(FEATURE) A conversation with Verity Spott - part 2
In the second half of a two-part interview (read part one here), fred spoliar chats to Verity Spott about testimony, freedom of speech, poetry as work, music, performance, critique, hexing, commitment and editing. Read on to find out their thoughts on everything from unanswerable questions to fashion advice for the ongoing apocalypse. What's a toad with hair doing in this interview?
This is an edited transcript of a conversation which took place on Zoom in November 2020.
Coming back to work a little bit. With Kashif Sharma-Patel I've been having a sort of off-and-on email exchange about Laurel Uziell's pamphlet T which I really love but specifically about the question of testimony — there’s a really good phrase for it in Hopelessness which is about 'language coined and pushed to the pressure of testimony' — and about these forms of disclosure and identity statement that we're forced to kind of perform and enact in the workplace, the kinds of constraints on speech and presentation... That pressure seems to have been quite a big feature in your poetry as I've read it: these kinds of ‘who are you’ questions, forms of extraction of statements about a self that you get and how that relates to constraints. If we're talking about freedom of speech: there's obviously very little freedom of speech especially in casualised and proletarianised workplaces.
Maybe if we start with poetry, then move on to work. So when I was first getting into poetry I used to go to a lot of performance poetry events. And a lot of the kind of slam poetry was absolutely full of expressions of kind of righteous identity: there's lots of ‘I am’ — you know the repeated poem with the refrain I am all the time, that's a poem that's been written a lot — and it did feel like there was a certain pressure to testify... It's a very competitive world that, you know, the poetry is often literally in competition - poetry slams, and more widespread mainstream poetry as well really — it is a very competitive field and usually the way to get yourself anywhere is to enter competitions. And I think that a quite cynical thing about that world is that often the testimonial is almost fetishised, a bit like a Ted Talk or something... I'm not saying that I dislike all of that kind of poetry, far from it, but I think that that pressure is a form of kind of violence against poetic subjectivity. To a certain extent, it says ‘this voice needs to be liberated, this identity needs to be liberated’ — well sure, but you know, does the liberation have to happen through a confessional testimony in poetry? Or can it happen just through the fact of the poetry being made, and that person, that individual — often, marginalised individuals — being the subject of their own lives, and not having to conform to a pressure of testimony or whatever?
So, that's one thing, and I think that in a lot of the poetry I love there's a lot of testimony: there's a lot of confession. However, perhaps it comes through a pressure which is not necessarily always from the outside — not necessarily like an institutional pressure — so I think that pressure of testimony in poetry is often institutional and it comes, in part from the fact that the market requires this. And this is a time when people are buying a lot of poetry, poetry is more popular than I've ever known it to be. And I think that has a lot to do with politics and people's need to reclaim subjectivity. It can't be a bad thing I guess, but once the market gets hold of that kind of thing, it imposes very strict parameters. Which is why the small press scenes have always been really important to me and I'll always publish with small presses as much as I can, because you don't have to have an agent or, you know, people sitting and editing your poems — there's a kind of trust there — and it's a trust in the poetry itself, that it can resolve itself in its own world. This does relate to work I guess, because in workplaces you're under all sorts of pressures but there is a kind of pressure of conforming identity and I guess — recently all this kind of stuff about ‘art is work’ or like, creativity is work — well, sure, you know, I very much follow Anna Mendelssohn down this route of saying poetry is my work, I will boldly and happily say that. It is work and it does involve a lot of strain, and thought, and I put a lot of hours into it, and pretty much all the poets I know do. But the reason that statement for me is somewhat problematic is that it's dependent on work to be within the work of capital and it's appealing to capital to keep them there. And I'm not being some kind of tankie or communisation person saying no one should be earning money and we should just communise the moment right now — like, obviously people need to live. I think in the current deracination of forms of culture, you know — there are moments when it's kind of like, okay, what are we gonna replace this with, then? how do we continue to work if — what if, realistically speaking like, the money is just going to go, and loads of people aren't going to be able to have it as their wage-earning occupation to be writing, or acting, or whatever, and that's a really tragic thing. However, forms need to continue: the practice and the occupation and the work of writing or whatever — or making music — still needs to happen. And what might it be able to do outside of capital, when it's not dependent on that relationship all the time, when it's not dependent on conforming to that particular thing? There might be — I say it tentatively — but there might be some afforded freedoms in that, which have possible radical outcomes.
