Blissful Tendencies: An Interview with Robin Boothroyd
Robin Boothroyd’s pamphlet Another Green World, which takes its title from a 1975 Brian Eno album, will shortly be released through SPAM Press. In advance of the pamphlet’s launch in London this week, SPAM editor Maria Sledmere caught up with Robin to find out more about his thoughts on procedural strategies, ambient poetics, influence, post-internet poetry and writing as an act of attention.
Robin published his crowdfunded landscape poem Quintet for Wind and Light in 2016. He also has a debut collection forthcoming with Sine Wave Peak.
You can pre-order a copy of Another Green World here.
Can you talk about your first encounter with Brian Eno’s album Another Green World, and what drew you to write a pamphlet after it?
I read about it before listening to it. This was in an article on the Quietus celebrating the album’s 40th anniversary. Instead of focusing on historical context, as is usually the case with such pieces, the writer had foregrounded their personal experience of the record, and there was something in the way it had made them feel which struck a chord with me. Further, the piece mentioned Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards used during the album’s composition – flash cards drawn at random to open creative pathways – which I instantly knew would be useful in my work. So the album has always been associated with creativity for me. With this context, and the way the music floored me when I first listened to it, it was perhaps inevitable that I’d write a pamphlet inspired by Another Green World. In fact, I’ve written two!
What was the process of writing, responding and revising?
In 2016, I went to a workshop at the Poetry School led by Emily Berry. One of the exercises she gave us to do, I think via Wayne Holloway-Smith, was to give us a sheet of song lyrics with every word of every line erased apart from the first. We then had to write a poem using this skeletal structure. I enjoyed working with the tension between improvisation and constraint, and thought it might be worth applying the exerciseto a sequence. And what better source than an album which was already central to my personal mythology? Turns out it’s pretty hard to write more than one though! So I sought out some prompts to finda way into the poems. I realised I had a string of key words, so I decided to use Google’s suggested searches to ‘autocomplete’ some of the lines. These were then used either as a springboard for improvisation or verbatim asa new line.
Can you talk a bit about what the title means to you. It could imply a kind of iteration: Oh look, another green world. Or maybe it’s an invitation, a gesture towards/into some alternative space. Are we exhausted with utopia, or is this doing something different? What kind of green world do you want to conjure?
You know, I haven’t really given the title much thought! It’s always just denoted the album. It’s surprising how often such things go unnoticed. For example, it took me around 20 years to realise that The Beatles is a pun. But to answer your question, I’d lean towards the alternativespace idea. Because I’m very much interested in the power of the imagination to conjure an alternate reality, another green world.
Your practice of generating lines from Genius song lyrics and Google search results mixes improvisation with intertextuality, a kind of poetic aleatory that has its lineage in everything from Mallarmé to Sam Riviere. What drew you to this technique, and who are some of your favourite influences that use variations of it?
I have to admit that I needed to look up the word ‘aleatory’, an anagram of a Tory ale. I see that it means ‘used of the element of chance in poetic composition’, so it’s bang on! I’d be lying if I said that Riviere’s work wasn’t an influence. There are certainly parallels between the generative technique he used for Kim Kardashian’s Marriage and my own. Another influence would be Jackson Mac Low’s Complete Light Poems, which were composed using chance operations, a chart listing 280 kinds of light and a code based on dedicatees’ names. It’s such a fascinating book!
What do you understand by the term ambient poetics? Would you describe Another Green World in this vein?
For me, poetry – whether writing or reading it – will always be an act of attention. And the ambient, at least by Eno’s definition, is the opposite: an atmosphere, a vibe. Which is to say, a form which is intentionally undemanding of your attention. So the idea of an ambient poetry is a paradoxical one, and therefore attractive to me. I’d describe the work of Aram Saroyan as ambient, and Void Studies by Rachael Boast. Another Green World is more concerned with mood than it is with meaning, so I suppose it is in some ways ambient, yes.
I’m interested in what happens when you structure a poem in song form, with verse, chorus and instrumental sections. It’s like something escapes, deliciously, in my reading: I’m aware that the poem is a compression of something bigger, like it retains its virtual charge. How did you find using this structural constraint: was it a mode of compression or expansion? Do you see the lines as playfully ‘set’ to music or is it more complicated than that?
Every poem is a performance. Poetry is performed when it’s written, and it’s performed when it’s read. When I sourced the album’s lyrics from Genius, they included various descriptors in square brackets – [Verse], [Chorus], [Epic guitar solo] – which I found amusing and theatrical, so I chose to keep them in as remnants of the songs. I’m glad you feel that these make them retain their charge. For me, their presence highlights the performance of the poem. I invite the reader to imagine – which is to say perform – the guitar solo, for example. So it’s a compression before an expansion.
When you first submitted the pamphlet, you highlighted the fact that Eno’s album Another Green World is ‘pre-internet’. Given SPAM is self-described as a post-internet publication, obsessed with putting the internet on the page, as it were, how do you see the relationship between post- and pre-internet in terms of both music and poetry?
