So Many Unsaids
an interview with Paul Sutton
RML: Paul, why are your poems so angry?
PS: I guess I find anger, or strong reactions, the necessary energy kick for writing. Possibly because I never directly write about myself, finding the personal lyric embarrassing (as attempted by me).
I'm surprised with what comes out. It's an unconscious alter-ego - which is why I use so many monologues. And I never censor for content. Of course, I edit for flow, rhythm, coherency of images and phasing of the poem's dynamics. That last, most of all.
I'll discuss this later, but I feel there are so many "unsaids" nowadays, and have always felt compelled to say them. I also like attacking myself in writing. However, I always try to get an element of release into the poems - especially in the most extreme stuff. Moments of stillness.
As an overview, I just don't engage with the saintly persona so many poets portray - especially how well adjusted and poetical their reactions are. Always available to flaunt their sensitive feelings.
The other point is, I'm always trying to use humour - but not in a surrealistic way, rather through grotesque satire or hyperrealism - moving through exaggeration, into possible delirium. The febrile state I like is most often initiated by anger; but I hope it is then cooled enough, transformed enough, to be readable.
I'd always assumed that your poetry was quite ironic, quoting what would normally be perceived as right wing views for the sake of dismissing or questioning them, but recently I've seen some blog entries which suggest you are quite conservative. Is this true?
In the arts, anyone of a non-left outlook has to justify themselves, because it just seems so unusual. And my responses are pushed to extremes, ironically or grotesquely, to get maximum energy and development from them. Above all else, that's what I want from writing - and something which wakes me up. But I'm not trying to "send up" right wing views. That's for cringingly unfunny Radio 4 "satire".
I'm not aligned party politically, but very anti-left; remember, they are the establishment, socially and - especially - culturally. The latest shibboleth is multiculturalism and "equality" - preaching diversity yet incapable of accepting alternative views. And widening the gap between privileged and underprivileged.
The poetry world is mostly left/liberal - and pretty much unquestioningly. Why? Huge numbers of the population aren't, whatever the BBC likes to pretend. Of course, they are easily dismissed as mindless "Daily Mail/Sun" readers. But it's not that simple.
In the recent exchange you allude to, on Poets on Fire, I was put in the dock for avowedly stating my dislike of the left's damaging "diversity" agenda: did I refuse to acknowledge the existence of racism etc. Loaded questioning, of the "when did you stop beating your wife?" type. Hysterical and juvenile. I was clearly dealing with a fanatic, but the approach was fascinating - demanding I prove my worthiness, constantly misquoting - or rather creatively interpreting - what I said. With the word "racist" itching for deployment.
Teaching in a tough comprehensive, I don't need lectures on diversity, working as I do with some highly disadvantaged individuals, and seeing first hand the sort of society the left liberals have created. Disadvantaged not least by the blindly programmatic thinking of such bien pensants.
So, I am unashamedly not of the left-utopian outlook. I detest their lazy moral posturing, the solipsistic need for moral superiority - with little concern for the effects of their self-indulgence. Looking over the horrific catalogue of left-authoritarian mass murder and misery (or more recently, the disastrous trashing of our economy) I can't see how anyone takes them seriously. The asymmetry with atrocities/mistakes on the right is breathtaking.
My student political experiences (early 1980s Oxford) are probably responsible - incidentally, when people like Edward "Ed" Balls were there. Not a peep about the Soviet Union's Gulag and psychiatric wards - still in full swing. I especially loathe Marxist academics - how they prevaricate and fudge, how Stalinist apologists are rarely attacked, in the way that Nazi sympathisers (rightly) were.
This is covered in the sequence Gib/Supplicants for the Emperor/House of Steam/House of Terror - originally published in Luke Kennard's Popularity Contest and the American magazine Vox, back in 2004. I reject the idea that the left's intentions are always good, let alone the outcomes. Anyone who reads Marx and Lenin will find violence is worshiped and regarded as essential.
