BEGINNING a. Can I borrow your stapler?
By Tom Jenks.
3:AM: I’ve been trying to think of a phrase to describe your work and I came up with the term ‘horizontal psychogeography’. By this I mean that where psychogeography is concerned with depth, you are much more concerned with surface. It is not that you are uninterested in depth, more that for you the surface in itself seems to be deep. I’m thinking here of the way you return again and again to the minutiae of everyday life in your work, particularly interpersonal exchanges. Is this an accurate assessment?
Richard Barrett: I would say a novelist like Brett Easton Ellis is someone who believes surface has depth and is preoccupied with gauging that depth. Also someone like Tao Lin. Now, I’ve read a lot of stuff by both of those guys (Lin’s novel Shoplifting in American Apparel very recently actually) and, for the most part, I would say I’ve liked what I’ve read, I wouldn’t say, however, that I particularly share their preoccupations. At most I’ve maybe picked up a few stylistic tics. What I mean by that is I kind of like the flat tone someone like Lin, especially, uses and I guess there are places where I’ve tried to consciously incorporate that into my own work.
All of which is not to say I disagree with your assessment however. It’s correct to say that I’m fascinated by the minutiae of everyday life. The fact is though that that fascination has less to do with any philosophical viewpoints I might or might not hold and is more to do with my views regarding poetry. Specifically: what I want from the poetry that I read and, also, how I want my own poetry to appear. I just want poetry to feel ‘real’. Unfortunately I’m not capable of explaining what I mean by that! You just know it when you see it! I want to read and write poems which feel like they’ve grown out of the poet’s life. None of that is to say I can’t appreciate distancing effects or approaches which could maybe be described as coming from a more theoretical angle (here I’m thinking of someone like Jow Lindsay who I’m a big fan of). I mean, I don’t see any problem in, for example, writing from the viewpoint of a TV character (as Lindsay has indeed done). There’s no necessary contradiction between doing something like that and producing an end result which is still authentic.
There are a few places in the book where I’ve tried to write ‘beyond the everyday’: under your feet, the third person and parts of ‘The Rushes’. I don’t know how successful those poems are. It’s something I’d like to try to do more often though.
By and large I’d say your assessment is probably right: I reckon the everyday is definitely where I’m at. It’s going to take some time before I’m convinced by the term ‘horizontal psychogeography’ though!
3:AM: You’ve mentioned ‘The Rushes’, which contains lots of references to the recent economic crisis. Many of these references pass by without any authorial spin or comment, but occasionally you break cover, as in lines like “Not idiots. We are. Not idiots.” With parts of ‘The Rushes’, I feel a link to the English lineage of dissent running through people like Lilburne, Winstanley, Blake and Orwell to more recent examples like John Lydon or Mark E. Smith, that sense of an individual asserting themselves through a sort of deliberate awkwardness, by saying that everything is not as great as we are told it is. Could you talk a little about politics and whether or not it has informed the work in Sidings?
RB: Politics is something I can’t get away from. Nor want to get away from. It is, nevertheless, a subject which disappoints me intensely. Thinking specifically of ‘The Rushes’ – and this has never been a secret – that was a deliberate attempt to try and do something like Sean Bonney did with The Commons. When I first read The Commons (when will that have been? Late 2008?) I was just absolutely blown away by it. I felt as though I’d found the direction I wanted to go in. It was just a matter of finding my own subject and trying to work out the best way of writing about that subject. Gradually ‘The Rushes’ began to take shape.
Since ‘The Rushes’, however, I’d say I’ve begun to think my primary interest, now, as far as poetry goes, isn’t politics but rather culture in a broader sense. Of course, politics is part of that, but it’s a part I just happen to be less focused on at the moment.
3:AM: On the jacket of Sidings, Steven Waling describes you as “experimental and open without being dauntingly obscure.” You use many devices and techniques in Sidings that could be associated with experimental/innovative poetics, such as deliberately disjunctive syntax, non-standard punctuation (the oblique stroke in particular) and use of space. Does the term “experimental” have any meaning for you? Do you regard yourself as an experimental poet?
RB: I do still believe in the term ‘experimental’, yeah. I’m pretty sure I don’t know what it means but I think there are probably plenty of poets who could accurately be called ‘experimental’. I don’t think I’d call myself one. When I think of experimental poets I, correctly or otherwise, think of P. Inman, Caroline Bergvall, those kind of people (Miles Champion too, probably. Although I haven’t read enough of his stuff to be able to really say). Everything I’ve seen of Inman’s, for example, has struck me as being part of some big, properly coherent project to push poetry – and by extension: language – forward. And I think that’s maybe a defining characteristic of an experimental poet: that everything they do is motivated by the desire to push things on. Now, although I do utilise certain experimental practices I’m often also moved to write by another impulse. Maybe one directly contrary to experimentation. I don’t know. Often I just want to communicate a feeling in the simplest way possible.
