Maintenant #55: Scott Thurston
An interview with Scott Thurston by SJ Fowler.
An inevitable locus of poetic discourse through the education and development of young poets is the figure of the poet-academic, the poet who takes upon himself the development of others as well as the development of his own methodologies. This is a common role in central European poetry, with a significant history. But whether that is also true of England is less sure. Just as the radical continental poetic methodologies of the 20th century have left an indelible impact on contemporary British poetry, so, it seems, has the model of the poet as a thinker and teacher. Scott Thurston is a central facet in the recent resurgent brilliance of North Western British poetry in and around Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester. His is an innovative poetic defined by its care, intricacy and sophistication, and his reputation as a seminal and urbane poet over the last few decades has established him as a vital part of the UK’s poetry scene. In a comprehensive and generous interview he discusses his role as a poet, a teacher, his experience of European poetics and his beginnings around the historic Writer’s Forum workshop.
3:AM: How does the process of teaching, of lecturing, impact upon your own creative process? Is it generative – through the perhaps naïve impositions of your students, or their sophistication, or the repetition / reinstatement of material? Does it have no effect at all?
Scott Thurston: Teaching is a fascinating and useful discipline for me as a writer because it constantly obliges me to interrogate my assumptions and prejudices about my subject and to develop and strengthen my knowledge of it. You cannot take anything for granted when you teach, yet you also assume a great responsibility in doing so. I think it requires a kind of negative capability – a capacity to tolerate uncertainty – in order to hold open a space for students to make their own assertions and drawn their own conclusions. I feel that there is no aspect of writing or reading literature that is too fundamental to require revisiting and reconsideration – indeed these may be the aspects that deserve and demand the most scrutiny – and teaching constantly affords new opportunities to do so. As I get older I am also granted a privileged access to what younger people are thinking and feeling, and the process of recognising how different this can be is both humbling and ethically enabling.
3:AM: I’m interested in your beginning with the Writers Forum, had you long been established in the process of writing poetry before your attendance? Had you explored non-formative methodologies? Did you alter stylistically from the influence of the Forum and has this maintained a steady trajectory for you, in your evolution as a poet?
ST: I started writing poetry – if you discount the poems one is asked to write during the process of a typical British compulsory schooling career – around the age of fourteen, that is, in a self-conscious, deliberate and largely private way. I had lots of interests and kept diaries and journals as well as starting, but rarely finishing, several stories. I also attended a creative writing workshop during my last year of school with the poet Jan Dean which gave me my first experience of how one’s writing can have an effect on others. In the Summer that I left school I started working on a poem based on some ideas I got from watching an OU programme about Russian Constructivism, in particular the work of Vladimir Tatlin and his Monument to the Third International. I was pursuing some sort of argument – using images of the Titan Atlas – about the tensions between work and creativity. I solved the formal problem of this tension by creating two parallel stanzas side by side in part of the poem. Over twenty years later I have come full circle to using this form in my most recent book, albeit in a way which affords different reading directions. So you could say I started to experiment formally quite early on!
I was introduced to the Writers Forum workshops (or New River Project as it was known then) and the Sub-Voicive reading series by Robert Sheppard who was my A-Level English tutor and became my mentor. That time was an apprenticeship that shaped the future course of my career. During that time I saw an incredible array of poets: Maggie O’Sullivan, Bob Cobbing, Bill Griffiths, Paula Claire, Allen Fisher, Lee Harwood, Tom Raworth, Roy Fisher, Bruce Andrews, Jerome Rothenberg, Andrew Duncan, Robert Sheppard, Ulli Freer, Adrian Clarke, Alan Halsey, Colin Simms, Gavin Selerie, Ken Edwards, Virginia Firnberg, Gilbert Adair, Anne Waldman, John Cussens, Johan de Wit, cris cheek… the list goes on and on. I got hold of the anthology The New British Poetry and used it as a guide to the scene, embarking on a diverse series of writing experiments which formed the basis for my first book with Writers Forum. That appeared in 1991, just as I finished college and went up to the University of East Anglia to read English Literature and Linguistics. During this period I also started performing poems in public and Bob’s workshop was an incredibly supportive space to take those first steps. I’ve said more about Bob’s influence on my early work in a tribute I wrote after his death, and also when I appeared in Steve Willey’s documentary The Sound of Writers Forum.
3:AM: Your residence in Liverpool would perhaps offer you an insight to the culture of the city when it comes to poetry. Certainly considering its idiosyncratic place in British culture, its vibrancy, it can sometimes seem less than a distinct presence in contemporary poetics (certainly this seems more the case next to its art scene and so forth). I’m interested in the measure of its avant garde poetry, and what the legacy is of the Mersey poets, whether they still define poetry in the city?