Many people would have you believe that we read less these days, but it’s simply not true. If anything, we read more – instant messages, articles, emails, social feeds. It’s just that reading isn’t centred on the book any more. I’m fascinated by the different attitudes and registers between these bodies of text, and seek to recreate them in the poem. That’s post-internet poetry for me. I was born in the mid-80s, so I experienced the majority of my childhood before the invention of the internet. And there’s a tendency, among my generation, to yearn for those blissful offline days when we weren’t barraged with information or paralysed by the anxiety of the infinite. Pre-internet as prelapsarian. Another Green World is interesting to me because it demonstrates the hopeful yearning of much late-70s experimental music, which has often been characterised as ‘nostalgic for the future’. Perhaps every generation is defined by their nostalgia.
Many of the poems are, like their Eno namesakes, ‘instrumentals’. How do you understand this working of a clearing, of silencing voice or lyric articulation in the space of a pamphlet?
It started as a joke. I was surprised to find entries for the instrumental songs on Genius, which is fundamentally a database of song lyrics. The idea of a poem withno words was amusing to me, so I kept them in at draft stage. But the more I read them, the more I felt that they could also offer an imaginative space – room to dream – triggered by the titles. When you silence the poem, the poem sings.
Another Green World has obvious environmental connotations. You describe a previous publication, Quintet for Wind and Light, as a ‘landscape poem’. Do you see Another Green World, as well as its procedural germination, as ecological in any way, a kind of reflexive, pastoral intervention within the contemporary?
Hmm. I’m not sure. What I remember finding in Google’s suggested searches was a desire for connection &/or information, most often regarding technology. Very few were pastoral or ecological in nature. But as I touched on before, the poem is a space for the imagination to go to town. This is how Another Green World is linked to the Quintet, by conjuring (sometimes imaginary) landscapes. Looking through the pamphlet, I see that the titles are pastoral: ‘Over Fire Island’, ‘In Dark Trees’. And some of my original lines concern nature: ‘Picking rosehips in winter’, ‘Who knew snakes don’t have legs’. Perhaps I wrote them to emphasise the contrast between the physical and digital worlds, which could be ecologically motivated.
It strikes me that there’s this strange quotidian tenderness throughout. Lines like ‘I’ll frogtie you with twine’, ‘Just add plant food’, ‘I’m eating a gluten rich flapjack’, ‘Taking my sweet time’. I’m seeing this as a sort of recognition of what’s worth keeping, an ethic of noticing and sharing. I love that line, ‘Everything not saved will be lost’, how it reminds us of our contemporary over-archivisation of every tiny detail of life. What function does poetry have as an everyday archive; is it something about accumulating a more humble mythos for the present, or something else?
When Frank O’Hara writes ‘It is 12:20 in New York’ and tells us about the walk he goes on, I really feel that it is 12:20 in New York. The poem becomes the present moment. I value the quotidian in poetry because it’s where life takes place. Not every moment is an epiphany. A few years ago, I wrote a set of lighthearted ‘rules’ for my poems, and the first one is ‘be attentive’. Even outside of poetry, I’ve always made a point to enjoy the little things in life because they add up to something bigger. I suppose you could describe it as a kind of grounding technique, self-care. The everyday is also intensely personal. One of my favourite books is The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon, written around the year 1,000. It’s a diary in which she kept lists of her likes and dislikes. ‘Things that can’t be compared’, ‘Things that create the appearance of deep emotion’, ‘Splendid things’. These give us such a clear portrait of what she was like as a person; her hopes, dreams, fears, desires (and, by extension, those of the society at the time) are all there in the lists. In a way, our internet search histories give us the same portrait today.
In the pamphlet’s epigraph, comprising the opening words of Eno’s record, there’s this line ‘Everyone just ignores them’, the words that ‘float in sequence’. Do you think we tend to ignore the elements of poetry or music we find difficult in this way? Is there something about beauty or function in meaning’s recalcitrance here, or are we just lazy readers/listeners?
I’m not sure whether people do ignore difficult artworks. I think they tend to hate or dismiss them. ‘Rubbish!’ Or, ‘My toddler could’ve done better!’ Perhaps that’s the same thing. For Eno, I think he was commenting on the fact that a great pop song doesn’t need good lyrics because no one pays attention to them anyway. They just hum the tune. You can’t not pay attention to the words in a poem, so I thought it would make an interesting epigraph.
How do you want people to read Another Green World?
As an invitation to play. I’d hope to elicit laughter and spark daydreams.
How do you see this pamphlet in relation to your other work and ongoing projects? What’s next in the world of Robin Boothroyd?
Quintet and Wind and Light, my previous pamphlet, was also inspired by Another Green World. It even quotes some of the lyrics! So they’ve always been two sides of the same coin. As for what I’m working on at the moment, I’ve started to gather a selection of concrete/minimal poems that I’ve been writing on and off for about five years. They’re a mixture of word associations and hybrids (e.g. ‘rhinoctopus’), and a couple were published on M58 back in 2015. My working title is Atomised. I’ve also begun a new landscape poem, ‘Vermilion Cliffs’. In terms of publications, Holiday Eyes, my first collection, is forthcoming on Sine Wave Peak.