Maintenant #63: Colin Herd
“beyond words, my newish
pinkish gray new shoes” – an interview with Colin Herd by SJ Fowler.
Inarguably symbolic of the dexterity and erudition of a new generation of Scottish poets, Colin Herd is an instantly memorable presence in the contemporary poetry scene north of the border. Deft, at times demure, urbane and insightful, his poetry is effusive in its grace and ease of motion. Yet Herd is a markedly energetic presence leading a resurgence of poetry in and around the city of Edinburgh. A critic of some note and already demanding a considerable following in both the UK and the United States (lauded by Dennis Cooper, amongst others) we are pleased he is our first Scots Maintenant inductee and another valuable addition to the growing record of contemporary European poetry.
3:AM: There seems to be a surge of activity in Edinburgh right now, arguably coming to light, due to the work of people like yourself. It seems, like Manchester, there are a handful of positive presences in the city who are driving things forward for contemporary poetry. Does this seem true to you, having been in the city for sometime?
Colin Herd: I’m really glad that impression of a surge of activity in Edinburgh is starting to emanate outwards and southwards. I’ve felt it myself for about a year and a half. I can date my growing excitement about the Edinburgh poetry scene pretty exactly to my first meeting with the poet nick e-melville, whose book selections and dissections (Otoliths 2010) is a glorious selection of visual and found poetry. nick-e is one of those irresistible characters with an infectious seriousness about poetry. He puts on sporadic club-nights with feisty titles like “tropixtualities” and “throat cuts not budget cuts”, posters advertising which he indiscreetly slathers all over bus-stops and notice-boards on the fly. It’s through these nights that I’ve come into contact with most of the writers in Edinburgh I admire and am excited by. Publications such as Scree, edited by Lila Matsumoto, and my own ‘anything anymore anywhere’ are probably also helping to foster publication and reading opportunities for innovative or exciting work. One of the things I like best about this activity is there isn’t a centre per se, and there are multiple branches and outlets, promoting and developing different ideas of and directions for contemporary poetry. Neu Reekie, run by Kevin Williamson, Michael Pederson and in a guest-curatorial role 3:AM’s own Darran Anderson, put on a very successful monthly series of readings and film-screenings in the Scottish Book Trust building. Another great reading series was TraVerses, run by the poet J L Williams at the bar of the Traverse Theatre. She pulled together extremely diverse acts, performers and poets into dynamic, seemingly endless cabaret-type evenings. Then there’s ConVersify, a conference on poetics taking place at Edinburgh University in September and organized by Greg Thomas, Sam Walton and Lila Matsumoto, to which it sounds (from the hearsay I’ve picked up) they’re attracting a host of starry poets and critics. And in August, David Berridge of press, gallery, website The Very Small Kitchen is collaborating with artist Mirja Koponen to curate a mini-festival of exhibitions, readings and a series of workshops based around text, poetry and text-art at the TotalKunst gallery.
3:AM: Could you discuss some of the poets working out of the city now whom you admire? Greg Thomas, Posie Rider?
CH: I love Greg Thomas‘s poetry. His visual work has a freshness and sass to it, while clearly influenced by the concrete tradition. One of my favourites of his recent pieces is “cleandirty”, a visual poem made from the top of the word “clean” and the underbelly of the word “dirty”, succinctly collapsing the binary of those two words. It reminds me of a few years back when Andrew Marr announced in the Daily Mail that he would no longer buy shampoo because once hair gets dirty enough it starts to clean itself. The latest issue of ‘anything anymore anywhere’ has a great “kinetic poem” by Thomas in which the “f” in the word foot kind of reverse-erases itself in gradual stages to create the word “boot” and the kicking-punch-line, “head”. It’s another beautifully-thought-through piece, whimsical but disconcerting, even down to the child-like naïve quality of the felt-tip pen he uses to colour in the letters.
I’m equally enamoured with the poetry of Posie Rider. She’s writing unquenchably interesting disjunctive lyric poetry. The pieces by her in the most recent anything anymore anywhere are some of my favourite in the mag. Especially “five freezing odes”, remixes of poems previously published in the journal Freaklung. The ‘remix’ is a fascinating concept or technique to me re: poetry; I love the qualities of restlessness and inexhaustibility that a remix has, the looseness over order, the sense of things being up for grabs. She is also an electrifying reader/performer of poetry.
