On Time and Mess

SJ Fowler

 

Once we understand excess, then we can get really simple.

– Robert Rauschenberg

 
 

Exploring poetry’s absent indispensable character

Because poetry is not a thing that lives, to put it mildly, upon the regulation and control of grammar and correct spelling, in the final preparations for the publication of my book, ‘I fear my best work behind me,’ an exploration of the rudimentary character of poetry – that is letters and words – there was only one correction to make for my editor. Only one deliberate error, with all the obsequiousness that this phrase entails, for him to find and for me to defend. The title. I fear my best work is behind me. Remove the is. Then perhaps, to those dozen or so reading the title, and those few within the dozen who are concentrated by interest, the absence of the is will take on its proper significance. The primary significance I would posit that poetry has, outside of letters and words, is purposeful semantic omission.

I do not imagine my best work is behind me, literally, but in those whom I’ve discovered – and that is the right word to use (for they have to be unearthed, do poets, in England) – who have given me permission to make such works as those that often litter my pages, they are behind me, and are the best work, for they were and are not making what can be mine. What they have made was original, or based on poets they have buried with themselves, as I shall not do.

SJ Fowler

Where do I stand in time, in relation to past works? On the heads, or rather skulls, of the dead, date bracketed, but I do not know, for myself, if the work behind me is good in relation to the fullest expanse of my own lifeline. Or if I will even be alive to pile work up after it at all. I could go tomorrow. Though it is near impossible, I do try my best not to think of work as a series of car crashes along a historical timeline, on a temporal bridge, in a straight start to finish race. It’s rather a loop? Or nothing at all, engagements that happen, and often unnoticed even by me, and so, unseen, are out of time. Invisible without reception, for a desk drawer. This is all my fault though, for being a bit out of time / a time / my time.

In another sense, aside from influence, the work that I try not to acknowledge in the future is easily escaped, as it doesn’t exist. But the work behind me, the ubiquitous printed poetry, the-12-point-times-new-roman-font-justified-collection-poetry, well, that does stand behind me as a literary babadook. A big fat monster bulging and swinging its arms and breathing upon my neck. It feels, often, it’s that or nothing, if it’s poetry. My work behind me is then to be feared because it is dead on the page, to be resurrected and without the qualities that currently possess it, in this book. Anyway, all work is made with our best work behind us, clawing our ankles.

The mistakes that lurk in the work before this moment are not to be remembered, and not because I’m clear headed but precisely the opposite. Because if I’m on any path, any trajectory, it is one of confusion. Was there land before paths? An arc that many of those whom I’ve discovered and whom I admire have walked. Perhaps it is their only unifier. The CoBrA group and the poet artists associated with that movement, to those considered canonical like Twombly, RB Kitaj, Franz Kline, Basquiat, to those more scarce in that kind of light, Francesc Sempere, Hélène Smith, JB Murray. Hundreds of others. Once I began to see them, those poets, en masse, writing poetry, I could not stop seeing. The path of realisation that too much poetry in the world has closed off much of the possibility for any of it to be seen. That is, the poetry itself is trying not to be seen. It is trying so hard to be read, and not asking whether it can be read at all? Not asking whether, if it can be seen, can it not be read? A soft sigh I suppose, quite quiet, barely audible, and let’s then call these artists, for the sake of the above realisation. An art poetry. A text art. Poem art. Art poems. Demon faces and monster babies and shopping list reminders as poems. Bits off the telly. Cheap paint from Poundland. A facsimile of the notion that the poet repatriates language from the world in their own idiosyncratic navigation of the endless adversarial difficulty in dealing with language itself. Now to wonder, whether all this should be seen?

 

Ik rotzooi maar een beelje an.
I’m just messing around a bit.

– Karel Appel

 
 

Recently, each one of my books has dealt with a different way of exploring the same question. What is in the shape of a letter? What images do words recall? What is the meaning of colour in poetry and text upon the page? And white space? How does the situation of a poem change its meaning? Why is composition not a concept that applies to a medium that is innately visual? In literature, why has content overwhelmed context? Why has product dominated process? In England especially, these questions, fundamental to most other artforms, have been neglected. I hope in a tiny, playful, offhand manner, I might aim to redress some of these concerns for my own sense of curiosity and maybe a dozen other people.

I want to explore handwriting, abstraction, illustration, colour, what its mingling entails for the meaning of each together, in a poem. The book then is an examination of words that are meant to make you squint, to battle for legibility, rather than you be able to pinch and extend your thumb and forefinger against the page to get a closer look. I seek a celebration of forgotten notes, strange scrawls – the odd interaction between paper and pen, and the colours that randomly collide. The page as a block of inarticulate shapes, making a separate, more essential sense, gesturing towards the handmade, the amateur – what is taken to be ugliness as what is taken to be beauty, toilet wall draughtsmanship and mess. It is a response to being called an artist in the poem, and a poet in the art. And as a major part of my day becomes how much time I spend online, so this is all also intended to be a tiny return to the obscure, inarticulate, child-like intensity of our making marks upon a page, with our actual hands.

 

Whatever you do, don’t take what’s mine.

