2/27/07

talking with Barry Schwabsky

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.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Here I am today loading up the comment boxes on this blog. But this post, too, relates to something I've recently done, which I thought folks interested in the interfaces of Brit/Yank poetry might find interesting, at least in cabinet of curiosities sort of way: The Chicago Review will be coming out (any day now, I think) with the first of four installments (a serial review, like one of those 19th century magazines!) of a long critical/anecdotal essay I've written on four contemporary British poets. This essay is also very much interwoven with a kind of scandalous mystery involving Frank O'Hara's poetry and a cloak & dagger circle of poets in Cambridge who are charged with preserving a major secret related to it-- to one of O'Hara's most famous poems, that is... Well, it's all quite strange and involved-- and amazingly, it's all quite true. So please see the first section in the upcoming issue of CR. The other three sections will be out in issues immediately following. The four sections actually encompass the first chapter of my novella in progress on current innovative British poetry, set within the strange circumstances of the above mentioned secret society. Violence and betrayal is involved, as you will see, should you read it.

Kent

Linh Dinh said...

I'm a little skeptical of Barry when he said, "I'm sure I'll never take on a British ear, just as in speaking I don't take on a British accent." Eliot became pretty British, didn't he? Pound showed traces of the British speech virus also. California-raised Bill Buford, fiction editor of the New Yorker who spent years in England, could write a sentence such as this, and I quote from memory: "but lads don't go to the opera, do they? They attend matches on saturday."

Linh Dinh said...

In the sentences quoted from Buford, it's not primarily "lad" or even "do they?" that made it British. It's the rhythm as betrayed by the syntax.

Linh Dinh said...

by syntax, I mean a constant reflexiveness, the speaker listening to himself speaking, the sentence watching itself with admiration and anxiety, cannibalizing itself. Some may call it irony, others neurosis.

Murat said...

"but lads don't go to the opera, do they? They attend matches on saturday."

Linh,

I think the question "do they?' is part of the reflexivity you are talking about. An element of reassurance or not being forward? The Americans use the form of the negative question after an assersion much less.

On the other hand, Americans say "kind of" or "like."Both are expressions of diffidence. The English hide it under the guise of politeness, the American bad grammar.

When I lived in england over thirty years ago, the difference I felt between was that the English speech was staccato, the American rabatto, slurred. That's why in poetry a metrics based on stress patterns make more sense in English. It is meaningless I think in American speech.

What strikes me about ""but lads don't go to the opera, do they? They attend matches on saturday"is the class prejudices, at least distinctions, it embodies. Part of the English accent may be snobbery avoiding the messiness of the mob. Do you think many English poets would integrate languages of different classes or culture groups -the things you actively mine in the web- into their poetry?

By the way, the word "lad" (or laddie) is quite resonant. Houseman uses it in one of his poems (lads who died young?), I think. Also, if I remember correctly, Henry James greets a group of his friends visiting him in his house as "lads."

I also wonder if 'lad" has a gay connotation in English speech?

Ciao,

Murat

Murat said...

Linh,

Do you know Barry's good friend Eileen Tobias, who also at one time was a banker I think. Do you know her fantastic work, for instance, "menage a Trois in the Twentieth Century?"

Murat

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Murat,

It would be interesting to tease out what you learnt, adopted from British and from American English. Over half of the poems in my next book, "Jam Alerts" (Chax Press), due out at the end of March, was written while I was in England. My English changed while I was there, I'm sure of it.

The Brits say "lovely" all the time, the Italians "bello" or "bella," the americans "cool."

I met Eileen Tabios years ago but never knew she was a banker. At the time, I barely knew people with banking accounts, much less bankers.

(Lastly, I don't know the word "rabatto," and couldn't find in my dictionary, even my Italian dictionary...)

Murat said...

Linh,

Sorry for the misspelling. It is rubato. I checked in the dictionary; the word comes from Italian, meaning stolen time. It is a kind of musical cadence. A friend of mine, who was much more knowledgeable about music, told me, "if a candle almost completely goes out but then the flame comes back, that's rubato." I think he was quoting the pianist Horowitz.

I got a lot from English poetry, from the Elizabethans (Wyatt,Shakespeare's Sonnets, Thomas Browne's prose, the list goes on...) through to the Romantics.But I do not think English speech patterns had much influence on me. From the first moment I began to write, which was in English, I realized the lines which came to my mind had absolutely no relation to English English meters. When I tried to fit them into those metrics -trying to match some notion of accentual regularity- what I wrote was sapped of all its energy. It stopped being what I wanted to say. It took me years to accept this fact about my writing. That may be one reason why I decided to live in the States.

