Barry Schwabsky is an American poet and art critic living in London. His publications include Opera: Poems 1981-2002 (Meritage Press), Vitamin P: New Perspectives in Painting (Phaidon Press), and The Widening Circle: Consequences of Modernism in Contemporary Art (Cambridge University Press), as well as contributions to books and catalogues on artists ranging from Henri Matisse and Alighiero Boetti to Jessica Stockholder and Gillian Wearing. He runs the poetry series at Parasol Unit in London. I met Schwabsky last year. When he told me his wife was a banker, I asked him so many questions about economics, we never got around to poetry. I'm making up for that with this conversation:
Linh Dinh: Contemporary American and British poetries don’t overlap much. In the journals of each country, different poets, minor and major, appear. In England, J. H. Prynne is considered a central figure, but he’s barely known in America. Conversely, when I mentioned Michael Palmer to my British friends, many of them didn’t know who he was. Their familiarity with new American poetry ended with John Ashbery and Ron Silliman’s blog, not his poetry. What is your take on this division?
Barry Schwabsky: Yours is an exaggeration based on the truth. My sense of things is that in the '60s and '70s--when people like Tom Raworth and Lee Harwood were emerging poets in the UK--there was a more organic connection between American and British poetries. After that, the so-called mainstream of British poetry became much more conservative, and the poets who represented the "modernist" wing became marginalized. If you look in the poetry section of a good, non-specialized bookstore in London, you'll find very few contemporary American poets and very few contemporary-sounding British poets. What you will find is a lot of poetry that more or less sounds like the Georgian verse that was supposed to have died in the trenches of World War I, only updated in terms of subject matter, so that if it's a male poet he might talk about football (i.e., soccer) or if it's a woman poet she might mention changing nappies (i.e., diapers). But in form, it all seems a century old. So the innovative poets who persist--and there are some very good ones--may be more interested in mutual support at home than looking for alliances across the ocean.
LD: Talking of Raworth, he’s an inspiration to many young poets in Cambridge. They have an excellent reading series, coordinated by Sam Ladkin. He scheduled me with Dublin-based Randolph Healy, who was outstanding, a real discovery for me, and Fiona Sampson, who was, how shall I say this, self-assured in the worst way. She’s the editor of the Poetry Review. Ladkin lumped us all together as a way to build bridges, I think. It had mixed results that night. Sampson irritated Raworth so much he ran straight out of the pub where we had drinks afterwards, after talking to her for maybe a minute. One second he was there, the next, gone. As far as promoting new experimental poetry, Cambridge has to be an exception. Am I wrong?
BS: There seems to be a very close-knit scene in Cambridge, with Prynne as the figurehead but Raworth being quite important too. It's interesting that Sampson was on the bill with you--I think her editorship is seen as a conservative move for Poetry Review. But I'm glad Ladkin is trying to build bridges. Not enough of that goes on here. Things tend to get very polarized.
LD: I went to a poetry reading at a pub in Peckham Rye, an out-of-the-way neighborhood on the South Bank of London, to find the young readers surprisingly good, the crowd enthusiastic. I also attended a pub reading in provincial Norwich, and the place was also hopping with poetry lovers. How would you compare the grass roots poetry scenes in England and the US? Do young, experimental-minded English poets have places to publish? Do they publish themselves?
BS: I may not be the best person to ask. Having lived here for six years, I publish almost exclusively in the US. But my sense is that there are many fewer venues for readings than in New York or the Bay Area. That's one reason why I started the reading series at Parasol Unit--because there didn't seem to be many readings going on, or if they were happening, it was hard to find out about them. My impression was that it was easier to hear new poetry in Cambridge than in London, and that just seemed ass-backwards. Likewise, publication venues seem fewer, and not only in print. The whole online publishing and blogging thing hasn't taken off as energetically here as in the US, though of course it exists. There are a few great presses--Reality Street, Shearsman, and so on--but they don't take on too many young poets. Barque is a significant press but following a very particular line. Things feel a lot less fluid than in the US.
LD: Ron Silliman irritated many Brits when he observed that the number of “island poets with an ear that makes sense to a Yank auditory canal is exceptionally small: perhaps, in the past century, just four—Bunting, Turnbull, Raworth, Thomas A. Clark. This is not to fault others – from J. H. Prynne to David Jones to Douglas Oliver or Allen Fisher—whose ears may well make perfect sense on their own terms, but who don’t, how shall I say this, travel well on at least that one level.” The hostility towards England in the comment section also surprised me. Many Americans have an aversion to France, I know, but I didn’t know they’re also down on Mother England. What do you make of these auditory differences between American and island English? It’s not like we’re talking about Jamaica here, but even then, so what? As a gatecrasher, boatperson and wetback, I’m all for deforming English, buggering, dyeing and polluting it, even with all the mumbling, slurring, fucked up dialects spoken in England.
BS: I might not agree with Ron's list--mine would be a bit longer--but in principal I agree. Here's something I wrote in a review of a book by Simon Smith, whose poetry fits my ear like a charm: "Before I moved to London from New York a few years ago I had little acquaintance with contemporary poetry in England. Yes, I knew Lee Harwood’s work pretty well, and Geoffrey Hill’s too; Tom Raworth’s rather less so. I’d read Christopher Logue’s "accounts" of Homer and, because I’d liked Christopher Middleton’s translations from the German, a bit of his own poetry as well. J.H. Prynne was more than just a rumor to me, certainly, but not a lot more. Of younger poets, I knew nothing. Only after I’d arrived did my ignorance strike me as odd. I began trying to catch up with my new context but quickly saw it wouldn’t be easy. A lot of British poetry was and is hard for me to 'hear' even when I can see that it is good. Reading it could be something like reading poetry in a foreign language one happens to know quite well." It's not a question of hostility! But you have to make a different kind of effort--well worth it in the case of Prynne and Fisher and many others. And I suppose they have to make the same kind of effort to really "hear" much of our poetry. It would be interesting if someone could get sufficiently analytical about this to analyze it as a historical development. I hear the great poets up through Wordsworth and Coleridge without making any particular allowance for their Britishness, but somehow by the latter 19th century a split has taken place--the difference between Whitman and Dickinson on the one hand and Browning and Tennyson on the other is very great. And the difference has been there ever since. Didn't Wallace Stevens write, "Nothing could be more inappropriate to American literature than its English source since the Americans are not British in sensibility"?
LD: Are you in danger of not making sense, soon, to the folks back home?
BS: Maybe it's more dangerous to make the wrong kind of sense. In any case, I think being here has been great for my poetry. I'm sure I'll never take on a British ear, just as in speaking I don't take on a British accent, but I hear my own accent in a slightly estranged manner now. What's natural to me now sounds a bit artificial. Which makes the poetry in everyday language shine through so much brighter!
*Upcoming readings at Parasol Unit: March 3th, Peter Cole and Tony Lopez; March 29th, Lyn Hejinian and Barett Watten; June 5th, Michael Glover and Ernesto Priego.