Thinking particularly of ‘The Hard Shoulder’ now, in Sidings. As I was writing that sequence I saw myself as a collagist. I tried to embrace randomness and get as far away as I could from ‘meaning’. Matt Dalby nailed it with something he wrote on his blog: that the text was meant to be understood as something artificial. As a construct. I didn’t want ‘meaning’ to be a distraction.
Now obviously that’s an aim doomed to failure as we, as readers, will always try and impose a meaning on any texts we encounter. It’s a fascination which definitely drives me, though (even though I don’t know why it drives me!): to try and do something in poetry where there is as little ‘meaning’ as possible but what you’re left with is still good to read. Is still interesting and funny.
Linguistically innovative though? That’s a term I’m much more comfortable with. In my mind I think there’s a distinction between ‘experimental’ and ‘linguistically innovative’ (I don’t know if that distinction exists in anyone else’s mind!) I guess all my favourite poets would be described as linguistically innovative and I think that’s the sort of poetry I’ve often tried to write myself. Maybe the difference between experimental and linguistically innovative poets is that idea of having a ‘project’ I mentioned above. Maybe a linguistically innovative poet writes the way they do because that’s the best way they’ve found to say what they want to say, whereas whilst that’s also true for an experimental poet the experimental poet writes the way they do, also, because they have further aims in mind. Aims related to wanting to do things with language which lie separate from their actual poetry.
3:AM: There are a number of sequences in the book. We’ve mentioned ‘The Rushes’ and ‘The Hard Shoulder’. Fragment and the third person are also in that territory. What is appealing to you about sequences and longer pieces? What can you do in a sequence that you can’t do in a series of discrete poems?
RB: In ‘The Rushes’ there were 4 distinct themes I was interested in exploring. At the same time as those themes were different they were also, I hope, complementary. By running the poem over 28 pages I was able to try and do justice to each of those strands and with the layering of the different strands beside each other unexpected and interesting things began to emerge from the text. Things over which I had no control whatsoever.
Effects like that are much harder to achieve in the shorter poems. ‘fragment’, as a sequence rather than a long poem, was an attempt to write about a particular set of circumstances using a variety of different styles (I tried a similar thing in my chapbook Pig Fervour). A project like that obviously entails a degree of repetition and it was repetition I made a point of trying to embrace, seeing it as a means of linking the different poems together.
With ‘fragment’, and again with Pig Fervour, I also wanted things to exist in the space between the poems. I wanted any reader to ask and answer the question of how one poem had led to the next; what the connections were.
3:AM: Apart from being a writer, you are also an organiser. Could you talk a little about this and how, if at all, it impacts upon your own work?
RB: It all started, for me, really, with The Other Room. After attending the first few events I quickly realised I wanted to do something more than just write poetry. I wanted to, if you like, also make a contribution to the networks which support innovative poetry (initially I was thinking no further than just Manchester. It’s good to see now, though, how many interesting connections seem to have developed between events, publishers, groups etc around different parts of the country). My first venture in that direction was Knives, Forks and Spoons (the story of which has been documented elsewhere). However, very early on I also had a few ideas for a reading series. Those ideas went nowhere until earlier this year when I was approached by Matt Dalby who wanted me on board as a co-organizer of a new series he was planning. So I signed-up.
One of the things I like about Counting Backwards (and this is true also of The Other Room) is how the nights work as forums to exchange ideas. When you begin talking to the person sat next to you you might find yourself in conversation with a sound-artist, another poet, a publisher, a performance artist, anyone, really. All sorts of exciting things can result from audience mixes like that. I remember one early review I wrote on my blog of The Other Room focused primarily on the night’s conversation and barely touched the poetry!
Regarding how the organisational side of things impacts upon my writing, I don’t know. I’m sure it does. But I guess in ways that are barely perceptible to me. I mean, Counting Backwards is something that I’m doing with my life and as we’ve already mentioned my poetry is concerned with the minutiae of everyday life. It’ll feed in.
3:AM: You refer a lot to the workplace in Sidings. A sizeable proportion of poets in the linguistically innovative sphere with which you’ve already identified yourself work as academics or are studying at post graduate level, but your job is what could be called white collar. Is this a deliberate choice on your part? Do you think you would be producing the same work if you were working in an academic context?
RB: Part of the reason I work where I work is that I’ve never been very focussed on a career, or been very dynamic, or any of that stuff. Now that was all very well in my late teens and twenties but the older I’ve got and the more responsibilities I’ve taken on the more attractive a bigger wage packet now strikes me as.
