SJ Fowler

sj-fowler

SJ Fowler is a poet, artist, and editor. His books include Red Museum (KF&S Press 2011), Fights (Veer Books 2011), Minimum Security Prison Dentistry (AAA Press 2011), The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner (Eyewear 2014), and {Enthusiasm} (Test Centre 2015).

He is also a curator of The Enemies Project and works as an editor at 3:AM magazine.

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Hi Steven. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your latest collection {Enthusiasm} last year. Can you tell us a bit more about the book and how you feel it compares to The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner?

Hello, thanks to you for asking. I’ll have to equivocate a fair bit, but generally speaking {Enthusiasm} is in one way quite a formalist book, in that it’s trying to emphasise how much the meaning in poetry is a meeting of subject and object.

The reader has an enormous role to play in the meaning of a poem through their endless, idiosyncratic individual experience of language and its impossibly intricate potential in their minds and memories. I really wanted people to feel like they had to engage with their own subjective reading of each poem more forcefully, as the poems are pretty consistently, structurally and semantically, frenetic.

In another way, thematically, the book is about death, hence the beautiful cover that the publisher Test Centre sourced for it from the Wellcome archives. It’s different from The Rottweiler’s Guide…, not only because every book I publish is different from the last, which seems intuitive to me, but also because The Rottweiler’s Guide… was more about love.

 

 

You’re a poet who seems to thrive on working with others, as evidenced by your recent KFS publications House of Mouse and 1000 Proverbs. I’m curious if there were any differences in your working approach to these collaborations with Prudence Chamberlain and Tom Jenks, and do you feel that mixing up your process is vital to your poetry writing?

I do thrive upon working with others. I find it generative as a poet, but also it’s a form of immediate pedagogy, and I think because I suspect myself to be principally anti-social and misanthropic, it’s a way of continually leaving my comfort zone in order to continue growing as a human being.

The processes with Prue and Tom were different, as I would say every one of my collaborations has been, in that people inevitably vary in the ways they like to work, even in the speed of their replies to emails for example.

Tom and I fired off quick responses to each other, the nature of the work being one line pseudo-proverbs, while Prue and I wrote over a longer time, exchanging large chunks, meeting, editing and working on the material until it became one text where both of us had lost our initial input to the other. It is about circumstance as well as preference, often. Both are brilliant poets and I learned so much from having the chance to write with them.

I feel like my process evolving is something I aspire to, yes. I would like it to always be so. It has a negative effect in practical terms, as many people who might read or discover your work will not be able to put their finger on what it is you’re doing as you lack one clear, consumable aesthetic or motivation. But that can be a benefit in many ways too, depending on what you’re after.

 

 

Perhaps the best example of your collaborative spirit is your involvement with The Enemies Project, which has quickly grown into an international phenomenon. What for you have been the most memorable moments of the project and how do you hope it will develop in the future?

That’s generous, thanks. It has been a pleasure to curate. The project has allowed me to discover, collaborate and learn from poets and artists I would never have met otherwise. It has also allowed me to promote many whose work has been considered too ‘difficult’ to be supported, which I’m proud of, and with the big Camarade events, where the atmosphere is so friendly and the work so intense, and the tours, where I’ve shared vans and trains with cohorts of writers all over the world, I feel like I’ve proven that groundbreaking literary and avant-garde work can be generated without snobbery, hierarchy and pomposity.

In terms of the future, I never want the project to have utopian goals – one can only end up disappointed – so I’m going event to event, making sure I still enjoy it, often responding to the ideas of my co-curators. Next year we’ll have another six or seven international projects, European Poetry Night, the English PEN Modern Literature Festival, a cinema and poetry programme, stuff like that.

 

 

You also work in an editorial capacity for 3:AM magazine. Do you think the proliferation of online poetry magazines and digital platforms for contemporary poetry in recent years signals a sea change in how readers consume poetry, and what would your response be to crticics who argue that online content like this is ephemeral?

I think critics who might suggest that would be of a certain generation that don’t spend most of their leisure time online, as almost everyone in the western world, under the age of forty, tends to do. I think this isn’t really an issue of online magazines, but of the internet itself.

Profoundly undersold in the literary world, it isn’t an alternative to the book, a ‘platform’ or whatever people say – it is a fundamental revolution in human culture, a global, unregulated communications mainframe, a nervous system for civilisation. The internet also happens to be made up of language, the same material as poetry.

I think it has changed poetry for the better. People already forget how much power some once had, just a few decades ago, by controlling what could be read and defining in that process what was supposedly, objectively, good. Ultimately it’s not a question of how readers consume poetry but how poetry adapts to being, like almost everything else, swept up in the technological revolution.

 

 

I understand you have a new artpoem book coming out next year with Stranger Press too entitled I fear my best work behind me featuring illustrations, logograms, and asemic writing. Do you subscribe to the notion that breaking down semantics in this way is an exercise in examining and questioning what exactly constitutes a poem?

I do, and I’m excited about it. Stranger Press is a really good press to work with, Christopher Stephenson does a grand job. I fear my best work behind me is primarily illustrated artworks, brutalist, child-like, comical paintings or abstracts, each with their own handwritten poem built into the work.

Just the fact that the poems are handwritten, often in coloured ink, might, in some people’s minds, make them visual art, rather than poetry. A lot of my work in this area is about my own curiosity. I can’t resist the idea that if I do something as banal as handwrite a poem, rather than print it, in a book, its meaning will change to readers exponentially and be considered experimental.

Context is absolutely equal to content, and yet the common understanding or perception of poetry at the moment, in the UK at least, is entirely focused on the content. Generally we have the same book, paper, font, letter size, language etc. But on that page the white space has meaning, the place of the abstract marking we’ve ascribed meaning to, has import. The logical conclusion of this basic realisation, which permeates all other arts (think film-editing, material and composition in painting etc) is that the poet has the potential to interrogate the context of their language.

So the book explores how image affects language, how they are interconnected, dead space, handwriting and its own aesthetic meaning, and so on. This is old stuff, I know that. I’m deeply interested in poets like Henri Michaux or the CoBrA group, and I’m aware they covered this fifty years ago or more. But it’s exciting to me and hopefully the book has more of a sense of humour than my answer.

 

 

Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?

This is from an upcoming collection called The Guide to Being Bear Aware, due out in 2017 with Shearsman Books. I’ve spent the last year or two really rereading poets for the first time, as I only started to read poetry in 2009. I had never looked at it before then. So I’m looping back and rediscovering the world poetry that actually brought me into the field in the first place – poets like Mayakovsky, Esenin, Herbert, Rozewicz, Cesaire, Ekelof, Seferis, Sachs

It’s meant my writing has taken on a more conversational tone, maybe a softer tone, accidentally, perhaps ironising the first person, rather than avoiding it as I have done in the past. It’s also a book that’s trying to reflect on the Anthropocene – our relationship to language, consciousness and animals.

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The Tradition

                      This is how I lost the tournament with my face
                            -Zbigniew Herbert

The trouble with double vision
is that I lose it
right at the moment when it comes in handy.
As though it were friend
whom you remember is dead.
A strange profession, athlete,
where you are more than your work,
and more out of work than in.
Sadness moans
every time a ball is struck
or some other distraction takes place
in physical space.
Not exactly an arrest
but restraining.

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