But I'm aware my reactions are likely to get me into trouble, or at least be unpublished. And anyway, I want to parody and undermine my views. I'm half-aware that my approach seems nuts - in fact I like it to be. Because it's not meant to be a coherent philosophy - more a way to write.
Getting back to poetry, which is all I actually care about in this context, I associate this one sided discourse with the preachy lyrical anecdote - the ghastly mood music of the left-liberals. Ironic that this anecdotage is a conservative type of writing - but many experimental writers aren't on the left. Eliot, Pound, Celine, Kipling (in stories like Wireless or Mrs Bathurst), Wyndham Lewis, Henry Miller, Burroughs.
Also, I can't stand saintly lyrical perfection, of the type exemplified by Heaney or Su Tenderdrake. Thankfully, there's been some recent brilliant debunking of Heaney in Jacket - what a terrifyingly dull writer he is. I loathe how Heaney has used classical Greek literature to bolster his already enormous ego. And his absurd essay "Dylan the durable?" Nothing by him even approaches Thomas.
I'm half-Greek. But also passionately and unashamedly English, it's just I lack the cringing attitude to supposed cosmopolitanism; I'm utterly unworried about appearing a "little Englander". And I hate all that mythical Irish bardic nonsense. I agree with The Crow's landlord, in Withnail and I.
So are your poems partly an attempt to address what might be seen as a left wing or liberal discourse in contemporary poetry?
I'm trying to use the current discourse, in a reactive but creative way. But also just surfing the energies, allowing the monsters (on all sides) to surface. I've no interest in provoking political responses though, other than feelings of unease. I also couldn't care less whether people "agree" with me. That's meaningless, in creative work.
Is this perhaps why - like many others - you don't seem part of any real or imaginary school of poetry?
I think these are inherently corrupt and corrupting. All I've ever done is asked for blurbs, from people who've published me. That seems ethical. And most of the time, I don't know what to make of my own stuff, so I'd be clueless about being in any school or movement.
Slowly and selectively though, I've built up poetry contacts - you for example - but only via submissions or serious correspondence about work. I wouldn't know you, if we passed in the street.
This BlazeVox book came about from a poetry submission, to their brilliant online magazine. But looking at some of the brilliant people they publish - Anne Waldman and Daniel Borzutzky for example - I'm really chuffed.
I know many take this low key approach - but plenty of others don't. All sorts of guff is spouted about the social nature of writing, the need for co-operation, Facebook, Twittering, etc. It's simply a justification for log rolling - posting cheesy comments on Facebook, endlessly affirming each other, posting "smileys" and saying hello/happy birthday to total strangers. Yeuch.
For understandable reasons (like paying the bills) some UK publishers are fixated on this aspect, but it all seems very incestuous and toe curling. What I also resent is the idea that this relentless promotion validates work - almost via a perverted version of the intelligent market idea. Luckily, the internet can free writers from this nonsense, allowing them access to very rich material (and other publishers) around the world.
Also, a self-congratulatory London grouping of arrivistes has arisen, prattling on about the place and its multicultural energies, sounding like some New Labour propaganda unit.
Maybe that's unfair - I don't care. I was born in London and lived/worked there for years - love the city, but hate this embarrassingly star-struck aspect. Anyone who knows this country realises that the real interest and action is in the motorway/retail world of Ballard or Sinclair (at times) - Bicester Village and Homebase.
Meanwhile, back in London, figures like Roddy Lumsden patrol the "scene", twitching and sniffing out the nay sayers - with increasing desperation. It's worrying that his writing seems so gimmicky and weak - nothing like good enough to justify a supposedly central role. The results, as seen in Identity Parade, are mostly appalling. And the photos! Like a 1980's student ragmag.
By necessity, he works through a climate of patronage and intimidation - though it's not actually clear what there is to be frightened of. But I do remember him pathetically threatening violence, to the people at the magazine Thumbscrew, years ago. For goodness sake, maybe Gordon Brown could have taken Lumsden back up with him? I'd have thought it's the least he could have done.
Pity we poor English, with these grotesque Caledonian overlords. Freeeeeeedom! How I cheer at the end of Braveheart - aren't you supposed to?
