further details HERE

‘Total Man’ is based on the writings of Stan Gooch, who, in his book The Paranormal, describes himself as ‘a reasonably well-endowed psychic’. Gooch was a sociologist/occultist/psychologist and the author of thirteen books including the epic ‘Total Man’. He was one of the first exponents of the ‘hybrid-origin’ theory of evolution. Most of his books explore the theory that humans are the result of cross-breeding between Cro-Magnum and Neanderthal. This research can be traced back to an experience Gooch had during a seance in 1958; he saw what looked like a Neanderthal man, crouching in the corner of the room ‘breathing heavily, as if nervous’.

I’ve been in touch with Dr. Brent Logan, who corresponded with Gooch in the last years of his life. Gooch’s final years (he died in 2010) were spent living in a rented caravan in Swansea, surviving on income support pension. Dr. Logan has sent me copies of the letters, which provide an insight into Gooch’s mind, his depression, and his commitment to his work. Here are some previously unpublished extracts. The first is from 1992:

I have now published well over a million words, often to critical acclaim by in themselves influential individuals. I have never made any money, and have lived much of the time in what most westerners would describe as poverty. Furthermore, I have signally failed to influence either the academic establishment or the world of alternative, new age thought. I am far too revolutionary for the former, and far too critical for the latter. Heigh ho.


The reversals and set-backs throughout my career have been continuous, relentless and un-remitting, as to some extent you already know. It all goes far beyond the reach of chance.

And later in 2009 finally some proof (underlining Gooch’s)

Recent discoveries of bones and skeletons in Spain have proved that Neanderthal and Cro-magnon did interbreed… When widely separated species of animal cross breed the offspring have two conflicting sets of instincts, with which they struggle to come to terms. And that’s why we’ve got left-wing political parties and right -wing parties. If lions evolved there would only be one political party – the lion party. If horses evolved there would only be one political party – the horse party. But we have two opposed political parties. (And as I’ve said in my books, if members of the labour party and members of the Conservative party were examined there would be: more left-handedness among the former; a greater incidence of the big toe being shorter than the other toes; shorter average height; less male baldness; larger cerebellum; more red-headedness, and so on and so on…)

Time to measure those toes….

Did you say 'less' male baldness?

‘Less’ male baldness, did you say?

Reading Stan Gooch’s books has been a trial. As soon as I’m able to follow his reasoning, he’ll matter of factly mention something like vampires, as if they prove his point. He draws on everything: psychology, sociology, archeology, mythology, the paranormal….which makes his writing fascinating, but also impossible. It’s easy to laugh at Gooch’s theories, but if I’m honest, I believe in fate, and I’ve experienced a few things that would deserve a chapter in his book The Paranormal. As Gooch said, the only proof of the inexplicable is personal experience. And even if you do experience something, it’s much easier to ignore it than to attempt an explanation. No wonder Gooch often found himself tangled in Ariadne’s web.  Within his theories about the life of Neanderthals is an attempt to understand the contradictions of humankind.

Join me as I attempt to channel Gooch and dissect, reverse, layer and articulate his ideas and experiences:










May 7, 2013 · 4:23 pm