ST: The Mersey poets still very much define poetry in Liverpool, although there is quite a range of activity going on, if historically less that might be called innovative and experimental. It’s quite a playful scene, more stand-up style, though it can have a more political edge. I did a turn many years ago at the Dead Good Poets, which is still running, but I didn’t really connect with anybody there, although I’ve remained aware of Cath Nicholls’ excellent work – she used to be part of that scene but has moved on as well I think. Various events have passed through: Alice Lenkiewicz of Neon Highway magazine put together an ambitious series of readings a few years back which included writers like Bill Griffiths, Geraldine Monk, Alan Halsey and various members of the Edge Hill Poetry and Poetics Research group founded by Robert Sheppard (at Edge Hill University in Ormskirk, Lancashire) which Alice and myself were members of. In fact a long lost member of that group Neil Addison has just returned to Liverpool after many years aboard in Rio de Janeiro and Berlin, and has put out a new pamphlet with Salt. There have been a few interesting things at the newly refurbished Bluecoat Arts Centre – Robert has performed there as has Chris McCabe, Keston Sutherland and Caroline Bergvall and also Phil Jeck on the sound art front, and the Liverpool Poetry Cafe is now based there. Holly Pester was performing during the Liverpool Biennial too. There was a bit of a more slam style scene happening around the FACT (Film and Creative Technologies Centre) with Ross Sutherland but I think that has wound up now, and he seems more involved in the Bluecoat programme. Jeffrey Side is an old neighbour who still runs The Argotist Online, and the Erbacce press, run by Alan Corkish and Andy Taylor is pretty active, tho’ they don’t have a reading series. Alice runs occasional themed poetry events now. Eleanor Rees who publishes with Salt teaches at John Moores University and works with Dave Ward on the Windows project – a grass roots funding organisation for writers in education and the home of the long standing Smoke magazine. And then there’s also Alec Newman’s industrious Knives Forks and Spoons press just up the road in Newton-le-Willows.
I think it’s been hard to create a truly experimental scene in Liverpool in the way that The Other Room in Manchester seems to have really taken off, but things are changing. Chris recently performed his poem-play Shad Thames Broken Wharf at the Bluecoat and I felt that that brought a lot of the ‘new’ scene together for quite possibly the first time. There is a plan for a new poetry reading organised by Chris and Michael Egan, a young poet who has just had a book out with Tom Chivers’ press Penned in the Margins. So it’s an exciting time for poetry in Liverpool I feel.
I wouldn’t say I’m at the core of things in Manchester – more like just another radiant node! There are plenty of people around who were active before I arrived on the scene when I started my lectureship at Salford in 2004. Tony Trehy was already putting the finishing touches on the first Bury Text festival, which is due to have its third incarnation this coming Spring, Matt Welton was experimenting with poetry programming at the Bolton Octagon and publishing with Carcanet (tho he’s now moved back to his home town of Nottingham), Phil Davenport was producing poster projects in the city and also developing an organisation (arthur+martha) which continues to run very successful experimental writing workshops with older people. James Davies and Tom Jenks had also already been running magazines for some time – James’ Matchbox and Tom’s Parameter. They have new projects now in the form of James’ if p then q imprint and Tom’s zimZalla press. It actually took the efforts of a young poet from London who moved to Wigan – Alex Davies – who is half of London’s Openned Poetry with Steve Willey, to galvanise us into creating The Other Room. We originally started out with Tom, James, myself, Alex and Alex Middleton – who works for the Arts Council and who has translated Inger Christensen – but now its just Tom, James and myself. Although Phil, Tony and Matt haven’t been involved in running The Other Room, they have all performed there and attended many readings.
The scene in Manchester is very diverse – there’s a healthy slam scene focused around Julian Daniel at The Green Room, a performance scene linked to figures like Joolz Denby and Rosi Lugosi, also more conservative events linked to the MMU writing progamme, but we’ve certainly found an active and committed audience for the alternative tradition. But it is something that has been growing and developing for some time. Steven Waling who is a regular at TOR has been championing experimentalism for many years through his association with Manky poets and his magazine Brando’s Hat. What’s really exciting now is how new nights and new poets are emerging out of the activity around TOR and beyond – there is a new event called Counting Backwards organised by Matt Dalby and Richard Barrett – both crucial supporters of TOR – which links the more performative innovative poetries with the sound art work emerging from artists associated with Islington Mill – Ben Gwilliam, Helmut Lemke, Matt Wand and others. I recently saw Mick Beck and Sonic Pleasure perform there with Stephen Emmerson, which was thrilling. The Knives Forks and Spoons Press – originally the brainchild of Richard – has become a powerhouse of activity and is publishing in many cases the first books of emerging poets. I’m particularly proud that The Other Room provided the first reading for London-based poet Lucy Harvest-Clarke, who is a very talented writer. James has published her first book with if p then q. Richard and Stephen Emmerson (a poet from Leeds) are also starting up the Northwest’s answer to the Writers Forum workshop this April.