I guess ideally there would be this relationship between poetry and work, and poetry-as-work, and work within capitalism, where one gets to propose and model ideas for alternatives and hopes, for some of the places that liberated labour might go… But in practice there are a lot of problems with that, especially as it relates to class. Still, it's definitely something that I hold on to.
The night I've been running since 2006, Horseplay — I run it with my friend Ben Graham, a poet from Brighton — you know, we've always been in a venue. And under lockdown we started doing it online and then as things eased up we started to meet in tiny groups in the park or whatever, on the last Thursday of each month, and we've had access to this incredible abandoned building which used to be the Church of Scientology in Brighton. It's this derelict office block with a huge building next door. And we started going there and all of the forms, all of the kind of institutional pressures that are present within what we've usually done just fell away. So we stopped having any kind of idea of a lineup — we run it almost like a kind of Quaker meeting, we just sit around and when someone feels that they want to do something [they can] and there are absolutely no constraints on time or anything like that, or form. People are bringing instruments: there's a lot of collaborative work that happened, loads of actually really important conversations and collaborations started happening and it was just quite amazing to see what happened when we were doing something that was technically illegal, you know? I mean, we were doing it safely — it's a very big well-ventilated area and stuff you know — but technically it was against the law, we were trespassing and we were meeting in groups — not much larger than six but a bit, you know. And it was just amazing how the poetry itself changed — you know everyone's poetry changed and the music we were making and everything. When you're not dependent on certain systems, and when the people who can't usually afford to go to the pub can go, and you can bring some drinks and food and share things, it becomes an extremely communal and horizontal thing. So I really am interested in what could be done without capital being a kind of primary central figure, you know? The small press scene is — has always just been incredible. I think we're really lucky to have that in the UK, lots of people are really committed to putting out these things that never make any money and they're kind of hard to find and stuff but they can operate with a certain freedom. I was thinking about this in relation to some of Sean Bonney's work. Looking at it, I think some of it probably breaks the law, you know? That line about 'when you meet a Tory in the street, cut his throat' — I think if the wrong person cottoned on to that there could be some kind of real trouble about that, you know?
Some people did get suspended [from social media] for posting that specific line!
I know! So — I guess — I want poetry to be kind of illicit, you know? I don't want it to have to conform to a market standard.
So have you been making music as well?
A little bit! I'm trying to play my cello more, cause — I classically trained from when I was tiny. But then I got RSI [repetitive strain injury] when I was in my late teens and I kind of stopped for a long time. I'm trying to practice more. There’s been a kind of grouping of us who've been making music collectively — so last couple of weeks we've had some poets — Kat Addis, Joe Minden and James Burton who I was mentioning before and my partner Dolly — they've been bringing harmoniums round and Dolly's got this enormous gong and I’ve got the cello and Kat's got this strange kind of woodwind instrument and we've just been improvising together and it's been really good, you know?
The big gong, that's great.
It's so big. It's not up at the moment but it takes up most of our front room — it's like [demonstrating full arm span] that wide. So yeah, I’ve been making quite a lot of music — more than I usually do anyway. Not recording much but just playing, you know, collaborating with people. I'm going to miss it now that we have to not see anyone. The other night at horseplay we were celebrating Diane Di Prima ‘cause she died last weekend. So we had this kind of long improvised session with just a load of people loads of instruments and stuff and people just reading her work over the top of it, which was quite amazing actually.
TRASHY QUICKFIRE ROUND
What is your biggest poetry vice?
Yeah — it’s the use of the word 'air'. I’m trying to resolve this in the poetry that I'm writing at the moment — I keep recoursing to this idea of ‘the air’ and writing lines like these kind of tail-off voltas at the end of the poems like you know, 'whistled along the air' or 'speaking to the air', and it's become really annoying and impulsive and I don't trust it. Because it's a vagary, it fails to name a real object and it's a really easy thing to fall back on, this kind of abstract ‘air’ — I think I was talking about it because of the virus initially: airborne virus, that kind of thing — but I worry it's become too abstract. But it's quite comforting to do it.