There are a few other Edinburgh writers who I think ought to be better known. The poetry of Joseph Walton is utterly compelling. Since he moved up to Edinburgh, what, two years ago or something, I’ve seen him read a few times, and his thoroughness at thinking through the poem’s reception both on the page and in performance is astounding. I am constantly amazed by how he throws into tension the planes by which we use language, with such energy and dynamism. His book The Woman written pseudonymously as Yolanda-Tudor Bloch was a special issue of Document Magazine (#2) and is one of the wackiest, most fruitful books of new writing I read last year. Gerry Smith is a “text based artist”, but the boundaries between his work and poetry are paper thin, and I mean edible paper. His book Collective Fiction is a short story constructed adhering to constraints and from the fiction section of his personal library. His wonderful book i am a text based artist: selected words 1998-2008 has a quality that I think of as sort of Scottish- an ability almost a compulsion to straddle whimsy and dead seriousness. I’m thinking of Ian Hamilton Finlay, but also Gael Turnbull with his wacky kinetic poems that he used to busk with at the Edinburgh festival, the site-specific visual poems of Thomas A Clark (my favourite a scrolling electronic poem on a moving light sign in a hospital waiting room, listing the names of species of grass) and the endless inventiveness of Alec Finlay. I’m also a fan of Rob MacKenzie’s poetry, whose The Opposite of Cabbage was published by Salt in 2009, Darran Anderson, who just published his amazing book-length sequence The Fool as an ebook on his site, and Sandra Alland, whose book Blissful Times is great.
3:AM: What is your sense of Scottish poetry? The Celtic nations often seem to be hampered by their very association with more formal notions of poetry, that they are naturally poetic in the more laboured way often results in an exclusion of new paths into poetry. Do you think this is true?
CH: I think what you’re saying is pretty true, though Scotland has been lucky in the Twentieth Century with writers such as Hugh MacDiarmid, W.S. Graham, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Gael Turnbull, Edwin Morgan, Veronica Forrest-Thomson and contemporary writers Tom Leonard and Peter Manson making major contributions to pushing poetry down new paths. All eight important on an international scale, I’d say. I think there’s a tendency in Scotland not to recognise the achievement of these writers and others for what it is, and therefore to stifle significant development. Certainly that’s the case with Forrest-Thomson, Leonard and Manson, almost totally neglected at home while justly revered both in English poetry circles and abroad. The fact that it’s Miami University Press who brought out Manson’s wonderful book Between Cup and Lip a few years ago should make every Scottish poetry publisher red in the face. Even for Morgan, MacDiarmid and Finlay, the default position is to admire what these poets did, but to go on writing and supporting the writing of closed up pruney formal poems. Anyway, to de-sour myself for a minute, my version of Scottish poetry is actually really healthy and diverse, a version tugged in different directions by all the writers so far mentioned in this interview, and add to that list figures like W.N. Herbert whose poetry I like a lot, Robert Crawford, and the Gaellic poet Aonghas MacNeacail, too. Perhaps the greatest neglected Scottish poet of the Twentieth Century is Helen Adam, who was a key figure in the San Francisco Renaissance having moved from Edinburgh in 1939 aged 30. Her poetry (mainly amazing mystical ballads) is almost completely unknown in Scotland. The National Poetry Foundation in the U.S. brought out a Helen Adam Reader edited by the poet Kristin Prevallet in 2007. Another neglected figure is Alexander Hutchinson, who again spent much of his life in the USA and Canada. The current situation is pretty promising; a breath of fresh air into the Scottish literary scene has definitely been Gutter, “the magazine of new Scottish writing”, edited by Colin Begg and Adrian Searle. It’s been running for a few years now and is an excellent barometer of contemporary Scottish writing. So far, they’ve published a lot of bold, adventurous work, including work by writers like Kirsty Logan, a fiction writer but an extremely exciting presence.
3:AM: Could you discuss ‘anything anymore anywhere’ and your editorial work with the publication?
