Ken Edwards’ most recent book is the prose (anti)narrative Nostalgia for Unknown Cities (Reality Street, 2007). Previous books include the poetry collections Good Science (Roof Books, 1992), eight + six (Reality Street, 2003), No Public Language: Selected Poems 1975-95 (Shearsman Books, 2006), Bird Migration in the 21st Century (Spectacular Diseases, 2006) and the novel Futures (Reality Street, 1998). He has been editor/publisher of Reality Street Editions since 1993. He is active in music as well as writing: his text for a piece by John Tilbury for piano, voice and sampled sounds, There’s something in there… was premiered in Leeds in 2003, and his music for Fanny Howe’s Spiral was first performed in Brighton and London in 2004. After 35 years in London, he now lives with his partner Elaine in Hastings, on the south coast of England, and works as an editor for the Royal College of Nursing.
Interviewed by Gareth Farmer.
You’ve been writing, publishing and publishing others' work for a number of years now. Poetry publishing and networks seem to be quite healthy at the moment, particularly for more 'innovative' writing. I know that you have written about small presses elsewhere, but how would you diagnose the state of small press publication now?
There was a time recently when I thought it was dying, but there has been a bit of a revival, I think, particularly a resurgence of activity in webzines and blogzines and the like. What's still somewhat lacking in the UK, as opposed to, say, in the US, is presses putting out a consistent book list. I do what I can with Reality Street, publishing about four titles a year, and there's the relatively large output of the likes of Shearsman and Salt, and then there's Barque, West House Books, Stride, but there should be more.
London is a huge spectre over No Public Language and I know that your move from there precipitated a development in the direction of your writing. Have you subsequently found a comparable 'space' to act as poetic muse?
Yes, I lived in London for 35 years, and the metropolis has been a big presence in my writing. When we moved to Hastings in May 2004, I thought I would be stimulated in new directions, but what happened was that I did no writing at all for about a year. It wasn't that I was unhappy or anything, far from it, but writing just didn't happen. Then I went back to an extended piece of prose I'd been putting together in the months when we were contemplating the move, which was a collage of sentences spanning a large part of those 35 years, a sort of one-man mass observation account of living in the city, and I put it together with a piece of collaged prose writing I'd done when Elaine and I spent three weeks in Buffalo, NY, in summer 2003. And then I had the idea of kind of exorcising "the city" by going back through my personal journals (when I say I "did no writing" that's not true, because I have always written my journal almost every day of my life since the mid-1980s, and sporadically before then), and making a section of a larger work out of every city I can remember spending time in, whether that was a weekend or 35 years. Obviously, London was the largest section, because I'd spent a far longer amount of time there than anywhere else. Some cities – curiously, New York – appeared to have generated little or no writing that I could use. Anyway, the result has been Nostalgia for Unknown Cities, which is now finished. I don't know who will publish it – the poetry presses don't seem to want to touch it, and it certainly doesn't fit the market niches of the big publishers.
I think the other thing that has happened is that I'm versed out, as it were. Eight + Six, which postdated the work in No Public Language, is the book of my own poetry I'm happiest with, and I felt no need to repeat it, or to persist with lyric verse. For the time being, anyway. I'm very content with prose rhythms at the moment. I think basically I'm a prose writer who turned to verse in the first place out of dissatisfaction with what I had been doing. (Actually, the last book of poetry I did was The Glory Boxes, which also found difficulty locating a suitable publisher until Tim Atkins kindly did it as a sort of e-book within his webzine, onedit.)
What I find fascinating about Hastings is its marginality, particularly the Old Town, where we live. There's a sort of surface chocolate-boxy-pretty aspect to the Old Town, which Iain Sinclair rather puts down in his book Dining on Stones, but you dig below and there's much more going on. There are loads of musicians and artists living here, refugees from high house prices in Brighton and elsewhere, there are drifters who come in for work during the summer season, there's an elderly middle class element, and then, of course, there's the fishing community who are in many respects a private world unto themselves, fiercely resisting outside control, as they have for generations, even centuries. Because Hastings is still very much a fishing town, with the biggest beach-launched fleet of small fishing boats in the country. And as I gaze out to the south-west, over the Channel, I do get a feeling of literal edge. It's a very different sense of edginess from multicultural London, though, it's staking out a space against the creeping world of commerce, here on the coast on the other side of the High Weald. The day Starbuck's opens a branch in the Old Town will be the day that's all over. Anyway, I’ve been trying to write through this. I seem to be developing a form that first appeared in Eight + Six, a kind of prose sonnet!
