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Maintenant #61: Marcus Slease

“Smashing time” – an interview with Marcus Slease by SJ Fowler.

Though the Maintenant series tries not to overstate the importance of the poet’s origin, practicality alone demands an attempt to show the range of European poetries with a representative range of nations. However in actually seeking out those poets creating exciting, original, genuinely evolutionary work, we find many cannot be tied to one single nation – they are migratory, multi-lingual – pan-European if not pan-global. Marcus Slease fits this archetype more than most. By birth he stands as the first Northern Irish poet to feature in our series. However by experience he is a poet of England, America, Poland, Italy, Turkey…too. Unsurprisingly he is an adroit and worldly writer, defined by his ability to remain elastic and fluid, and utterly unpretentious in his idiom, and yet fulfilling and resonant in his tone. His poetics are extremely contemporary, and yet they seem to maintain the confidence and solidity of time past. A major feature of the current London scene, we are pleased to introduce Marcus Slease as the 61st edition of Maintenant.

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3:AM: Are you defined by your migrations as a poet, or does the presence of North Ireland, your place of birth, anchor what might be called your poetic identity, if, in fact, you conceive of one at all?

Marcus Slease: Well I was born in Portadown and most of my relatives (except for my immediate family) still live there. My mother is a real storyteller and singer and kept alive a kind of oral tradition in the house. She also is the best practitioner of a beginner’s mind which is sometimes mistaken for being naive. Open and questioning and listening and supremely interested in the world around her. A down to earth frankness. In Portadown I can’t walk 10 metres without someone stopping to chat and everyone spinning a good yarn.

Before moving to America we moved to Elephant and Castle in London and then Milton Keynes. This was during the 1980’s and it wasn’t a good time to have a Northern Irish accent so I managed to pick up a bit of a working class British one. When I arrived in America I was 12 and just wanted to fit in. We moved to Las Vegas and became Mormon. So I had to take on another identity. I practiced sounding American in the mirror and on Sundays we spoke Elizabethan English at church with thee and thou art and so on. The American accent has stuck. Identity has been a big issue and continues to be an issue in my work. Sometimes it sneaks up in a self-conscious way like when I was invited to read at Soundeye or at the Prague Microfest as an Irish poet. I don’t feel fully American or fully Irish or what have you and I didn’t really feel Mormon (when I was Mormon). If feeling fully anything is possible. I see it all as very very fluid. I have taken on many identities. A kind of practical Buddhist practice has helped me to develop a more expansive relationship to these issues of identity. The past has a bearing but I am trying to not get stuck there.

3:AM: Do you think there is something inherent in you, as there often seems in notions of Irishness, to be transplanted, to seek this out?

MS: I think this sense of transplanted Irishness can be very productive. The Joyce or Beckett line of Irishness. Joyce was my first love. The long poem novels Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. There are also the “impure” mixed Irish work of poets like Fanny Howe (American/Irish) and Maggie O’Sullivan (Irish/British), Tom Raworth (Irish/British) and Joseph Donahue (an American gnostic poet in the line of Duncan with strong Irish roots). The list goes on. Sometimes this can go too far of course. Like in America where so many folks seem hung up on genealogy and a search for origins. Irishness is a very popular choice/fad. Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast made me think I could travel and write with teaching to survive. It did not quite work out that way though. I rarely met any writers, poets, or artists when living in foreign lands and missed having that sense of community.

3:AM: What are your thoughts on contemporary Irish poetry?

MS: Salmon publishing and Poetry Ireland are very very very boring, predictable and stale. The Stinging Fly seems like an ok publication and press with some energy. Cork has a bit happening with Soundeye and Jimmy Cummins’ Default magazine. I enjoy some of the poetry of Matthew Sweeney. I also liked Paul Durcan’s The Berlin Wall Cafe when I read it in 2000. There seemed to be some imagination there and some humour. Perhaps something between the so-called experimental and mainstream. But most of the work I have read seems to be in that high bardic elegiac landscape painting tradition. Looking back at loss. A one track emotion. It all feels false and flat and not true to the complexity of feeling and thinking and living in the world here and now. This is true of perhaps most of the official poetry coming out of Ireland. I quickly lost interest. I think most Irish poetry is stuck in the mire of identity (like it was for Joyce). A real straightjacket! But perhaps I am wrong.