CH: I set up anything anymore anywhere, basically, as a vehicle through which to connect with other writers. At the time (4 years ago?), I didn’t feel there were any U.K. journals that published the kind of poetry I wanted to read. I was probably wrong about that at the time, and I’d certainly be wrong if I thought that now. Print and online journals such as Department, Streetcake, Blart, onedit, Tears in the Fence, If P the Q, Veer, 3:AM, Wufniks, etc etc all do or have done the job better than I have so far managed with “a-a-a”. I basically want to publish the magazine as a way of sharing writing I’m enthusiastic about, or tempted by, and beyond that I don’t have any one particular editorial vision, though my personal tastes certainly come across. That’s why I so far have steered away from editorial front-matter, because that for me so far has not felt necessary. I run on an open submissions basis, and have only rarely solicited work. This is basically because I usually have enough good work from the submissions pile to compile each issue, but also because I believe in the submissions system more than I believe in filling the magazine with big-name solicitations. I enjoy good design and I try to work that into the ethos of the journal even though my personal limitations mean it sometimes has quirks and kinks that I don’t intend.
3:AM: Your knowledge of postwar US poetry seems immense. How did you develop your interest?
CH: Thanks Steven, I’m flattered (!) but certainly I am enthusiastic about a lot of US poetry. I always think it’s interesting to hear poets talk about which poet got them hooked on writing poetry, whose poetry it was that made them trip up so head over heels that they thought: “I’ve got to do that”. For me (and for a lot of other people, I imagine) that poet was Frank O’Hara. It’s sort of a funny story, is it?, well, I’m telling it regardless. In my second year of university I shared a flat with a great friend of mine called Tommy. We’d gone to school together too. Tommy’s computer and an extra hard drive or two were jam-packed with awesome, bizarre stuff he downloaded streaming literally all the time. I remember listening to pieces of music by the inventor and composer Harry Partch on his computer, and stuff like Ornette Coleman, Cornelius Cardew, Ligeti, etc, etc. As a birthday present, he once downloaded the whole back-catalogue of The Cure onto my laptop overnight. Anyway, this one day, I was washing up the dishes and his iTunes was set to shuffle. On came a recording of Frank O’Hara reading “Poem (Lana Turner Has Collapsed!)”. I was totally baffled and delighted by it, totally won over by its insouciance and its elegance. That night, I ordered the Donald Allen ed. Collected and checked the Marjorie Perloff Monograph “Poet Among Painters” out of the university library. I devoured that book and also fell kind of enamoured with Marjorie Perloff’s criticism, so checked out every other book by her the university library had, which introduced me to a whole range of Twentieth century poetries I didn’t know anything about but which sort of excited me. Especially, Language Poetry. From then on in, it’s been a case of online research and ordering as many books as I can afford. So I guess I have Tommy and Perloff to thank for my obsessions.
3:AM: Who has been influential on you?
CH: So, Frank O’Hara would be the biggest initial influence, I reckon. I tried a lot to emulate his style when I first started, even writing a poem with cigarettes in (though I don’t smoke and never have) after reading For Grace, After a Party, with the amazing lines:
“Put out your hand,
an ashtray, suddenly, there? beside
But pretty quickly I think I expanded by enthusiasms and emulations to dilute them. I’m crazy about Kenward Elmslie, his blend of a super-charged textual surface, a New York School sense of humour, and a Pop or Musical Theatre handling of rhythm. I’ve just been reading Elaine Equi’s awesome new book Click and Clone, which is the most delicious kind of smart, funny, unabashed lyric poetry. And I can barely currently sleep at night with anticipation over Tim Dlugos’s forthcoming (or coming as I write this?, or just born?- it was due out on the 15th but my pre-ordered copy hasn’t arrived yet) Collected Poems, A Fast Life edited by the poet David Trinidad and published by Nightboat Books. Dlugos died from AIDS in 1990 age 40, leaving behind his seven published volumes and unpublished work, which Trinidad and others have tirelessly seen back into print. My favourite of his books are Je Suis Ein Americano and Entre Nous. The poems have an aching creaking quality, a prevailing sense of grace, the sort of grace that Frank O’Hara is riffing on in that poem just quoted, (while also, of course just devoting the poem to the painter Grace Hartigan). In 1968 as an 18 year old Dlugos entered the Christian Brothers, a Catholic order in Philadelphia. He left it in 1971 to lead an openly gay and politically active lifestyle. Then, later in his life, he started studying towards becoming an Episcopalian Priest, so “grace” makes its presence felt one way or another in much of his work, including the heartbreaking long poem ‘G-9’, named after the ward in which he was treated.
