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Poetry is an Opportunity

Interview by Jana Astanov.

SJ Fowler or Steven J. Fowler is a contemporary English poet and avant-garde artist. He has produced diverse body of work across poetry, performance art, experimental theatre, asemic writing, calligrams, concrete poetry and sound poetry, as well as sonic art, installation, fiction and visual art.

3:AM: I recently had the pleasure of reading your four collections of poetry: the latest “The Guide to Being Bear Aware”, Enthusiasm, published in 2015, The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner, from 2014, and your first book, Red Museum, published in 2011. How is “The Guide to Being Bear Aware” different from your previous works?

SJ Fowler: Thank you. I’m sorry you had to slog through four of the, one is normally enough for people. As you probably picked up, each one is very different from the next – different style, method, tone, subject. You couldn’t tell they are from the same person, I’ve been told that anyway, and I take that as a badge of honour. The language I reclaim from the world and plop down on the page is not supposed to represent me as an individual but just some of my mental activity and inquiry. The Guide is different as it’s a return to more literary ground, it’s more notably poetic. That’s because I only discovered poetry in 2010 and this kind of writing, post war European poetry, is what got me into the field. So for the first time I feel I’ve been reading that work long enough to let it speak out. And I’ve also been more active with really experimental pieces of performance, visual art and theatre over the last few years, and so I felt, organically, my poetry could be a little more lyrical.

3:AM: In this collection you begin most of the poems with quotes from a wonderfully curated list of European poets. Could you explain the concept behind this?

SJF: When I first began reading poetry I would take out huge anthologies from Senate House Library in London, big dusty things from the 60s, 70s, 80s that no one else was looking at, and I would spend all day reading them, stopping only to write down lines from poets, both known and obscure, that struck me intensely. It sounds untrue but back then I would read poetry for six or seven hours a day, I was so excited to have discovered it. So for this collection I raided this old word doc of stolen lines. I assigned the epigraphs randomly, often, and I know people hate epigraphs, they take it to be the poet being a prick, showing off their learning, so I thought if I put one for pretty much every poem that’d be quite funny. It’d also force people to look for meanings between the poem and the epigraph which perhaps don’t exist aside from their own analysis, which is also nice.

3:AM: I remember you mentioned that “The Guide to Being Bear Aware” was inspired by a book gifted to you by Livia. What was this mysterious book?

SJF: It was actually a book called the guide to being bear aware, about how to prevent bear attacks. I was also given a book in 2013 called the dog owner’s guide to the Rottweiler. About Rottweiler care.

3:AM: What is the key to understanding your poetry?

SJF: Patience? I’m not sure really. I think probably the key is to know you don’t need a key? To not already have been taught to read poetry a very specific way, and have had people tell you this is the ‘correct’ way to read poetry? To not have been told what poetry is? And perhaps to have experienced the world a certain way? To understand just how contingent and strange the fact of human language is at all? My work is certainly not for everyone.

3:AM: You describe yourself as a modernist poet and avant-garde artist. Which elements of your poetic style link you to those traditions?

SJF: Those traditions are as wide and varied as entire art forms, and are more than this in fact, more than academic definitions of practise – they are modes of seeing and revealing and reflecting the world. They are not techniques but ways of being. So, generalising, I feel connected to their acceptance of the world as a thing beyond and against us, but that isn’t metaphysical, that should be reflected upon with the same strangeness in the work as in the world. Rather than trying to make life seem neat and clever and smooth, I would say these traditions often try to just reflect what it is like to be alive. Difficult. Not to say that, but to reveal it. Also they were / are future facing. They are interested in what’s coming not what was. They know the past to work the future, not to get lost in tradition. So I reflect on these movements, study them, but reject them too.

3:AM: One of the things I am interested in is the way your work engages the dialogue regarding ecological emergency. What are the guidelines to a more conscious society?