3:AM: Do you conceive of a divide between work being produced between Eire and Northern Ireland?

MS: When I lived in North Carolina I found Wild Honey Press on the internet. I wanted their whole catalog. I was really excited to see something more than Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon etc. I could relate to the sounds of Heaney’s “voice” but nothing much else and it got boring really fast. Ciaran Carson’s Belfast Confetti was an early read that connected to some of my experiences of the Troubles. But Wild Honey Press was the breath of fresh air. The first thing that grabbed me was Mairead Byrne’s The Pillar. And then Maurice Scully’s Livelihood really opened things up. I think identity hangs heavy over Northern Ireland. I am sure there is probably some interesting work going on in a Belfast cafe somewhere. At least I hope so. I keep dreaming of eventually returning to Northern Ireland but I do know the place you start from is never the same place when you return.

3:AM: You are well travelled across Europe, living in literary cities like Trieste and Istanbul. Did you engage with the poetry in Europe? Do you consider yourself a fundamentally European poet?

MS: I do think European poetry has been a big influence. My good friend and poet Grzegorz Wroblewski has introduced me to some stellar Polish and Danish poetry. I am especially fascinated with the surrealist tendencies coming out of central and eastern Europe (Tomaž Šalamun for example). Murat Nemet-Nejat’s EDA (anthology of Turkish poetry) was very influential when I lived in Turkey. I am especially smitten with Orhan Veli, Ece Ayhan, Cemal Süreya, Lale Müldür, and İlhan Berk. When I lived in North Carolina from 2001-2005 my writing was heavily influenced by Tom Raworth and Geraldine Monk (esp. Interregnum) and Maggie O’Sullivan (esp. audio recordings).

3:AM: How much does teaching, as a profession, shape your work?

MS: Well I teach English as a foreign language. It is sometimes hard to get by on a practical level but, when all is ok on the survival front, the teaching helps me to become more aware of the sounds and grammar of the English language. When I am teaching it often helps to get me outside of my obsessive mind and to really get at things cleanly. EFL teaching has its ups and downs. I used to teach literature at the University of North Carolina and sometimes I do miss that kind of teaching.

3:AM: In your editorship of Past Simple you seem to have advocated European work, brought it to new audiences. Is this an important role for you?

MS: Jim Goar at Past Simple was very open to exploring poetry outside of the States. Grzegorz Wroblewski brought in poets from Denmark and Poland and I contributed some poets from the USA and UK. Jim and I collaborated on the issue of innovative poetry from the UK, Ireland, and Scotland. Neither of the issues were in any sense even close to getting at a sample of what is out there. A teeny weeny appetizer with some mighty good sauce. Harry Godwin brought out Cleaves with a good sampling of European poetry and your own work with the Maintenant series has been astounding. I hope for much more collaboration between European poets. It is an exciting and interesting time to be in Europe.

3:AM: You relocated to the US when you were young. Is that where you were shaped as a poet?

MS: In terms of the poetry, I think it is mostly the fluidity of innovative American poetry that captures my imagination these days, especially poets like Philip Whalen and Kenneth Koch and Joseph Ceravolo and Bernadette Mayer and Maureen Owen and Joanne Kyger and Ted Berrigan. The Beats and the NY School poets (to get really general). As well as the gnostic poets like Robert Duncan, Joseph Donahue, and Ronald Johnson. Tim Atkins, Jeff Hilson, and Geraldine Monk are really sparking me here in the UK. But the list of influences that shape my work branches off to many many poets from Turkey to Poland. It’s a long long list.

3:AM: Did you publish and read extensively as a poet in the US? What are your thoughts on contemporary American poetry?

MS: When I lived in North Carolina I met a poet named Joseph Donahue in a used bookshop in Chapel Hill. I was a real collector of hard to find poetry books from the 50‘s-70‘s. The Beats, Black Mountain Poets etc. It was not long after that we formed a collective called The Lucifer Poetics (Joe said that Milton said that Lucifer fell in North Carolina). It was a really productive fun time. A poet named Patrick Heron organized the Carboro International Poetry festival and it was a big smash with poets from various poetics, movements, shapes and sizes and we had a couple of reading series happening like The Blue Door (at the home of Todd and Laura Sandvik) and the Desert City Reading Series (organized by Ken Rumble). Poets were coming in from everywhere and it was all very informal and organic. There was so much energy. We went on a reading tour and hooked up with other poetry communities in Philadelphia, D.C., Brooklyn, Maryland etc. We had lots of informal chats, made music, made films, hung out in the forest and projected the films of Stan Brakhage on the side of a building and built bonfires etc. I think that is when I realized it really is all about community in the arts.