In the afterward to No Public Language you mention that you “tend to compose in books”. There are numerous interesting poetic sequences being published at the moment – from Rachael Blau DuPlessis’ ongoing Drafts , to Allen Fisher’s Gravity. I’ve just been reading Tony Lopez’s False Memory which has an extraordinary strength as a unit. Do you still conceive of poetic projects ‘as a whole’ and in sequences?
I always have done. I find it impossible to write “poems” as the muse hits me. I can’t do it unless there’s some kind of overarching project, which might be explicit or might be unstated except in my consciousness. Allen Fisher has always used “projects” to generate his work. The work might then spill out of there, of course. I’m an album artist rather than a singles one, I suppose.
I found that the poems in No Public Language to be constantly enacting a sort of struggle between an aleatoric freedom on the one hand and a very strong authorial control on the other, much like great jazz. Could you comment on this?
Well, our entire lives are a dynamic balance between order and chaos. The analogy I’ve used before is the scientific concept of a “nonequilibrium structure”. This is where order arises that requires a constant source of mass or energy to sustain it. There’s a very good description in Stuart Kauffman’s book At Home in the Universe, which is about complexity theory. All free-living systems – from bacteria upward – are nonequilibrium structures. I tend to see art, writing, music, any human activity like this, as analogous. You can look at it two ways: the writing, for example, is self-organising, but it constantly inhabits an area where aleatoric influences are coming in, refreshing it, pulling it in new directions and enabling it to organise further. Or you can also see it in terms of the reader supplying part of the energy that it requires, participating in the meaning-making, or the structure-making, if you like.
In one poem, ‘Radio’ from your 1986 collection, Intensive Care, you write: “Recurrence & difference; it’s all there is.” In the context of the poem about various cultural messages imposing themselves on consciousness, I take this line to mean that numerous stimuli from society endlessly recur to the perceiving mind, particularly when listening/watching to the same radio/television over an extended period of time. You seem to be struggling to discern a “difference” in the sense of making something new from perpetually recycled and recurrent material. Is this correct?
I think that line, initially anyway, had more to do with the relationship between fixed form and variation – I refer you, as the Prime Minister says, to the answer I gave some moments ago! Milton creates endless variation from a five-stress line in Paradise Lost, for example. I have recently attended a workshop with the composer Philip Cashian, who says virtually all his compositions, whether for a symphony orchestra or a solo instrument, start with a four-note chord, sometimes picked at random – he explores the intervals, repeats them, juxtaposes them in new combinations, it goes on from there. I was trying to do something in Eight + Six with the idea of the sonnet, using the formal relationships implied by that form, but stretching, fragmenting, always trying to find something new.
Your poetry is eclectically experimental and you always surprise a reader with the variety of ‘modes’ you choose to use. Is ‘experimenting’ or constantly shifting your poetic focus important to you?
I try to resist the notion of “experimental”. It’s a way of pigeonholing writing that doesn’t fit into any of the existing pigeonholes. I have never thought of myself as an “experimental poet” or an “experimental writer”; I’m just a poet, or, actually, I prefer to use the term “writer”, it carries less of the tedious baggage. A writer who sometimes uses the various conventions and modes of poetry to explore the imaginative possibilities in language.
The collections A4 Portrait, A4 Landscape and 3, 600 Weekends are autobiographical in the sense that you explicitly treat the subject of the perceiving self. Indeed, in the A4 collections you are very specific about dates and the quotations themselves sometimes ‘date’ the pieces. What made you turn ‘inwardly’ at this point in you poetic career and where did you ‘find’ a lot of the material?
A4 Portrait was an experiment, I suppose, I’ll grant you that. There was and is a notion that one shouldn’t introduce the bourgeois concept of the “self” into advanced poetry, and that notion runs across poetics as various as Language writing on the one hand to certain strands in “Cambridge” poetry, to use an awful shorthand, on the other. I remember Eric Mottram, for example (who had a very great influence on me as a teacher), remarking that I used “I” in my poetry and that he couldn’t bring himself to do so himself; the implication was, though he scrupulously refrained from saying it, that one shouldn’t really do it. Now, I can see the reasons for that idea, in that much stereotyped poetry since the Romantics at least has dealt with the poet’s own refined feelings about nature or relationships with other people, or whatever, and that’s all got rather tedious. So now you get the prizewinning poem that goes: “I remember my father drowning kittens in the pond when I was very young, and now he’s just died, ah, the transience of it all, amen.” Just make sure the rhythms are all nice and regular, put in a startling simile or two, and bingo, you’ve won the National Poetry Award.