On the other hand though, yes, my choice of a non-academic job was deliberate. I always sort of considered academia to be somehow cut-off from life. And when I was a student I worried that if I got myself into that kind of career I might end up producing dead writing. Now, however, I just think that point of view is fucking ridiculous. It was a view that, really, came out of not knowing very much about very much. I only have to think about Prynne and Keston Sutherland to realise how incendiary some of the stuff coming out of the academy can be. How amazing it is. Then there are people like Jeff Hilson. Really important (in my view) poets producing forward-looking , engaged, funny stuff. I’m sure I’d be better paid as an academic than I am now, as well!
On the other other hand, as an academic I’d be worried about there being no room in my life free of poetry. And I do need to get away from poetry every now and again.
3:AM: Your work is very rooted in place. Geographic specifics form the backbone of your poems. In a short poem not in Sidings, ‘poetry in translation’, you transpose Sean Bonney’s lines
meet me on Oxford St
we’ll go into Borders
meet me on Deansgate we’ll
go into Waterstones // steal
You have lived in or around Manchester all of your life. Do you regard yourself in any way as a Manchester poet, or a north of England poet? Do these terms even have any validity?
RB: That’s correct. I have always lived around Manchester, yes. And I agree that the city has been of massive importance in my poetry. I love Manchester. I also think it’s a rubbish place. Maybe the fact that I think it’s a rubbish place might be what allows me to love it. I don’t know.
I don’t think I’ve ever thought of myself as a Manchester/Northern poet though. An early model for me, and he’s someone I’ve already mentioned, was Mark E Smith. I liked the way he took Manchester as a subject and produced some amazing writing about the city but how he never allowed himself to be defined by Manchester.
I think, for a long time, I didn’t even particularly think of myself as being any kind of a poet. I was just someone who enjoyed poetry. Maybe you find yourself becoming more ambitious or something, though, and you start to take things a bit more seriously and you begin to look around for other people who you can align yourself with. If that’s the case and if I now have begun to think of myself as being a particular kind of poet I’d say I’m a poet associated with The Other Room group (which just happens to be based in Manchester).
3:AM: It’s interesting that you should talk about an Other Room group. For me, as one of the organisers, that was not something I thought about when we were setting the series up. But it has happened in that like minded people who might otherwise not have met have been brought together by seeing poets read who otherwise would not have been in Manchester and formed a nucleus. While we are on the subject of other writers, I’d like to talk about people who have influenced you. You’ve mentioned Sean Bonney. Who else, if anyone, is significant for you and why?
RB: Well, absolutely everything began for me with the anthology Conductors of Chaos. I’d been reading Iain Sinclair‘s novels and non-fiction and for a while had been trying to track down some of his poetry. It was all impossible to get hold of though. That is until I came across a copy of Conductors of Chaos in Manchester Central Library. It was like something from another planet to me. I could make no sense of the work inside. But in a way, I think, that sense of bafflement was what kept me so obsessed with the book. I liked it. I just didn’t exactly know why I liked it. I just kept picking away at the book. My favourite poet at that time was Allen Fisher. I responded very strongly to the idea of poem as collage, that all sorts of seemingly disparate bits and pieces could go towards the make up of the text (I didn’t know it at the time but I would later understand just how much the Fisher of Place had taken from the William Carlos Williams of Paterson).
Someone else from the anthology that I loved, someone producing quite different work to Fisher, was Stewart Home. Now, I was familiar with Home’s writing prior to Conductors of Chaos but this was the first time I’d seen his poetry. Again, I thought it was brilliant. It was very playful. Piss-taking, really. And what made things even funnier was the incredibly straight-face he managed to maintain at all times. Always backing his poetry up with reams and reams of theory insisting that it was all super-serious. One of Home’s poems ran something like: “the sea is grey /// blue and green // very big and very wet.” Now, I expect I’ve totally misquoted that. But the stuff in Conductors of Chaos was all in that kind of vein. Fantastic!
Later on I came into contact with the collected Tom Raworth. I was immediately taken with it. Again, it was an amazing book but at the same time also slightly depressing. Every single idea you might have, you’d check your Raworth and realise he’d done it 10 years ago. I think Raworth really is one of the best poets I’ve ever read.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Ted Berrigan. He is very different from the Conductors of Chaos poets. His work seems to be a lot more spacious. Relaxed. Funny, also. There’s a poem of his called ‘Personal Poem’ which has lines in it about it being 7AM in New York (or something) and it’s probably 7AM some other place, but what does that matter as he’s in New York. That seems, as far as I can tell, to be kind of typical of Berrigan as a whole. His poems seem to incorporate a lot of whimsicality which, to me at least, seem to be pretty accurate representations of how the mind works. I also really like how he plagiarises himself. In his sonnet sequence phrases and expressions recur which you can recognise from other of his poems. It’s an interesting way of writing. I would say I’m going through a very Berrigan kind of phase at the moment!
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Richard Barrett lives and works in Salford. His first full length collection, Sidings, was published in 2010 by White Leaf Press. He is a co-organiser of the Manchester based performance series Counting Backwards.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, September 1st, 2010.