Manchester is also a scene which is quite international in scope. Through Tony’s Text Festival – which saw visits to the UK by Robert Grenier, Ron Silliman, Geof Huth, Peter Inman, Tina Darragh and others – connections have been made to the American scene. Tony has also done work in Iceland and Spain, Phil has done residencies in the Netherlands and China; I have my, somewhat tenuous, links to the Polish and the US scene etc. It’s generally a place where there’s a sense of the larger context, and attempts to make links with it. At The Other Room we’ve put on Inman and Darragh, but also Craig Dworkin (by video) and Canadian poet Derek Beaulieu. Lisa Samuels, Nicole Mauro and Susana Gardner have also all read for us.
3:AM: It appears you have a developed sense that the poet must not neglect the dialogue of poetry with other poets, something often lamented in British poetry as nonexistent (whereas it appears to be the norm in the US), that poets will review, interview, engage with one another in order to validate and illuminate the wider output of poetry. Do you think this is something that should be more prevalent in the UK? Is it more of a personal pursuit? Could you outline the Radiator series?
ST: I think that’s a pretty accurate assertion – not long after I began writing poetry, I started to participate in the public context for it through organising gigs, editing magazines, reviewing and interviewing, as many young poets do. My latest project as an academic is a book of interviews with Caroline Bergvall, Andrea Brady, Karen Mac Cormack and Jennifer Moxley. I’ve always been in dialogue with my contemporaries about writing, but I wouldn’t say that poets in general in the UK are any different – indeed writers seem more in contact with each other than ever before through social networking sites, blogs, email lists and the numerous webzines that are growing up around scenes – the excellent Openned zine being one example. But I suppose a lot of these connections tend to be mediated by social groupings, and there are few reviewers of the innovative work who are working in the mainstream media (Carrie Etter being a notable exception that proves the general rule). Part of the issue I suspect is that the small presses (Shearsman, Reality Street, Salt) are so productive at present – particularly now that the pamphlet has made a big comeback with presses like Oystercatcher, Knives Forks and Spoons, Gratton Street Irregulars and so on. I don’t really want to think of it as a problem that so much is being published, but other than via a few really committed sites who regularly review (Stride is excellent, and Hand + Star (Penned in the Margins) looks promising too, Intercapillary Space and Shadow Train also add to the coverage), it’s hard to get a comprehensive overview of how people are reading and receiving work. But this wouldn’t be too hard to do. Maintenant is doing an excellent job by establishing a survey of the larger European context, but a lot still needs to be done for British writing. Another part of the problem of course is that the innovative poetries, by their nature, work outside of the major modes of literary circulation and recognition. If we’re really talking about cultural validation by the mainstream, this is unlikely to arise, and would defeat the object of an oppositional poetics. That said, I edit both a fugitive, highly irregular little photocopied magazine called The Radiator – where I commission people to write about their own work – and also a regular, professionally-published academic journal – the Journal of British and Irish Poetry. The mission of the latter is to develop the critical reception of the innovative work, by increasing an awareness of its history in the UK – particularly as many young poet-critics are often more interested in engaging with the American work.
3:AM: You spent some time residing in Poland, naturally the Maintenant series is very much focused on the reduction of the concept of Europe, the centralisation of poetry and expression through the care for details for each poetic tradition, understanding increasing unity, and so I am interested in how the poetry of Poland has impacted your work? The language too? It is such an immense tradition, almost so big once one is aware of it, it cannot be avoided, so bound to the political and artistic shifts of the twentieth century.