Well, this idea that the self was somehow a tainted concept troubled me, but in A4 Portrait I wanted to do the opposite of fleeing from it, to delve right into the perceiving self. I was writing every day without any fixed sense of the outcome, and the idea was that that improvisatory writing would form the basis of the work, and the only subsequent editing I permitted myself for that project would be deletion – that is, eliminating unwanted words and lines. I just wanted to see what would emerge on the other side of that process. In the original publication by Spectacular Diseases, I suggested that the cover would use a portrait of myself, blown up to a size where it was no longer recognisable but become an abstract pattern; but that didn’t happen quite as I intended.
Then I decided to do a sort of companion piece which would be the converse of that. In A4 Landscape, after a single occurrence of “I” at the end of the first poem – “I took a deep breath, and suddenly the room seemed filled” – the first person was rigorously avoided. And yet there is an implied perceiving presence throughout that work. I was also playing with an oscillation between a diaristic, event-driven mode, as in Portrait, and more “composed” poems.
3,600 Weekends was not initially planned to follow, but it felt to me like a kind of synthesis of the thesis and antithesis of the previous two sequences. I don’t know whether it works like that. Three thousand six hundred weeks equates to roughly three-score years and ten, so it’s the amount of time you can reasonably expect. I suppose with increased life expectancy these days the title should be updated to something like 4,200 Weekends. The book uses autobiographical material in various ways, such as for instance the birth of my eldest nephew – who’s now in his final year at Leeds University! But the material is subjected to arbitrary procedures, as signalled by the alphabetical organisation of the titles of the 26 poems. It’s very formal, actually.
There is a strong sense of the political throughout your poetry, particularly in Intensive Care in which you confront war and materiality as well as the “public language” of newspeak. It’s a broad question, but an important one: what do you see as the place for the political in poetry?
I am not and have never thought of myself as a “political poet”. I think I got something of a reputation in that respect after Drumming & Poems, which has a lot of stuff about racism and state violence, and Intensive Care, where the nuclear threat and notions of political and market control are prevalent. I got praised in some quarters for “being political”. But I was making writing, as always, out of what energised me. I am not seeking to convert anybody through my poetry. In fact, I wince sometimes at the editorialising that surfaces here and there in my poetry of that era, which is a real weakness: just shut up, Ken, I tell myself now, nobody’s interested in your opinion. It’s enough for the writer to be a witness to what’s going on, however obliquely. That comes back to the place of the self, you see. The self as witness to events. Harold Pinter’s plays are far more eloquent, politically, morally, metaphysically, than his recent ghastly doggerel about George W Bush. Perhaps if there’s an appropriate political role for writing today, it lies in resistance, not in any simple agit-prop sense, but in opening up a space outside of commodity culture. But it’s ongoing, that process, it never ends, there is no avant-garde year zero, no utopia of free writing; everything we do is potentially recuperable by someone equipped to exploit it for profit, but there’s always somewhere else to go.
There are many practicing poets – both British and north American – who have academic jobs and many writers who are teaching creative writing courses in universities. What are your opinions about the role of the academy in contemporary poetry?
It’s a bigger industry now, isn’t it? It started in the USA, and now it’s over here. Practically every poet I meet now has an academic job, or is teaching creative writing. I don’t know what to think about that. It has its good side and its bad side. On the positive side, adventurous poetry is now taken more seriously and far more widely disseminated than ever before in this country. It’s bypassed the marketplace. On the other hand, I can see the beginnings of fossilisation. There will be rewards in terms of funding, status and jobs for following certain norms that are being formulated right now. In that sense a new market is being created, I guess. And I certainly deplore a tendency I perceive sometimes to write poetry to illustrate aspects of literary theory. Horrible! I feel a bit out of it; I toyed with doing a PhD myself, but abandoned it. I’m not cut out for it, I don’t really enjoy that kind of discourse, and I think the best service I can give, apart from writing myself, is to edit and publish other writers whose work energises me. I am one of the few poets I know who earns their day-to-day living outside of teaching or academic work. My day job is journalism; I currently edit two nursing journals. I have tried teaching creative writing very occasionally, but haven’t enjoyed it. I don’t think I know what creative writing is.
Very near the end of No Public Language you write: “But we are done with words tonight we’re sick of them”. I did get the impression throughout your poems that music always commands the greatest portion of your heart. Is this true?
Oh, I would far rather have been a musician. But then musician friends tell me they’re sick of hearing people say that. You know, “if only I’d listened to my mum and stuck to those piano lessons”. But I live with a musician and I do make music. Elaine tell me that the only difference between a musician and a non-musician is that a musician practises their instrument. That’s also the difference between a writer and someone who dreams of writing a great novel or of writing poems that “move people”. You’ve just got to do the work. I have put some work into performing and composing music, actually, but I’m stuck with words, they’re what I do best. But when I’m writing or performing my writing I’m energised by John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman, or Bach or Bartok. I’m trying to do something analogous with language.