PS: Your writing is more and more
lyrical and wistful in tone (although restrained in directly personal
lyrics). This latest collection The Return of the Man Who Has Everything is wonderfully readable, undercut
with surrealism and bitterness - especially with the claustrophobia of
Cornwall in winter, and a nagging doubt that what you are doing is
Is that fair?
RML: Totally, although I would advise against confusing the narrators of my
poems with me per se. I am certainly in my poems (how could I not be?) but my work is full
of stolen or borrowed phrases which I have changed and juxtaposed, along with
fictions, lies, asides and biographical fragments.
I've long been
suspicious of the self, the ego, in poetry; suspicious of poets who want to
share their epiphanies and heartfelt emotions. I try to get round this
through my writing process and by trying to distances my poems from myself.
Surrealism and humour, perhaps some bitterness (although I hope my poems aren't too bitter), also help me to
make experiences and events new and more open to the reader.
Does any writer not have doubts about what they are doing? I don't think I know any. I'm not at all convinced about life
in Cornwall, which is too far from the people and places I love, and I'm sure that colours my work. But
without being too full of myself, I am pretty sure that my work is valid and
that this post-confessional narrative strand has a readership. It isn't of course, all I write. In fact
I'd probably only
regard my previous solo book Wildlife and the Smartarse anthology which I edited, as that
work, although there are no doubt previous individual poems or sequences
which might fit.
But I have continued with other projects alongside this work, specifically
three books (only one of which, Esophagus Writ, has been published so far) with the
American author Daniel Y Harris, and another book Dear Mary, which is out looking for a
publisher at the moment. That one deals with colour, art, Fra Angelico's paintings, Italy and the
annunication. I guess I wrapped up and published my Ballads of the Alone project during the same time, too.
PS: "...for someone who's
tired of narrative and confession / I don't half go on a bit..."
Actually, I wish you did more with narrative - I sort of expected the
eponymous "Man" to be more of an alter-ego, with more fictive
details and escapades.
Is this something you might pursue?
RML: I doubt it to be honest. I've always been suspicious of narrative, even in fiction. I much prefer
fragmentation, episodes and asides. Alter-ego perhaps becomes too much like
ego for me. I've
obviously done work with characters and narrative arcs before, but it seems a
long time ago. I guess My Paper Aunt, which was a pamphlet and is now part of Dear
Mary, is the
closest I've come to
narrative recently, but that is more a long poem showing facets of a
character. Some of the work I've done with Daniel is more narrative, particularly the third book, The
Return of Doom-Headed Three, which is a mix of a post-punk Spinal Tap, horror story and mythological
nightmare, but even so it's not linear -
particularly as we actually did a chance-procedure remix after completion to
re-order it. It needed more of an edge!
If I look at what has inspired and interests me, I guess the closest I'd come to narrative long poems
would be The Waste Land, John Berryman's
sonnets and The Dream Songs, Robert Sheppard's Twentieth Century Blues and Olson's Maximus. Ted Hughes' Crow, too. None of
those are straightforward narrative poems though!
PS: It's fascinating that
narrative seems to have negative connotations, especially for
"experimental" writers. I've never understood this snootiness.
Surely humdrum anecdotes and pointless textual appropriations are more
On the latter, so-called "experimental" writing seems to have
become a circular bore. What's your take on that?
RML: I don't regard myself as an experimental poet. Whilst I certainly
struggle with much of the truly avant-garde and "out-there" visual, sound and
performance poetries, poetry on the page all uses the same stuff - language -
to make itself. I don't think we can generalise about the negative
connotations of narrative for poets - there are plenty of writers using story
and long poem forms, it's just not what I want to do. And surely, anecdotes are
narrative-based? It's those endless shaggy dog stories pretending to be poems
that do my head; anecdotal narratives.