How do you think your writing changed when you were living in England? How long did you live there? My stay was about eighteen months.

Ciao,

Murat

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Murat,

OK, rubato, stolen, from the verb rubare, to steal, to rob, I'm going to rubare your ass. I was in England for just over 8 months, but I wrote quite a bit because I had no responsibilities. I'd take buses between towns, and hear the chatter on the bus. It's extremely rare to hear passengers and drivers converse on American buses, in fact it's illegal, but it's not at all unusual on an English bus. That Borges joke, about how English friendships begin by avoiding intimacy and end up eliminating conversations altogether, is very funny but gives a false impression, I think, because the English were chatty enough, I found, they loved conversations. In Ipswich, I chanced into John Clare's snuff box in a glass case. In Diss, I visited the church where John Skelton was a rector. When I sent some poems to my friend Thuy Dinh, no relations, she responded, "It seems that you have become more 'formal' with these new poems. I wonder if England has done that, sort of inspiring you to create poems with seemingly more traditional structure—almost as if they are meant to be read or performed aloud as spoken music-- the tone/rhythm is quite catchy, and the short length of these poems seems to help the listener focus on both images and ideas at the same time. I can just see Affixions made into a song sung by Dylan or Leonard Cohen." I didn't add "structures" to my poems, but the stresses had likely become more Anglicized, I think, just from sitting on buses travelling through the fog, looking at pigs standing in a field, cows on grass, licking each other, and shopping mall parking lots scattered with SUVs. Tom Beckett has written in a review of my books that "voices carry the weight of the work," and he's right in that I'm sort of a ventriloguist, manipulating my dummy self into saying just about anything, in any accent. I start mimicking the locals as soon as I get off the plane. I'd ape the locals' gait and pace of walking. My wife would joke about how often I'm asked for directions in foreign cities, by the locals.

Some of my English English poems are online:

http://www.mipoesias.com/Poetry/dinh_linh.html

http://www.greeninteger.com/green_integer_review/issue_1/Linh-Dinh.htm

Linh Dinh said...

Hi Murat,

Norwich, where I was staying, had been the home of W.S. Sebald, perhaps the greatest writer in England at the time of his death, from a traffic accident, in 2001. Being in East Anglia helped me to understand even more Sebald's melancholy and sense of lost. The region is like a bump, a butt, stuck on England, dotted with medieval churches built from a sinister black flint, forgotten by time, eroded by the ocean. I visited many of the places Sebald mentioned in The Rings of Saturn, such as Dunwich, which had lost all 8 of its medieval churches to the North Sea, but where their bells still toll, according to legends, from beneath the waves, where the only remaining medieval structure is the leper’s colony, erected on the edge of town, away from the shore.

East Anglia was the home of the Iceni. Led by queen Boudicca, they defeated the Romans and sacked Londinium, before she was killed and buried beneath platform 8, 9 or 10 of King’s Cross rail station… A much sadder royal person lived in East Anglia, the Maharajah Duleep Singh. The English robbed, rubato, from his family the Punjab, bigger than England itself, and, as an aside, also the biggest diamond at the time, the mother of all motherfuckin diamonds, the Koh-i-Noor motherfucker. To compensate, Queen Victoria gave this Singh dude a stipends to move to Thetford, East Anglia, where he spent his time wooing the barmaids and died nearly broke. I went to Theford to stare at his not unimpressive statue, erected only recently, complete with dedication by Prince Charles.

Murat said...

Linh,

This is a wonderful place you are describing, East Anglia. It reminds me of Michael Palin's (of the Monty Python fame)travelogues all over the world. Have you ever seen them? They are full of wonderful interactions between him and all sorts of people and strange events. For starters, I recommend the ones in the Himalayas. It starts in Afghanistan, goes to Pakistan (Peshawar), through to India, to Kashmir, through the Himalayas to Nepal and Tibet. Most of it takes place by jeep. He complains about his difficulties breathing. The camera spends an amazing amount of time on the games the communities, the ceremonies they go through, etc. For instance, there is a flag ceremony that takes place at the Pakistan-India border where the soldiers of both sides go through elaborate gestures taunting each other, while exactly at the same time each sides lowers its own flag. It is a combination of a comic opera and gorillas going through a mating ceremony to determine who are the dominant males.I watched the scene three times to be sure it was real. There are many many others.

Ciao,

Murat