SJF: That is a question that reveals your own generosity – that you’d imagine I’d have the intelligence or knowledge to be able to answer with any sort of insight. In practical terms I have no idea. I am trying to listen and read to know but the more I do that the less I have a sense of any guidelines for anything. Perhaps a first step might be to first accept our limitations as apes, our character being often collectively defined by self-preservation, and greed emanating from that, and then ceasing self-satisfied judgement of others so we can pragmatically work to increase awareness of just how profoundly ignorant our current industrial culture is when it comes to the environment? I’m not sure, certainly the pervasiveness righteousness of our time is no more the answer than the gross, bloated terraforming greed of those destroying the planet.

3:AM: The Guide To Being Bear Aware has been described as political, how does one express politics through poetry?

SJF: One of the key things behind my desire to engage in poetry as a kind of profession is that it forces a concentration on language itself, fundamentally. And this organically leads one to think critically through the possibility of certain concepts that are used quite readily, for example the notion of politics. There is of course a necessary definition of this word that we need to have any conversation at all, but beyond this I don’t feel a sense of clarity of what people mean when they use this word specifically, which is important when thinking through the relationship between poetry and politics for example. To not lose myself in ramblings here what I will say is this – I perceive politics to be about the governance of nations etc… and so in this way, poetry has absolutely nothing to do with politics. What poetry can do, but only if the individual aligns themselves with this in a far wider field than poetry, is increase a sense of critical awareness and engagement in the individual which will effect their actions and opinions as it relates to the multifarious notion of governance. So I express politics through poetry by not providing a poetry that comforts at the expense of intellectual growth, or certainly doesn’t aim to, but again this depends on the reader and their experience. Impossible to say. Perhaps I should have just said it’s not a political book unless you define politics very widely?

3:AM: What do you think makes a poem a good poem?

SJF: A fundamental understanding on the part of the poet and the reader that language is not a way of organising existence but expressing its adversarial and tumultuous character, and that poetry is a lifeboat in the ocean of confusion that is being alive and being able to use and understand language at all. It is not a cruise boat.

3:AM: Do you revise your poetry?

SJF: Absolutely, sometimes. It depends on the project, on the collection perhaps. But generally speaking I tend to write a set of works in one time period, perhaps over months, then let it sit and revisit it later. That revisiting is then a very intense revision period, throwing things away, breaking things apart. They are such completely different processes. Teaching at university has taught me to reflect on this more and more, working with students on how to revise.

3:AM: What surprises you in a poem?

SJF: I don’t want to be negative, but I am most surprised, still, by sentimentality and conversation in poetry. I could go into much more specific detail here but I want to get bogged down. I will just say that I will perhaps forever be confused as to why someone would use the only linguistic medium which is fundamentally about the concentrated exploration of language for something other than information loading for the same purpose that drives essays, journalism, conversation, documentary and most fiction. Poetry is an opportunity, even a challenge or askance, to be complex, ambiguous, playful with the fact of daily normative, comforting language, and when its used just to make a straightforward statement, with line breaks, I don’t mind of course, not a big deal, but it does surprise me. It’s not as though a lot of people read poetry, if you’ve a message you need to get out to people clearly and widely, perhaps another medium might make sense?

3:AM: I vividly remember your poetry series criticizing British decision to leave the EU published at 3:AM last year, what is the future of the UK outside of Europe? Are things going to get better or worse? Will it change dynamics within poetry in UK – should poets remind people of the European heritage of poetry and culture i.e. is there a political role for the poet in this?

SJF: It will not change poetry one little bit as European poetry has almost no presence in the UK. British poets aren’t really translated and there’s no more than a dozen contemporary European poets in the reader’s consciousness here. But that’s not necessarily something to be lamented – I personally think it’s sad but then I’m a big Europhile, it’s become a little bit my specialism, so I recognise I am biased here. European poetry in the UK is a niche within a niche after all. But the wider question, which definitely poets in the UK do care about, that is the disaster of the UK leaving its own continent, well I have not the expertise to know whether it’ll be terrible or not, though one would guess that is the case. In the end, it might make people appreciate our European neighbours, and the character we share with them. One loves that which is about to leave the most.


Jana Astanov is a multidisciplinary artist, poetess and Priestess of Impermanence at Red Temple. Her work includes photography, poetry, performance and new media. She published three collections of poetry: Antidivine, Grimoire and Sublunar. She can be found here: website, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 6th, 2017.