Textual appropriation is deadly? I don't think so. It seems perfectly in
keeping with the times we live in, an era of remixes and recycling, collage
and re-presentation. It's only one tool that many writers (and artists, and
musicians) use - including me, but it does somehow seem appropriate as a way
to deal with the media overload we all find ourselves in. Or I find myself
in. Despite avoiding social media etc, and still preferring books and
physical carriers of music (preferably vinyl, but there are loads of CDs in
the house too), I find myself having to devise strategies to filter and
select from the stuff around me. I think it's that I am part of that
generation who knew the world before the internet and also after, I am not
used to information overload in the way, for example, my students are.
I think there are real issues with information versus knowledge, with how we
use what we read and see and hear. I'm interested in how hierarchies of
meaning, even of literature or music, have pretty much disappeared and
everything has become instant and disposable. My poems are constructed in a
way that helps me understand the world, gathers up strange groupings of
moments and information, and hopefully also allows the reader in to assemble
their own version of things, hopefully with a wry smile or chuckle.
I'd point you towards writers like Mark Amerika writing about the remix,
using the remix to do so; David Shields' Reality Hunger, which is a carefully ordered and arranged
assemblage of quotes and excerpts; and Michael Harris' recent book The
End of Absence, which is about the internet, what we do with information and
how we think.
Don't get me wrong though, I still read novels that use narrative in fairly
traditional ways. But let's not forget fragmentation, multiple points of view
and ideas of hypertext (whether online, or previous hard copy versions) have
been around a long time now. They're not new or experimental, they are simply
ways to write, which exist alongside other ways to write.
I think that neither you or I are actually in any experimental loop. Yes
there is boring experimental work, but there is - as I'm sure you will agree
- much mainstream work that sends us to sleep. I suspect there is exciting
visual, written and aural work happening out there that we simply don't get
to see. All experiment takes a while to settle down and then becomes adopted
and adapted by the mainstream. One thing that has changed of course is
everyone can now publish online, put their music out there, or film
themselves performing. There's just more to wade through to find the good
stuff. I no longer have the energy to do much wading, but I try not to
dismiss everything I don't know about, or everything I do. I think I have
become more cynical with age, but also more accommodating. I can't be
bothered to pick fights with everyone, but I also find myself more political
and vocal these days when I feel there's a need.
PS: Agree with all that!
Fragmentation, perspective/register shifts are essentials. But I'd disagree
that anecdotes are essentially narrative. And the problems of overload are
extrapolated unbearably by all this textual appropriation. I've a feeling
readers need more direct statements and challenge, to cut through.
I'm thinking of the electrifying moments in Eliot ("The awful daring of
a moment's surrender") or Conrad ("Exterminate all the
And that's something I really like in your book - those asides, seemingly
random comments: "Touring Europe is one option / holidays on credit
cards another / avoiding patches of grease...".
To me, they are the actual heart, where the reader can really engage - which
is not to say the rest is unnecessary.
Another real strength is the casual sounding, but actually knockout final
line: "It is impossible / to work out why we are no longer in
Have you tried making these even more dramatic and unsettling; or are they
too integrated into the poem for that?
RML: Why assume readers "need" anything. I think the logical conclusion to
dumbing down for readers, through "direct statements and challenge", is the mainstream
narrative poems we see all around us. Let the challenge be in the work, the
language. We think in networks of association and tangent, we don't think in linear narratives - that comes after, it is imposed
upon our experience.
I think your reading of my poems (and I'm pleased you like them!) implies that these
endings are somehow more important than the rest, you're pushing towards wanting an
epiphany or conclusion... They are, simply because they are the final words in
the poem, a kind of conclusion, and I am of course responsible for the
ordering, but they are not in any way a summation of what goes before, or a
I'm interested in the
texture and music of a poem as much as the content. The Eliot you quote is
surprisingly abstract I think. I certainly play with abstractions, but
hopefully as a result of having to balance and resolve all the parts of a
poem, not by stating or declaiming it as Eliot often does. To me Eliot's real strength is his declamatory
tone and some of his imagery; I struggle however with his allusions to myth
and his use of foreign phrases. I think strange vocabularies (sometimes from
specialist areas such as medicine or literature) are strange enough, without
making the reader reach for a dictionary. I've specifically played with the idea of
management speak in a poem like "Complete Absurdity (Bullshit Bingo)", and in
my sequence of poems which form the title sequence of my Leading Edge
Control Technology booklet.