What's in your bag or what's on your desk?
There's a microphone on my desk and a candle. A bottle of tomato food. In my bag there's an apron, there's a book of sonnets by Ian Heames and a — let me check actually — there's another book, hold on — I can't remember off the top of my head — oh! Wind in the Willows. I'm reading Wind in the Willows, it's great. Toad has hair, that's the weirdest thing. There's a description at one point of Toad combing his hair.
On his head?
Yeah head hair. A toad with hair…
Under his hat.
He's got curtains. 90's curtains.
Favourite condiment or sauce?
There's a mango habanero chili sauce that I really like. And mustard.
Any fashion tips for the ongoing apocalypse?
Get yourself a uniform so like I'm doing this at the moment — my goal is to have several pairs of dungarees like this that get worn with usually black t-shirts and boots; and then like another version of it which is a long skirt with pockets and a nice jumper. Once you've established a uniform you don't need to worry too much about your clothes and then all the rest of your clothes can be just ridiculous dressing-up stuff.
Sprint or marathon?
Instagram or twitter?
Jeans or joggers?
Spice Girls or All Saints?
Martini or margarita?
Gideon was such a big poem for me at a certain point — I wanted to ask about hex, and hexing, and naming your enemies — your relationship to that.
I guess this goes back to what we were saying about legality and risk, because I was thinking a lot about ideas of hate speech and protectionism and things like that. At the time of writing Gideon it felt really important to actually go further and this has come back every now and then when something really horrible has happened in parliament (like the recent vote for not giving kids free school meals over half term) — often on social media these lists emerge. Here’s the list of the 300 MPs who voted against this. And it's like well that's not enough, the list is not enough. Like, what about actually flattening these people's lives out in front of us and looking into them really deeply and so with George Osborne it was kinda like well who is this person, you know? Like, what's the history that's led up to this. A class analysis is one thing but what about an ideological analysis as well. What books did he read at university, you know, these kind of questions; what is this person's life, who are his family? And I guess the idea was to not allow a kind of impunity to slip through whereby the violence of the individual isn't accounted for. Yeah, I don't really think as magically as I did then. I was kind of focused on the idea of the hex, this feeling of want for a kind of revenge, some kind of justice to be produced by revenge. And that was very much based on the idea that these people have this impunity, that they're impossible to reach. So the death of George Osborne really was him just slithering out of life in politics quite subtly and taking on the editorship of the Evening Standard, you know, a really cushy job. So there’s that and then I guess a similar thing happened in We Will Bury You which was literally just a feeling of sickness really. I think the magical thinking of it in both of those pieces is based on a kind of impossibility, a knowledge of a certain kind of failure.
Rob’s [Kiely] piece refers to the distinction Marina Vishmidt makes between positive and negative critique, where negative critique wants to abolish the object rather than reform it or shame it into improvement. But at least in recent years it doesn't feel there's any real possibility of either really. Like, when we're writing these words, is there a possibility for a lot of faith in sublation, in some kind of like dialectical resolution being arrived at; or in a kind of gradated reformist improvement? It doesn't feel like there's much on either count.
That's a really interesting point. I think a lack of hope is really central. There's a moment in Gideon where the focus kind of broadens out and I thought, well, what would a really good kill list be and who would it involve? And quickly it starts to mushroom out and you realise the history of political purges, the way they operate: at first they start as almost meaningful and then the meaning changes so it's not the objects of attack it's just the fact that they happen. Like, the terror is the important thing. So my list quickly had to start involving people I love, friends of mine, and myself… It very quickly turns into something that not only destroys its object but once its object's destroyed it realises that that's no kind of resolution really, and destruction itself becomes the object.
Yeah, like Jeffrey Epstein getting murdered didn't exactly help anyone did it.
In writing the hex it became quite obvious that death is too easy, basically.