3:AM: You live in London, are there poets who influenced you with their work and practise in the city?

MS: I came to London in 2008 after living in isolated circumstances in Korea and Poland for four years. Steve Wiley and Alex Davies Openned reading series really got me excited about what was happening in London. There were so many great readings and possibilities were in the air. Soon after I went to X-ing the Line (organized by Jeff Hilson and Sean Bonney) and heard more great stuff and met more great folks. Again, I felt this sense of community in the arts. It is something I need both personally and as a poet. Jeff Hilson, Sharon Borthwick, Tim Atkins, Sean Bonney, Peter Jaeger, Frances Kruk, Harry Godwin, Mendoza/Linus Slug, Michael Zand, Richard Parker, and Amy De’Ath, are some of the poets that have influenced me on various levels in London. Now there is also the Centre for Creative Collaboration near Kings Cross with Polyply and some exciting theme-based nights with artists and poets. The list of exciting poetry/poets/events in London is of course a lot bigger than this, not to mention some fab poets in other parts of the U.K. like Simon Howard who edits the real nifty Department magazine.

3:AM: How does the poetry culture compare in London to the other places you have lived?

MS: I do think London has a lot to offer. There is certainly a very exciting history here with Writer’s Forum and all the poets that have passed through. I do think it differs a bit with U.S. poetry communities that I have been involved in. Sometimes it is a tad too serious. Squirt guns don’t go down well at readings etc. Perhaps humour is not political enough or is too risky in terms of entertainment? I am not sure. Sometimes it does a feel a bit like there are quite a few younger poets who are overly concerned about their careers, their image and getting a good university teaching gig. Climbing ladders to somewhere. Of course I am not immune from those anxieties myself. It is harsh out there (and in here). Many many folks have been very welcoming and I am very very happy to be a part of the poetry community here.

3:AM: Could you discuss your collection Godzenie with Blazevox, an outstanding publisher in the US?

MS: Godzenie was written out of experiences living in an industrial area of southern Poland. Godzenie is a Polish word that means to reconcile. I was attempting to undergo a process of writing that reconciles the inner workings of what we might call mind and what might be outside the mind. I ended up writing a kind of documentary poetics. Perhaps a Poland of the mind. The book is divided into three parts. The first part, Block 7A, was written from the window of a huge soviet style block of flats in Zory, southern Poland. I lived with a old very Catholic lady named Vogel which means ‘bird’ in German and took buses to villages and small towns to teach English. It was often very isolating with no internet or contact with English speakers etc. Not much except snow. I wanted to see what was in my mind. The second section, Hotel Diament, was written in a hotel for mostly migrant workers and miners in Jastrzebie, southern Poland. I was told spies used to hang out in the lobby and it used to be a five star hotel under communism. The final section is called Return to the City. It was partly inspired by Ken Edwards Nostalgia for Unknown Cities and Gabe Gudding’s Rhode Island Notebook which I read when I came to London to live (for the first time as an adult) in 2008. I returned to Katowice from London and stayed with my girlfriend’s parents. I was able to have enough distance (with some comfort and no worries about basic needs) to record what was around me and I found that process very liberating. It freed me in many ways and made room for my mind and helped me get at things more directly.

I am not entirely happy with the whole book. I realise now in hindsight my lack of contact with English in Poland created a kind of artifice in the language that may sometimes feel forced. But that said, I think this process of reconciling gets going and perhaps is more successful or interesting in the third section of Godzenie. That process has morphed into a more playful poetics in my current manuscript, Smashing Time, with plays, elliptical lyrics, digressive narratives, and transcribed dialogues from various sites in London. I am having fun re-discovering poetry. Back at the beginners mind. As with all of my writing, what I am reading gets in there. At the moment it is especially influenced by my current readings of poets such as Kenneth Koch, Eileen Myles, Ted Berrigan, Bernadette Mayer, and especially Philip Whalen (as well as the city of London itself).

{do visit Marcus’ excellent blog}

 

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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: Monday, May 16th, 2011.