Don't you think that
poems like "Broken Circuitry" and Ô"O Children" are pretty
straightforward and politicised?
PS: By "direct statement and challenge" I mean everyday
"non-poetic" statements and comments which are not put through the
poetic (or PC) filter. The mainstream crowd always uses that filter - they
don't modulate tone much (nor say anything from the "dark side").
I like your managerial ones - especially "O Children". Why didn't
you use polyphony (and direct self-attack) there - some blunt undermining of
your own voice?
RML: I have to say I think most of the poems in the book are full of
non-poetic phrases, made poetry by the context and juxtaposition, by their
placement within what is designated as a poem. Some critics and friends argue
I don't make my work
"poetic" enough; they can't hear the music in my work.
I also think all those management speak poems and poems such as "O Children" are polyphonic... The overall voice has become my voice
(or the narrator's,
or the poem's)
because I wrote them, but they don't necessarily chime with what I think about things, and certainly aren't me speaking, more directing the
flow of things... I may worry about my children and the state of the world, but
probably not in the lamenting and hyperbolic tones of "O Children". I hope
that the epigraph there, about Ôart deco halos'
flags a certain tongue-in-cheek-ness going on.
One interesting thing about using polyphony, or accumulated and juxtaposed
voices is that you can argue with yourself, and sometimes present extreme
points of view. Having said that I don't think I am an inherently violent, sexist or
right wing person, so I tend not to be drawn to that kind of material. I
certainly wouldn't go
out and hunt it out for use in my poems, even for provocative purposes, but I
don't think I am
afraid of plain speaking either - I've trodden
on plenty of people's
toes on the page and in real life, and I'm certainly not afraid to speak up when I
disagree with what's
PS: Yes, I think this
slipping in of "non-poetic" phrases is refreshing and done well.
I'd certainly read your stuff as very smooth and those elements are not
rebarbative - I'd prefer them to be more so, whilst applauding their skilful
In one of the poems, you mention the risks of surrealism.
Personally, I think surrealism is now overused - especially compared with
hyperrealism ("the delirium produced by the everyday"), which has
more energy and seems to chime better with the information drenched
anxiety we inhabit.
What are the risks you see?
RML: It's funny, isn't it, how the term surrealism has
changed. That original idea of finding things from the unconscious, the
workings of the inner mind, has given way to the idea of strange
I've never had much
time for surrealism, never understood why the workings of the subconscious should
be intrinsically better than the conscious mind. The American poet Dean Young
is the person that convinced me there was mileage in strange juxtapositions
used in a surreal manner, and more recently the work of Dorothea Tanning and
some other painters has interested me.
The risks? The glib world of Dali, which I find mannered, unconvincing and
slight. I'm also
attracted to what you call hyperrealism, and your phrase "information
drenched anxiety". I suspect the term "surrealism", including my
use of it in the poem you mention, does not actually refer to surrealism and
become a lazy shorthand term for strange or unusual.
PS: Most poets claim to be form driven - indeed, to be tremendous sticklers
for it, master-crafters, aghast at the sloppiness of others' writing.
In truth, this seems to often be a pose, akin to the bogus
professionalization and "skills-based" self-promotion, found in any
Certainly, if you read the standard lyrical-epiphany stuff, it's almost all
in a loose line, with very little rhythmical organisation (or energy).
It may have a certain sound-based patterning, but nothing much due to stress
or metre. Lineation (especially enjambment) is used as a form of typography,
or for phrasal highlighting.
If it does have a form, it's in the identikit tone, and the predictable
chronology (perhaps logic is a better term), of setup then delivery.
How do you approach form?
RML: Form to me is to do with structure - some of what you talk about above
is the tone or trajectory of a work. The sound of a piece or the visual
layout strike me as perfectly good ways to structure poetry; there's no
reason an author can't priorities that over rhythm or metre or stresses.