And that what we were actually wanting was maybe just what we were wanting all along which is just like the abolition of the conditions that made the cause for the hex possible in the first place?
Yeah. So then a hex has to self-abolish too.
There's two angles to this question, I guess. Maybe I'll give you some version of both of them. One is that you've done a lot of long performances. And I guess I'm interested in your interest in duration and just in your approach to live performance generally. But there's also an aspect of this which is something I'm interested in with everyone which is to do with ephemerality and writing as a form of holding on to experience and securing it on the page in some way. On the one hand, to me and I think for a lot of poets, what we're doing when we write poetry feels like it's an embrace of the ephemerality of experience. But again it's also the obverse of that.
That's a really really interesting thing that's quite close to my heart right now. Particularly in terms of memory. I have a really bad memory in some ways — very vivid — you might relate to this with ADHD, it might be an ADHD thing to some extent — I have a very kind of ephemeral memory — there are a lot of pictures there — and some of them are extremely vivid, and go back to when I was extremely young and things like that but pinpointing actual times and things like that I find almost impossible. I find it really hard to remember what year things happened and my internal calendar is very different to the one that I’m operating in in the world. Memory in poetry has been a constant obsession of mine. The first poetry I really fell in love with was Wordsworth's The Prelude when we studied it at school. Something about the rendering of memory in that was extremely exciting to me. This idea that Wordsworth talks about of ‘spots of time’ — that there are these kind of moments that are so catastrophically vivid and important, and that they echo in the soul of the poet or whatever — it's a lofty notion I guess and a lot of people don't like Wordsworth for that reason. I love it. I'm writing more and more like that at the moment. The confessional nature of the second set of the coronelles… this character's emerged called Jacq — short for Jacqueline — and I know who that person is in a sense — but the poetry is helping me remember specific things that happened when I was quite young that are really important to me actually and that — that's part of the question that's emerging. You know what was this moment, this particular year of my life; you know that kind of thing. And in Hopelessness there's a long conversation about memory, it's quite subtly indented but it's a reference to Eric Mottram's poem ‘Pollock Record’ — which I've never actually read but there's an amazing lecture by Juha Virtanen, and there's this line in it, 'memories arrested in space, that image I will never forget'. I became obsessed with that, like memories arrest - things being arrested in space, like held, you know captured in ephemeral space — I’m really interested in that. It's a really vital part of my poetry that it anchors onto particular really vivid moments. And that — I do use it as a sort of place to store things that otherwise might vanish away. Yeah. There's a permanence to it.
With regards to duration and performance: I get really frustrated with forms that emerge that become arbitrary. So, one arbitrary form that I don't like is the length of a poetry reading. The kind of standard thing of, there'll be four readers and each will read for like 20 minutes... I'm much more interested to hear — if someone's got a new book out, I’m kind of interested to hear all of it. Or if someone has been invited to read and they read a sonnet. A single poem. I'm really interested in breaking through kind of institutional arbitrations? It’s the same in free improvised music so, my band In Threads it's like three of us — I play cello in it — it's like a free improv band, but we decided that we were gonna almost have songs. In free improvisation there's this kind of stuck moment which — I don't know why it's never questioned — when things like tonality and notation and rhythm are constantly being questioned and attacked, I don't know why the length of the performance is never really dealt with, you know and that almost every free improvisation event is a 20 minute you know a band play for 20 minutes non-stop and then they finish. We decided — well, what if we play for one minute and then stop finding endings. What if we play a few five minute songs but they're improvised? I'm just really interested in doing that as a form. Jacob Rosenberg invited me to read all of Click Away Close Door Say in one go, I mean it was fucking shattering, it was painful. It was really painful. But it was also really valuable for me to do that. And to understand the text as a whole, to perform the whole thing. Duration is interesting, what happens to a performance when it is durational? My good friend Kev, who plays music under the name Harkarl — at Supernormal festival a few years ago he was part of a group who did a 36 hour non-stop music improvisation over the whole festival; so the moment the festival started it started and the moment it finished they finished. But they were up all night, you know every night. I am interested in those kind of performances [where] they have a lot of stake in them. But it's not necessarily just about fetishising long performances or whatever. I just think sometimes things should be ordered around what the object is. So rather than like do a sample from your book: read your book. You know? Especially if it's a text that sort of requires that, to some extent. One of the first poets I encountered live that really just changed things for me was Keston Sutherland and I remember I used to watch the readings he did of all of Hot White Andy and Stress Position and I found it really amazing that it was kind of like… watching a piece of theatre, you know? Incredible performance… That the poem is kind of singing. And of course I don't think that there's some like, authorial truth to the poetry reading — you know, that's one truth of the poem — but I'm really excited by performed text and it's really important to me to hear it happen.
