(INTERVIEW) Rhian Williams Interviews nicky melville
In his recently released, ABBODIES COLD: SPECTRE (Sad Press, 2020), nicky melville – lyric poet, performance poet, ‘found’ poet (all the hats and more fit) – reads the runes and senses the spectres. Did nicky’s ghostly watching and listening – through ABBA, through James Bond – hallucinate the death of British cinema, of Sean Connery himself? Beware the power of poetry. In this interview with Rhian Williams, nicky talks about urban landscapes, animal instincts, tracking and tracing, hawkish surveillance, prescient films, writing in rhythm and being a channel. nicky's poetics are sharp and witty, vulnerable and visceral. Here he shares some of his methods and habits, and helps us see how wordsmithing is worldmaking (and unmaking…).
R: hi nicky
R: I thought I should start by noticing that Pierce Brosnan makes an appearance at the end of ABBODIES (Sad Press, 2017) and now with ABBODIES COLD: SPECTRE we’re getting more immersed in the secret service... Can you tell us about how ABCS is a sequel to AB?
n: Well, there’s still ABBA! In ABCS I was looking in a more sustained way at the notion that aliens are controlling us. I didn’t used to think about doing a sequel, but I really liked AB, I like spending time in that world. And the techniques I was doing… And then I watched Spectre. The last James Bond film, cos of course the new one’s still not coming out. There was an article recently that said, ‘we have literally been killed by James Bond’… which is kinda perfect. So I was watching Spectre, and, of course, it’s a shadowy organisation that controls the world… it has its feelers everywhere. The octopus images in the credits brought me back to the heptapods from Arrival [dir. Dennis Villeneuve, 2016; a key intertext for AB]. So I thought I should branch out into using James Bond and Spectre as a controlling mechanism for the second book, looking at conspiratorial notions around that. And yeah, just using little associations, like Brosnan being in Mamma Mia, and extrapolating that further. You’ll see in ABCS there’s a bit more going back and forth with ABBA and Mamma Mia.
R: so some kind of habit of mind was ignited by ABBA songs.... In ABCS you write in ghostly script [look out for the ghost messages faintly appearing on the right-hand side of the pages] about ‘My inability to adapt to the present rhythm of life’. Can you tell us about rhythm in your work? What’s it like writing to a soundtrack?
n: That’s actually a line from Jung’s book on flying saucers and UFOs. He says (I’ll paraphrase) ‘experiences of UFOs are ways for certain souls to release their anguish in the face of modern scientific changes. Their fear of war and atomic cataclysm, and their inability to adapt to the present rhythm of life’…
R: so to be anguished is to be out of rhythm…
n: yeah. What is the rhythm of life? It’s me, I’m a rhythmical person. I’m always just
thinking of drum rhythms… just making up, tapping on my head, or tapping on my chest, and all this kinda stuff. It drives the kids mad. I really should have learned the drums… but you know, it’s expensive and noisy. If you’ve seen me reading, I do have unusual rhythms in my delivery style. I suppose rhythm is more about spacing and line breaks on the page than anything else. For me, the page is always first. Or it certainly used to be. Maybe it’s slightly changed now… Because I was using song lyrics, I was more aware of how things could be performed. And certainly after AB, which uses about 20 ABBA songs, I was aware that I was changing rhythms and registers and starting singing and stuff like that in performance. So in the second one, I was a bit more conscious of that. With AB I was constantly listening to ABBA for like months. As I was doing stuff, not just working on the poem, I just had them on non-stop. I mean I had to stop at some point, because I was just noticing things all the time that I could tenuously link to the poems. I had to say right that’s enough. And I was writing whilst listening too.. you know ‘I’m typing this just in time to the line’.
R: I really enjoy how it goes between an austere sense of beat through to really filling out – like an ABBA song – into layers of emotion, and a kind of ‘tuning in’. I guess if we’re tuning in to these weird shadow-y forces at large in the world, then that metaphor is significant.
n: Yeah, tuning in is a good way to put it. I really love discordance in notes. I like open chords, I like notes that don’t quite go.