3:AM: It seems that the concise, colloquial, anecdotal freedom of the best of contemporary US poetry has influenced your work. too ok, your collection released this year, is even being released by an American publisher…
CH: Yes, that’s certainly true, and I love contemporary US poetry. But I also love contemporary UK poetry, and those qualities are present in many UK writers too, and I probably rub them off poets such as Lee Harwood, John James, Jeremy Reed, Paul Brown and some of Tom Raworth, Denise Riley, Wendy Mulford, Robert Sheppard, Edwin Morgan, as much as I do the US poets mentioned above. I’m reminded of an interview or something I read quoted on Siliman’s blog with Drew Milne and Redell Olsen where Milne said something along the lines of “in what sense is Tom Raworth NOT a U.S. poet?”. I think questions of influence are tricky and knotted, especially in relation to place and nationality. I mean I used to listen to the Scottish band Belle and Sebastian a lot when I was a teenager and their breezy colloquial lyrics probably inclined my sensibility that direction too. But I am also a huge fan of the Polish poet Krzysztof Jaworski, whose work I was introduced to by the Arc anthology of New Polish Poetry, Altered State, and who writes in a concise and colloquial, freed-up style. I think I’m reluctant to sound too in-thrall to American poetry; though secretly I guess I know I am! About the publisher: when I sent the book to BlazeVOX I didn’t even think about the fact that they’re a US publisher. I just sent it to a press whose catalogue I really loved, and who seemed to publish a lot of contemporary poets I love and whose work I feel a bit of a kinship with: John Sakkis and Noah Eli Gordon, among a whole host of others. It’s only since publication that I’ve started to think about this a bit, and its implications. In fact, because of the internet, I don’t think it makes much difference where your book is published, it’s easy for readers to get ahold of with a click or two anyway, though I certainly have a renewed appreciation for the importance of writing and reading communities to kind of enable the book’s reception through readings, workshops, etc etc. I certainly lucked out with my publisher, because Geoffrey Gatza who runs BlazeVOX is an inspiration, and an un-tireable force for good in poetry.
3:AM: The work in too ok is really remarkable for its brevity and unaffected humour and slight while maintaining a rather stringent, lasting sense of profundity. It’s a difficult skill to master in naturalistic poetry. Do you wish to maintain this tension between the freedom and the resonance?
CH: Thanks Steven- that tension is one of my favourite sensations in poetry. It’s there in the final lines of O’Hara’s ‘For Grace, After a Party’:
“And someone you love enters the room
and says wouldn’t
you like the eggs a little
And when they arrive they are
just plain scrambled eggs and the warm weather
The tension between throwaway and knockout. The insouciance of those lines countered by their strange, unquantifiable emotional resonance. That’s also what I love about much of Tim Dlugos’s poetry, the quiet matter-of-factness of his language which oozes and confuses for long after you finish reading:
“The boy you are in love with lights
a joint. You are both at the end
of the boardwalk. Smoke rises into
the intense blue sky from his mouth.
His papers are covered with stars.
You actually ache with the desire to
touch the man in bed beside you. He is
on the college faculty, you are one of
his brightest students. It takes you
a long time to get back to sleep.
There are two houses. The big one is filled
With your friends who are going away.
There is a piano in the tiny house. You
Walk into the empty parlor, sit down, and
Play the only song you know by heart.”
Those snappy sentences that seem to have at least ten minutes between each one; and the stanzas, weeks! So it’s definitely something I aim for, but I think like a lot of great things it’s something that doesn’t come along through desperation or impatience, and since I’m both desperate and impatient I’m really guilty of kind of forcing it in some cases. Lucky for me, I found that forcing it can itself produce an interesting result. It’s like the comparison between one of those gummy milk-bottle-shaped sweets and a real-life bottle of milk. In some of the poems in too ok I kind of deliberately faked profundity (the literary equivalent of an orgasm) at the end, inserting a punch-line or flick of the mane purely for the sake of ending the poem with a flourish of sorts. My idea for the book being a kind of drama playing out in the tension between fake and real emotion, genuine feelings and their aesthetic representation.