Maybe it has to do with a form of commitment to what you've written?
Investment and commitment, yeah. Yeah absolutely. It also feels like a kind of testing of it, you know? I read my poetry out loud a lot when I’m writing it as well, to kind of test it in the air? I think sometimes it's important to look back at what you've done and say well, has it done the things that I wanted it to do and, where will it go next? That kind of thing.
I struggle to know how I feel about the idea of having an intention that I'm trying to deliver or achieve when I'm writing — I mean I feel like there's a feeling that I'm trying to deliver for myself, maybe, or a feeling of like, untruthfulness? — that will tell me something about what I’m doing... but I also don't ever feel like ‘I had a plan and the plan worked out…’
I'm quite distrustful of writers who do that, you know? I think what you're saying is a responsible approach and — you know — I'm always wary of being too programmatic. When writing's gone really bad for me it's when I've become overly programmatic about it — you know — 'I am trying to convey this one particular thing'. I mean, poetry just doesn't work like that anyway. To have an understanding of poetry you need to know that. You need to know that… it'll do a lot of things that you don't think it will. And it will change in terms of context and history and things like that. Resolutions happen a lot, you know, we do find resolutions. But - I think for me the straining is more important. The questions are often more generative than getting to the end of them, and you know I — I don't know if you've read Joe Luna's essay on unanswerable questions?
Really interesting piece of writing about unanswerable questions in poetry. Like, to some extent I go along with it, I mean he's describing a phenomenon and analysing a phenomenon, but for me sometimes unanswerable questions are really important. And going back to what we were saying about hopelessness... I sort of trust that a bit more than I trust false resolutions, you know? Kind of nostalgic ideas of utopia or whatever. Understanding that there might be nothing there but still straining at it is kind of important.
Can you tell us a little about your editing process?
It's been different for everything I've written, you know. Gideon I barely edited at all; Click Away Close Door Say I edited so intensely. I worked at it every single day for the two years that I worked on that book: if I look through the google document history there's not a day when I didn't edit something or add something. But it varies according to what's being written as well; We Will Bury You I wrote in two hours and I didn't edit it at all. I’m wary of having like ‘a practice’; like in Creative Writing with a capital C and a capital W there's all this stuff that they say about how you have to like, beat your poem into submission or whatever you know, like this kind of show but don't tell.
‘Does it work?’ ‘Make it work!’
Yeah yeah yeah yeah — and I actually want it not to work, and sometimes when I'm editing a poem I want to make it worse, you know? I don't think I'll be editing the second set of coronelles very much. But with [Hopelessness] it did require a lot of editing because it was — for me there was a narrative running through it that I wanted to be discernible. And there was a lot of practising as well! So like, if you're learning an instrument you know you practise a lot before you do your performance? And the last edit of this felt like the performance. But I'm quite an obsessive editor if I let myself go like that. ... Reading aloud is — like we said before, for me reading out loud helps me edit a lot. I actually edit my work at poetry readings a lot, so I've got an early draft of Click Away Close Door Say that I read in New York. And for about an hour beforehand I was just sitting there with a pen just changing things. I think having it up close to a deadline like, ‘oh people are gonna read it soon’, or ‘I'm gonna read it to people soon’, really makes you realise certain things about it like — you know — what do I want to be there?
Hopelessness is out now and available to order via the87press.
Coronelles – Set 1 is now available via Veer Books
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Read part one of this interview here.
Text: fred spoliar and Verity Spott