R: letting things buzz in…
n: I found I couldn’t listen to as much ABBA the second time, and I haven’t listened to them as much since. I think there are a few things going on. I mean I mention in ABCS (it’s a line from a video game) that you know you’re feeling shit if you can’t listen to music. I’ve noticed that. If I’m in a kind of depressed period I won’t listen to music for a while. It was making me sad, you know, listening to ABBA. Or the idea of listening to ABBA. There was stuff going on in my life and… so I didn’t really listen to them too much. I’ve been listening to a lot of classical music. I was thinking of Koyaanisqatsi (‘Life Out of Balance’, dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1982), the amazing film with music by Philip Glass. I’ve been obsessed with that this year, listening to that non-stop. I mean it’s so rhythmical (well minimalism is), but it’s more of a mood. Just thinking of the images and translating that into what’s happening now. It came out in like 1982, and it’s a massive warning about consumerist society and plundering of the earth. At the end it credits Jacques Elull, who wrote Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, and also Guy Debord and Ivan Illich, so it’s really informed by these ideas of propaganda and media and political manipulation. Which links to all of my work.
R: this link between cultural theorists and film soundtracking shows how rhythm and sound are forms of critical enquiry… this process you’ve been going through this year sounds like a form of critique and of philosophical thinking through sound.
n: yeah… I’m not sure how these things are going to feed into the 3rd part of the trilogy.
R: there are these affinities between soundscapes and landscapes, visual field and sound field. As you said, the visual rhythm on the pages. All your work is finely graded to its physicality – they are things to be seen… can you talk about that, especially given ABCS’ lovely shiny cover?
n: So AB was a long poem, but in a small pamphlet form. Because it was informed by so much music I thought it would be nice to make it into the form of a 7” single, a 7x7 square book. ABCS is 3 times the word count, so I thought I should do an EP for that, a 10”. So now the 3rd one will have to be a 12”… I like square books, they’re lovely objects, necessarily slightly different. Just in how you can use the page and how they work for the reader as well. My first book – selections and dissections (Otoliths, 2010) – was square. It was just a friend’s recommendation, because it would help to have more room for visual poetry than the typical B5 size. I’ve always loved artists books…
R: the gloss finish on ABCS is very pleasing.
n: yeah, replicating the idea of an album cover, harking to its inspiration, ABBA’s Gold. In AB I was ripping off ABBA’s ABBA: The Album. I did some erasing on that cover, leaving the bird of prey which I kept for the buzzard refs. So for ABCS I wanted to bring out the gold, make it shine a bit more.
R: it’s very shiny, glow-y. I like the uncertainty in the relationship between the gloss cover and the ghost script interior.. are they in harmony? Or are they holding each other at arm’s length?
n: It’s a nice bit of chance that the ghostly text isn’t as noticeable as I wanted it to be at first. But we went with it, with the uncertainty. And, you know, I mention Derrida’s Spectres of Marx, the idea of being there and not being there at the same time. Some people have seen it, some not, or not seen it right til the very end and then gone back and looked for the rest. I’ve always liked the idea of going on a hunt, hiding and revealing, playing around with what’s visible. Like special features on DVDs that point to things you might not have noticed.
R: the undocumented, the unlisted.
n: hidden messages, playing records backwards, which I used to do as a kid.
R: ‘did I just see something?’ or was that just me? It comes out of your writing process, but it’s also for the reader too, this double-taking… did I just catch that right?
n: you have to keep looking around, beyond the focus on the left alignment, as you’re trained to as a reader of poetry.
R: You have be sharp-eyed, eagle-eyed. So, tell us about that, about birds and bird spotting in your work…
n: I’m pretty good at spotting birds in a landscape, I can spot a buzzard anywhere in my visual field. So I always say ‘Buzzard!’ And my kids are always like, how can you see these things? … but I’m just kinda always aware of birds, just in general. I mean, I do go birdwatching sometimes, specifically, but I really love the surprise, when you’re walking somewhere and you’re just like, ‘oh, there’s a tree creeper’, or ‘wow, there’s a long tailed tit’, that kind of thing. I’ve been interested in birds since I was a kid. As a family, we’d all come running, ‘oh look, here’s a bullfinch!’ or whatever, so that’s always been with me. When I was in ShellSuit Massacre [an anti-band of two poets], we had a song called ‘Black Crow’. I used the great Reader’s Digest book of birds and plundered that for found language around crows, which was quite productive... It was an event when I was a kid to see a buzzard, you’d really have to be in the countryside. But now they’re all over the place, they’re thriving. So they’ve come back to me, because they’re even in urban landscapes. It’s still exciting to see one.