– Christian Dotremont

 
 

When I discovered the poetry of Christian Dotremont, Asger Jorn, Lucebert, Karel Appel – many if not all of those associated with the CoBrA group, or certainly that milieu of post-war central and northern European painters, poets, mark makers who were powerfully and organically exploring the possibility, and responsibility, of literature and art, and the lack of obvious divisions between the two, in the palpable aftermath of the war – my work was forever changed. It was clear that not only was their working method based on spontaneity and experiment, and that they drew their inspiration in particular from children’s drawings and art practises beyond Europe, as Dada had done, but that they were more than the sum of their collectivity, or their influences, or their specific historical context.

SJ Fowler,

They were singular because they were each resting upon a borderland of poetry, a frontline at that time. This was more striking to me than the notion that they were artists mucking around with words. It seemed to me quite explicitly that they were poets exploring a very specific riposte, what feels to me, even now, perhaps even more so now, sixty years or more later, an interrogation that cannot be ignored. That is the question of what must change in poetry after poetry has been used to lyricise an ethos of hatred and mass murder. They recognised that this question, posed so enormously in their lifetimes, required an answer not just of content, but of structure, of method, of context as well.

They were a beacon of confirmation for me, of my suspicions that in my own island, we needn’t face this question, and could simply switch subject matter. I’m being reductive but this seems to me a spark of truth, of explanation. In that spirit, I am also aware that the ideas that surround the CoBrA group are also now old and well worn, but I would argue vehemently only in the case of the arts, which have conceptually and theoretical evolved in the last hundred years in a way that we all know literature has not.

Christian Dotremont, Constant, Asger Jorn, Lucebert, Karel Appel, Elberg, Gerrit Kouwenaar, Corneille – they are responsible. Their rejection of surrealism’s spurious doctrines of mysticism or automatism. Their stressing the need for collective activity, for collaboration. Their insistence that creating art or poetry must take place within the context of everyday life. Their rejection of standardisation in poetry and art, the influence of De Stijl being the best example in their context. Their desire to downgrade the profession of poet or artist from the occupation of a privileged position. Their avoidance of sterile theory and dogmatism. These things resonated with me greatly, after the fact of their works. Colourful, raw, ebullient, funny, morbid, graceful and horrendous. They forced language into a poetic context which allowed poetry itself to speak out anew. They worried and harried each letter until language fell away. They tormented dead space, they negotiated with the meaning of language’s appearance before its meaning. They sought an acquitted form of expression, free from the social conventions they had come to despise in the wake of the war, which revealed the fissures in the rational ideal that undoubtedly underpinned poetry then, and far be it from me to say, but perhaps now? Even now.

 
 

“I paint just as I write. To discover, to rediscover myself, to find what is truly mine, that which, unbeknown to me, has always belonged to me. To experience at once the surprise of it and the pleasure of recognising it. To bring forth or bear witness to the appearance of a certain vagueness, a certain aura, where others would, or do, see fullness.”

– Henri Michaux

 
 

I have not begun to paint my poems with pictures so as to leave words behind, but to maybe put an end to the irritating question I have discovered above. To follow something down a hole because it seemed necessary to me. If I’m going to keep making things at all. I am perplexed again and again. And I am delighted if there are then traps in the poems that emerge from this perplexity. How many can each reader understand? Will they look for surprises? To remember what they mean would then bore me, after awaiting these results. It would upset me. And really there is only so much spare space in our heads, for poetry and poets, or information in general, depending on one’s elasticity, in an age of debuts, of carefully constructed social opinions and unironic / ironic / accidental emphasis on binaries.

If folk interested in poetry, as it sits now in the world, and I dare say many friends are to be included in this group, wish to spend their life studying, I suppose what might be deemed deep study, big poets, then that seems very reasonable to me. We are temperamentally different at the moment and I fear not physical harm from any of these fine people with their beautiful interests just nudging my own. But I’m more inclined to seek out others, and having done so, wonder why, in the moments I rarely get between reading or before sleep, why did what occurred to Henri Michaux or Christian Dotremont not occur to many poets on this side of the channel? Who cares, I suppose? The question does not stand behind me. The question to be asked stands ahead, at the end of explorations that touch the past but aren’t it entirely.

 
 

SJ Fowler’s new book, I fear my best work behind me is published by Stranger Press in a limited edition of 100, with dust jacket, over 80 new art poems / poem bruts / illustrations & child-like portraits.

www.stevenjfowler.com
www.theenemiesproject.com
www.poembrut.com/ifear
 
 

The Learned Pig

SJ Fowler

SJ Fowler is a poet and artist. He works in the modernist and avant-garde traditions, across poetry, fiction, theatre, sonic art, visual art, installation and performance. He has published various collections of poetry and text, and been commissioned by Tate Modern, BBC Radio 3, The British Council, Tate Britain, Liverpool Biennial and Wellcome Collection. He has been translated into 21 languages and performed at venues across the world, from Mexico City to Erbil, Beijing to Tbilisi. He is the poetry editor of 3am magazine, Lecturer at Kingston University, teaches at Tate Modern and is the curator of the Enemies project.