Everything is possible and up for grabs. "Phrasal highlighting" and
"typographical lineation" sound just fine to me! It's what you do with form
or process, the resulting poem, that is interesting.
Personally I often use syllabics as a structural device, and if I am working
on a series or sequence I like using specific numbers of lines, words,
stanzas etc. In The Return of the Man...
most of the poems however rely on my ear, the music of the language, breath
patterns, hesitations and emphasis. I've deliberately tried - for most of the
time - to loosen up a bit and improvise more, to try and stop myself
tightening everything up into x
lines and y verses. It felt a
bit like winging it... There's not even anything in the book like the "Animals
Are Not Your Friends" poems in Wildlife to act as a conceptual spine; and the book is actually presented in
the order these poems were written in, though I obviously chose to put the
work in five sections, and chose what did and didn't go into the book as I
went through my files.
I think we need to be generous enough to accept that most serious poets,
whether or not we like their published work, spend a long time crafting, that
is editing and shaping, revising, their work. Allowing themselves to be part
of the hyperbolic marketing that the bigger poetry publishers sometimes attempt
is a different matter. I think even that can be done tongue-in-cheek though,
and mostly I see it as desperation. The few times Stride had money for
advertising or big launch events, they never paid for themselves or sold many
books. I think we are seeing the death throes of traditional publishing,
including the small presses which have modelled themselves on that business
model. The ones who will survive are already doing something different, be it
print-on-demand, e-publishing, self-publishing or CDs and tapes. Poets delude
themselves when they start believing their own, or their publisher's,
publicity and hype.
PS: Sure, and I was being
provocative! All those poets/editors/"workshop leaders" who
grandstand about form, whilst writing grey paste, in silly patterns.
I'm tired of reading hand-me-down wisdom: "Form and content are
indistinguishable" (often with a poetry-voiced solemn intonation of
"How shall we know the dancer from the dance?").
Basically, we're using an organic form. Worked at rigorously, but easily
missed - which is fine - since what matters is the end poem. And anything
that hasn't been worked over like that, it's immediately obvious.
But rhythm is such a key element, and is not used enough. Personal taste!
Syllabics of course (which in English usually lead to rhythmic regularity).
We used those strictly in Voiceover.
On another tack,
why don't you use more prose poetry mixed with verse; alternating between the
two can be a delight? (I'm not asking why you don't write more prose poetry,
RML: The poems in this new book are actually occasional poems, so they
were gathered up from several years work to make a new manuscript. I didn't
feel any of the prose poems in those files sat with the poems. Dear Mary, on the other hand, contains a mix of imagistic
poems, more formally organised poetry, and a bunch of prose poems.
This is just personal, not prescriptive, but I find my prose poetry a little
bit more mannered, a bit more dreamlike and precious than the voice of what I
think are tougher poems in The Return of the Man... For me, prose poetry normally comes out of a
planned sequence of work, often as a whole sequence of prose poems. It works
differently (obviously, I guess) from poetry. As I said, it's either artier
than the poems I like, or starts to tackle narrative; it's certainly more
expansive and descriptive, whereas I think the poems in The
Return... are more to do with voice(s)
PS: Which three later
20th century poets can you read for pleasure, forgetting any involvement you
have in writing poetry?
For me, it's Ken Smith, Peter Reading and Roy Fisher.
RML: Three simply isn't enough! At the moment I'm enjoying re-reading Jorie Graham's
Carcanet Selected Poems. I always enjoy Dean Young and David Grubb, too. If
you want big names akin to your choices it would be Ted Hughes' Crow and other books
of that period, Robert Creeley, John Berryman and Paul Blackburn. Charles
Wright, Yannis Ritsos, Allen Fisher, David Miller's recent Collected Poems from Shearsman. John Burnside.
Ken Smith's Fox Running - preferably the original version - is fantastic, too. Mark Strand's Carcanet Selected (not his USA Selected) is astonishing too.
I'll stop there shall I. Ted Hughes, Robert
Creeley and Charles Wright if you insist on only three. Job done.
© Paul Sutton
and Rupert Loydell 2015
The Return of the Man Who Has