ST: Living in Poland was important for me as much in terms of my personal development as my literary development, if I can make such a distinction, and Polish is the only other language I’ve learned to speak apart from English. But I did come into contact with a range of interesting writers – many of whom were English speakers from America, Australia and the UK whom I taught English with. Of the Polish writers I met, Elzbieta Wojcik-Lees taught me a lot about translation through the Przekladaniec journal she edited at the Jagiellonian University. I also knew Ewa Chrusciel who wrote for that journal, and she has gone on to make a name for herself. I also collaborated with a VJ, Milosz Luczynski, who made amazing visual treatments of my poems which we projected as slides at readings. One of my wife’s friends was the poet Krzystof Kondracky who helped me to learn Polish – we also co-translated each other’s poetry. He gave me a signed copy of Szymborska’s poems as a leaving present when we moved to the UK (this was after she had won the Nobel). I did one public poetry reading when I lived there which Elzbieta organised with her husband Peter, who also worked at the university. They live in Copenhagen now. I also met Marcin Swietlicki – one of the most popular young poets in Krakow at the time. After I moved back I’ve kept in touch with the scene there and I’ve occasionally given conference papers in Krakow which have included poetry readings – I read alongside Robert Rehder twice – and when I was in Czech a few years back I met a poet called Franciszek Nastulcyk who lives in the same town as my parents-in-law. His wife Krystyna Kryzanowska-Nastulczyk is also a poet and I try to see them whenever I am over there. Later on I met and interviewed Tadeusz Pioro in Warsaw – which I published as an issue of The Radiator. That was a great experience – he’s such a sharp guy. Agnieszka Mirahina’s book Radiowidmo was one of the most exciting new books of poetry I’ve come across in recent years, so it was great to see her featured in Maintenant. In many ways Poland’s heritage of literary modernism has been as influential on my work as its contemporary poetry – reading Witold Gombrowicz’s Dziennik (Diary) was like a bomb going off in my literary life, and I went on to read his novels and co-translate a bit of one of the plays (Iwona) with my wife. Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz’s novel Nienasycenie (Insatiability) had a huge impact too.
3:AM: States of motion and states of temporality seem to be a recurring element of interest in your poetry. Did this begin with Momentum, or was it part of a longer gestation of ideas? How did you progress toward and within Internal Rhyme?
ST: I agree that I’m fascinated with movement and time in writing – what writing poetry does for one’s awareness of time and space. Momentum was quite important for me as it was the first book I consciously composed as a book from start to finish. It was very much the product of a regular weekly writing schedule, which I continued in Internal Rhyme. What both books have in common is the use of a single basic form throughout – a kind of fractured sonnet in the first, and the bi-directional stanzas in the second. The logic of development from my point of view as a writer was therefore simply showing up at the page once a week to see what responding to these forms could offer me – how they became a space to bring various materials into relation – rather than having any over-arching scheme in place at the outset. I got particularly fascinated with the strange arbitrariness of the planned appointment, which I’d contrast with the oddly constraining quality of spontaneous composition. Writing like this enabled a very focused approach which could bring anything and everything in.
These two books (170 poems in total) are therefore concerned with time as a compositional device but also movement in terms of the poetic form in the strong enjambements and stepped lines of Momentum and the change between horizontal and vertical readings in Internal Rhyme. But they are also preoccupied by time and movement in more thematic ways. Writing Momentum coincided with my first reading of the new Penguin translation of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, and Gilles Deleuze’s Proust and Signs. I was particularly taken by Deleuze’s statement that:
‘Time, ultimate interpreter, ultimate act of interpretation, has the strange power to affirm simultaneously fragments that do not constitute a whole in space, any more than they form a whole by succession within time.’
This describes the poetics of both books very well, as does Deleuze’s interest in an attempt to grasp ‘a unity of this very multiplicity [...] a whole of just these fragments.’ Another engagement throughout both books was with the theoretical writings of Alain Badiou – his concept of the ‘multiple-without-oneness’ speaks to the state of affairs sketched by Deleuze – and in fact a number of the poems in Internal Rhyme are condensed reworkings of one or two sentences in translation from Badiou’s work.
In terms of movement, I started a movement practice called Five Rhythms in about 2004 which has had a huge influence on my life and work. Invented in the US in the 1960s by Gabrielle Roth it proposes that human energy moves through a cycle of five rhythms: flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness. It’s very much about physical and energetic awareness and noticing how energy changes and moves in the body. A number of the poems in Momentum and Internal Rhyme respond to and/or describe experiences of this practice, which I’ve also written about in a poem dedicated to Gabrielle Roth (‘A Dance’ in Of Being Circular). I often refer to this practice as a dance, but I think the word movement is more appropriate. Roth developed her practice partly in relation to movement therapy, and the epigraph to the third eponymously-titled section of Momentum is a quotation from a contemporary article on movement therapy by Edwin Salter: ‘How might we embody an opposing hope in a simple movement phrase?’ That seemed to sum up so much of what I was interested in at the time in my hopes not only for the effects of movement on my own life and others, but that of poetic practice too – that ‘opposing hope’ holds out for change, that things might be different. My ongoing sequence Sustainability is also very much concerned with my fascination for the poetics of the Five Rhythms and how they move in language and poetry.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, March 27th, 2011.