3:AM: Do you collate notes when writing, as the poetry does seem to maintain a sense of the moment when it was written, almost completed at first inscription? Or is your methodology much more desk bound, with heavy editing?
CH: I generally sit with a word-doc open on my computer on my lap and if I’m out and about I take notes on the memo application on my blackberry or if needs must a notebook. Usually phrases or lines or silly little details I come across, which I attempt to collate into a poem at a later point. O.K. I’m going to be completely honest. I often write specifically for submission deadlines or things I fancy sending work to. I have a few big documents full with poems I’ve written, poems I’ve half-written, fragments, quotations, etc etc of various projects or sequences and I kind of delve into them to try and find a poem somewhere each time I feel like sending something off. I’m not usually a very heavy editor, though I write a ton of poems that never see the light of day or end up recycled as just one line or less than a line in another poem. This is the usual routine, but there are certainly some poems that are much quicker, more moment-based or improvisational, and I’ve recently been working on exactly that sort of semi-improvised anecdotal poem, inspired by the talk poems of David Antin.
3:AM: Your work occasionally seems to touch on artists and their work, Franz Kline, Adrian Wiszniewski among them. Do you wish to build them into the framework of your poetic expression or are you seeking a literal invocation of their influence on you?
CH: It’s a mixture of both I think. Visual art is my passion as much as poetry and writing is. And I write art criticism for Aesthetica magazine, which means that sometimes visual art is at the top of my vocabulary or my fridge of reference. Definitely, with the Wiszniewski poem in too ok, I think the whole book was indebted in various ways to his figurative painting, the urge, desire, and basically compulsion simply to draw figures, bodies, faces. I read somewhere that he used to try to paint abstract pictures but he’d get halfway through and he’s realise he’d started to trace the outline of a figure or a face. This resonated with me because I had tried to sort of (and I know the analogy’s a bit skewey) abstract my poems, detach them from the lyric mode, but half-way through I’d realise that I’d written a lyric poem, and that the process of trying to half-hide away from that by dodging some of their conventions had merely strengthened my compulsion to the form. So, I wrote that Wiszniewski poem as an acknowledgment of the influence I felt but also, yes, hoping to kind of work the sensuality and romanticism of his imagery into the bodies of the poems themselves. Hoping, I guess that the flouncy fluency of his brush and pen strokes would rub off on some of the poems. With the poem called “franz kline” in like I think I wasn’t so much trying explicitly to add to the framework of the other poems in the book, except possibly trying to infer or borrow the tension between minimalism, broadness of stroke or marking and a kind of emotional hurt or pain. I have and had a much less clear idea of what that poem does or why I did it than I do about the Wiszniewski poem, where I did have a specific intention up to a point.
3:AM: You seem to be very active with reviews and recommendations aside from your own writing, which is a relative rarity in the UK compared to a lot of European nations and I would probably say in North America. Do you think there is a sense of complacency in the UK, or just a different poetry culture?
CH: I love writing reviews and I only wish I could find time to write more. I think it is a key aspect of how poetry and writing makes it’s way into a culture, and I value the kind of responsiveness and alertness to things that reviewing kind of forces you to develop. I don’t think it has anything to do with the reviewer or the critic kind of framing the work for readers and being a mediator (did T.S. Eliot say something like that? I always remember things people say as more wrong-headed than they actually are, like Chinese Whispers) with a privileged, honed level of taste. I value and read reviews for the same reasons I write them (a) to find out about stuff worth reading or watching or whatever and (b) to enter into and engender a kind of responsive discursive relationship with the work. Obviously, there are ways of doing that without telling everyone about it in a review, but I find at least having the idea that I might write about almost everything I encounter sparks the kind of critical but appreciative attitude that I find fruitful. I think it is a shame that there isn’t more of a review culture surrounding UK poetry, and it definitely seems less-strong than in the US. I wonder if that’s because poetry is already for most poets and people engaged in poetry a strictly non-professional activity that is practiced outside day-to-day employment, meaning that there simply isn’t time to review many books alongside writing and promoting your own poetry at the side of your job.
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: Tuesday, May 31st, 2011.