Your poems explore a half-submerged violence, some kind of resistance to corporate life, surveillance and expected normality. Would you like to respond to that?
I think our normalising left liberals are storing up violence - in fact, provoking it. They don't know - and actively despise - their own country, especially England. Witness Brown on walkabout, or Jacqui Smith, plus armed response unit, getting a kebab in Peckham. Also their deliberate use of immigration as a political and economic weapon.
I worked in the corporate world for years, as a commercial negotiator. A violent and brutal environment. It was massively inspiring - I suppose I wrote as a way of freeing myself. Often at work - with the delicious risk of discovery... maybe that feeds into my stuff on surveillance.
Brains Scream at Night reads as a kind of selected, with sequences and individual poems many of us will have already read gathered up. Is this fair, or has there always been a bigger concept in your head?
It does collect some published work from all over the place, but we (myself and editor Geoffrey Gatza) planned the sequencing - the way it's arranged in seven sections based on forms and themes - as carefully as possible. It's very sequence and character driven - I love narrative poetry - but meant to show a transition. The last part (The Chronicles of Dave Turnip) is not monologue based, but inspired by different types of syllable/stress counts and elliptical forms. Also written to be as cold and image based as possible. Throughout, my underlying concepts are as discussed above.
My first collection Broadsheet Asphyxia (Original Plus, 2003) uses less sequences but still covers this territory. I guess we all have our obsessions; I certainly see it all as a project.
What are you influences? How do you go about writing?
Orwell was my first great love. Then Waugh and Greeene.
Original poetry influences were Shelley, Coleridge, Browning, Eliot, Pound, Dylan Thomas, Rosemary Tonks, Roy Fisher. The latter is a huge moral inspiration, for his integrity. I wrote him a gauche fan letter in 1999, and then corresponded, on and off about his work.
More recently Ken Smith, John Barnie, Ashbery, Ginsberg, Peter Reading. Most recently - through BlazeVox - writers like Daniel Borzutzky and Aaron Belz. I also find David Mamet and Pinter very inspiring.
Prose writers like Celine, Genet and Bolano. Especially Celine - such a genius with imprecation. Also Wilkie Collins, Conan Doyle, Dosteovsky, Kafka, Kipling, Maugham, Patricia Highsmith, Iain Sinclair.
I also find film massively inspiring, especially stuff like the Cohens or The Wages of Fear and also the Bourne films. Some of the images for "Turnip in Love" are from that haunting motorway scene, where he's driving with the girl.
I wait to be provoked before writing. I also need to feel pressured, short of time - almost on the run. The stresses and joys of teaching are in some ways inspiring, but the responsibility most definitely is not; so maybe reacting against that is.
And how did you first get into poetry?
I started writing poetry age 15 (1979) - sub-Eliot stuff. Then kept at it, in secret, until trying to get stuff published in about 2000. I joined a local Oxford poetry group in 1998 - most there detested me, and vice versa, but I made two amazing poetry friends. And got involved in organizing some readings of poets I revere - e.g. Roy Fisher, David Harsent, Ken Smith, Martin Stannard, John Barnie.
Incidentally, I think my fake dissident approach may be due to the fact that I read Chemistry at Oxford - and then did a doctorate there, in Physical Chemistry ("Some studies in Infrared Multiple Photon Excitations") - using IR lasers to initiate reactions, then studying the fragments with UV/visible lasers. Although I did well at this (First, etc.) I also felt I was doing totally the wrong thing. I'd got channelled down the Oxbridge route - entrance exam, Sciences etc. I felt trapped and false, leading a double life. Looking back, writing allowed me a form of re-birth.
So now I teach English, at a secondary school! My proudest achievement is getting a student into Oxford, but to read English, two years ago.
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm writing a sequence set in Amalfi, - about a fake writer-in-residence; obsessed with "the romance of crime", using it to try and give some spice to his cushioned position.
Thanks for your interest.
© Paul Sutton & Rupert Loydell 2010
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