R: An urban signifier, they’re both in and out of place.
n: The idea of buzzards and vultures comes in towards the second half of AB. I had it in mind that, you know, our overlords and masters in politics and the media were circling us… It manifested itself in AB proper with the idea of reptiles (you know, birds are basically dinosaurs we live with) and playing with the idea of aliens as lizards and those conspiracy tropes. Birds can be very aggressive, they just prey on, eat and attack things all the time. It’s a brutal world.
R: when you think of poetry’s celebrated relationship with birds, this is not the skylark, the nightingale, the beautiful bird song, the figure of the poet as bird soaring on the wings of poesy. No.
n: I like the classical idea of birds as omens, of reading the auspices, the auguries. You know, that you get in Homer.
R: I like this ornithological strain in your work, hawkish reminders…
n: they’re telling us about the environment, they’re shifting their patterns. In that sense they are prophetic and as nature is out of balance, birds having to change their habits are signs, portents. And I keep thinking of migration as well. Birds move freely, travel great distances, totally at odds with nation state, with borders, with Brexit.
R: which links to my next question… you write that ‘Haunting marks the very existence of Europe’. How has your poetic method – your ‘cutting into the future with [your] harvested wordsmash’ – made you understand geopolitics? Can you talk about what Sam Riviere calls your poem’s ‘method of precognition’?
n: I would go back a little to talk about my PhD project, The Imperative Commands (due out next year with Dostoyevsky Wannabe). For a year I gathered all kinds of imperatives and assertions from everyday life. I had various constraints and structures for gathering and harnessing, but to all intents and purposes I was just gathering copy, advertising copy, marketing copy, political cant, all these kinds of things and compiling it into a big book. That was my first deep immersion in the geopolitics of language, and I wrote AB alongside that. I could see them linked in that process of looking for things and then capturing them.
AB looks at Brexit, and Trump’s in there too, and some other stuff in the background, I mean the Russians are there a bit more in the second book. So, again, I’m looking for things, specific terms (buzzard, Europe, spectre), I follow up in articles, and it’s like magical thinking, you know coming across a word when you don’t really expect it, and seeing where it takes you, looking for the web of associations and connections, geopolitically. Trump and Russia is a good example of that. I suppose I’m trying to examine and critique who’s exactly running stuff?
R: It makes me think of you as a bird, an animal on a scent, tracking words through a kind of cultural maze, hunting revelations. Since language works in concealment and revelation, that’s perhaps best approached by your finely-tuned ‘found poetry’ method, stalking words through forests and thickets.
n: Yeah, I’m like an analogue version of data mining…
R: Scanning materials for the forces at play…
n: Yeah, but doing it that way, as a human being, rather than an algorithm, that’s where you find great links. Like being surprised by a bird, you think, ‘oh’. It can be quite a surprising link or coincidence (or is it a coincidence?), wow that’s so strange that that actually happened or exists. I have a really good example. I watched Arrival again during the summer. It obviously played a massive part in AB, so I watched it again cos I’m working on taking notes for part 3. I was totally surprised and shocked… at one point, they are discussing why are the aliens are here. And someone says there’s one theory that all the spaceships landed where Sheena Easton had a top ten hit. And of course I mention Sheena Easton in ABCS, so I was like, ‘what the fuck?’. Completely amazed. Like why Sheena Easton? Why not someone more famous? So bizarre. So that to me is a gift, and one of the rewards of working in this kind of way. Re-reading things, re-watching things over and again, which we do as readers and scholars, that just blows my mind.
R: It shows how all reading is contextual, points to the moment of encounter. All of your texts are always anticipating their many readings, these things are there, waiting for their moment to be revealed.
n: yeah, that’s right. I look at a lot of cultural products, books, film, music. But what I’ve been trying to do since TIC is to try to keep crossing between the cultural and the political spheres, seeing how things relate… Watching films, reading books, listening to music, seeing relationships between all these different aspects of modern life: that’s my way of looking at geopolitics.
R: it makes me think of the geopolitics of ABCS itself and its uncanny anticipation of the demise of British cinema via the demise of Bond. Because that’s also the demise of the British way of doing things, isn’t it, one hopes? Is it significant that Bond can’t be released at the same time that Boris is struggling to look serious on the world stage?
n: yeah, Bond is totally problematic as a character and as a cultural icon. You know I watched most of them when I was writing ABCS and obviously he’s famous for being misogynist. But so many other isms, anti-Semitism, sexism, racism, homophobia, all of them. Not very progressive.
R: it has the full swag bag. But it’s also the premise, the idea that there could be a hero to navigate this for us and it’s all too obvious that no such thing exists. But such spectres can have a chilling effect.
n: Yeah, Bond is part of an establishment that does control us in Britain, but in the films he saves us at the same time, so what is happening there…?
R: Reading ABCS feels like a twilight zone of, ‘where is the real?’ Ghosts, UFOs, chance encounters: these are our realities. What about the force of coincidence in your work? Is coincidence your collaborator?
n: that’s a nice way to put it yet. And yeah, I mean I have been rewarded by some great coincidences. And what you’re saying about ‘the real’… ghosts, UFOs, chance sightings etc,… these are things that have always been a part of human experience.
R: I think of your work as an examination of the state, of the state of things, but also, the state we’re in, the state as institution. But there is always yourself that is doing the work. Your body is one of the main tools for your poetic method. So, how do you make an appearance in your poems, or how do others?
n: me using my body goes back to TIC where I was a vector or a channel for gathering by walking around, being the recipient of imperatives and commands. So very much based on my day to day experience. It’s about placing ‘a body’ in the modern world. I took that further with AB by tying it into these strange links that I was seeing taking the piss out of…
R: Often piss-taking transpires to have been the best approach all along…
n: yeah, definitely. I’ve always liked humour as a way to look at serious issues… But yes, I realised it was about what I would be encountering, so chances and coincidences filtered through my experience, bringing the personal through the structural. I talk about illnesses that I have, people that I associate with, loved ones, kids, parents, friends, poetry peers. Sometimes I think, you know, ‘fuck, what do I have to say that is original or interesting?’ So one way I can square that with myself is just to say, ‘well this is your experience of life just now’ and that’s a kind of record, an idiosyncratic record, and maybe that’s where it’s worthwhile.
R: it has the feel of being alive in 2020.
n: yeah, I mean during the writing of AB, that was kicked off by the Brexit vote and then towards the end of writing, we had the presidential election and the Trump win. So by that point I was really freaking out and projecting into the future about what might happen over the next few years. So yeah, this is a way of recording that kind of stuff as well, personal fears, the emotional angst and also existential angst and geo-political angst.
R: Your work is open about its vulnerabilities. Formally it looks controlled, and it is controlled, but there are little gestures that intimate the human quality of uncertainty. Which is moving, you know?
n: a lot of what I wrote happened without giving it too much thought. You know just note keeping and drafting. Afterwards you realise that you are doing something, but in the moment you’re just trying to capture things, using instincts for how things might go or look on a page. And it brought memories back as well. I mean I mention in both books things like ‘I had forgotten this had happened’, or ‘this made me remember’…
R: I like that that is in the poem too, you know, it’s quite open about its method.
n: I feel that you come across the thing that you need to read at a particular time. Or books lead you somewhere that you weren’t expecting. Lisa Robertson talks about how texts find other texts through you reading. The texts want to be in touch with each other, and when you think that texts are made of paper, of trees. And how trees communicate with other vegetation…
R; yeah that’s lovely. You have to allow yourself to be…
n: yeah, that conduit.
Note: during the transcription of this interview, in one simultaneous moment a bird* flew into the glass of the window (concussed, not killed) and the screen was briefly obscured with the notification that Sir Sean Connery had died. #IsNickyControllingEverything?
*not a buzzard. A dunnock.
To find out what nicky’s most recently been doing – ‘channelling the daft spirit of Ivor Cutler, or something like that’ – subscribe to Fuck This. And bring the Rs down.
ABBODIES COLD: SPECTRE is out now and available to order from Sad Press.
Text: Rhian Williams