You Name It: An Interview with Colin Herd
Colin Herd’s latest collection, You Name It, is out now via Dostoyevsky Wannabe Originals. A completely effervescent exchange between two of our favourite thinkers, poets and collaborators, Colin Herd and Kirsty Dunlop, this bumper interview covers everything from found poems to queer aesthetics, influences, bubbles and Bubbles, poetry-as-criticism, hosting poetry events, ways of reading, embarrassment, the word ‘it’, technology, endings, volatile bodies and THAT Edinburgh wheelie bin poem. You know, the one that just might eat you up.
> Where to begin with an introduction to Colin Herd and his new poetry collection? After all, few can top Colin Herd’s own uniquely insightful, and highly memorable poetic introductions: as a brilliant advocate of other writers’ work, with a special knack for drawing out the subtle gems others might miss in words, poems, experiments, Colin surely deserves the best introduction of all… and, of course, there is a lot to say about his brimming, bubbling new book You Name It, out with Dostoyevsky Wannabe this week.
> I like to think of this collection as the luxurious bubble bath we all need right now, a warm and comforting retreat for exciting, daring and at the same time extremely intimate poems that are filled to the brim with the familiar. And yes, this collection is also about bubbles! Bubbles as playful fluid forms where the surface is also the depth/bubbles as Queer poetics/ bubbles as the character Bubbles/ bubbles colliding with foam and notions of the Fancy/ bubbles as desire. Bubbles are also the perfect visual and physical image of how Colin’s poems are working on us: these poems are reflective surfaces, with allusions to multiple writers, critics, theories, these poems pop up in unexpected sizes, shapes, drifting into new territory, taking us in new directions, through tangible forms we can almost catch…but not quite. Colin’s poems leave us wanting more, like the addictive quality of blowing bubbles – we just have to read again, again, and again.
> From the very first poem ‘Fanciphobia’, recently published in Granta magazine, we are drawn into this playful performance: ‘hello all of you / brilliant poets and poetry fans / such appetites etc / I was thinking / tomorrow morning / how about you / walk out of your jobs / and those without jobs walk into them just up and toodle-oooo’. The back and forth energy and conversation encouraged between reader and poem is characteristic of Colin’s distinctive style and accurately reflect his belief that everyone can be involved in poetry: these poems perform as inspirations for the writing of further ideas and exciting forms.
> All poems create movement in language, but these poems decidedly reject static and binary thinking; in all of these works decisions are not certain, intimate asides can disentangle us from straight lines of thought and give us fresh clarity and, of course, they are delivered with the unexpected wit we have come to expect from Colin’s work. A key example of this is the exposition of poetry as the ultimate form of embarrassment, and hyper visibility. Like the teeny tiny poem ‘Weird Fight’: ‘My trousers were clumped / You asked if the fly was down / I said no / Then you went bananas’. I love how this poem reads like a joke or a tweet- in fact I think I did see Colin tweet these lines once and now here they are as a poem! Many of these poems do live and breath beyond the pages, they could pop up anywhere and everywhere. Take ‘Midsummer Wet Dream/Soggy Nightmare’ which leads us through a detail by detail description of a synchronised swimming routine with the final line: ‘DM me for the video, it’s really something’. The poetry is part of a wider performance, and we are the collaborators! Indeed, there are also collaborative poems in these pages too.
> Of course, none of these brief extracts do justice to the experience of jumping straight into this collection. As the title indicates, you are invited to bring your own reading to You Name It.
> It was a privilege to interview, over email for SPAM, my creative writing teacher and constant source of inspiration, Colin Herd: a well-loved and energetic poetic force in Glasgow and beyond! So let us submerge together as we explore bubbles, influence, collaboration, and what poems can be- should a poem ever be termed ‘good’? – (among many other bubbling ideas!), through Colin’s inquisitive, and seemingly never-ending imagination and wealth of knowledge on writing of all forms.
I really enjoyed how so many of the poems in You Name It carried this very self-reflexive, sometimes self-mocking tone, cheekily probing at their own artifice. They often enacted the writing process and conveyed the realities of your work as a poet and creative writing teacher. As an opening question then, perhaps you could expand on your writing process if this is possible!? Is there a pattern to how you write or a very unique approach to each poem?
Kirsty!!!! Thanks so much for doing this. You are one of the most sensitive, adventurous, bold writers I know, so that you read the book this way is really thrilling for me. –Thanks Colin!!- My writing process is quite simple: I constantly keep notes on my phone and (much less successfully) in my head, of expressions / experiences / phrases / attitudes / images / stories etc that I find interesting for whatever reason and then at a certain point I sit down with all that material and start to make poems out of it. Sometimes the poems are collages of that stuff, sometimes they develop from just one or two things. It makes sense for me that that process or the process of writing and making poems is quite close to the surface of the poetry. Diane Wakoski says in a poem “This time / no one taunts me / but other crybabies;/ and when I am alone / I defend myself with poetry”. To be honest, it actually doesn’t seem that important to me whether or not a poem or a collection of poems is “good”. What does that mean? All it means is it has certain qualities that align with a particular fashion or taste..
I am more and more interested in poetry as the weird underside of the language, or like a relation to language, than it is about an individual collection or an individual poem. Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping with the Dictionary is one of my favourite books because it enacts poetry as exactly this relation to language, of its pressures and pleasures. Tom Leonard’s brilliant 100 Differences Between Poetry and Prose makes this point exquisitely when the categories keep collapsing: ‘if you dribble past five defenders, it isn’t called sheer prose’…. Poetry is just this excess, this delightful weirdness in language when you sit up and take notice that it is about more than just communication – which isn’t to say it doesn’t communicate! Everybody is a poet. That sounds evangelical but I don’t mean it to – creativity is what we do with our minds when we’re not just trying to be busy all the time – and when that coexists with language it’s called poetry! The artworks I love most usually aren’t created by people who call themselves artists and are often not in artistic institutions – what about that little bit of graffiti on the parking meter outside our Creative Writing offices ‘free kink’ – that is a wonderful poem! What about the amazing installations of soft toys at Craigmillar recycling centre in Edinburgh? That artwork deserves the Turner Prize! Except I probably wouldn’t like the work so much if it did!
For all my evangelising above, I actually wanted to write a collection that was more thematically focused than my other books. Glovebox, Too Ok and Click and Collect were consciously – as the titles suggest – various and promiscuous. But for this book I thought I should knuckle down and write something of which people could say ‘this is Colin’s book about xxx’. That seemed to me like it’s what people like doing and it’s how work gets shared. I tried out different outfits…. ‘this is Colin’s book about shoes’; ‘this is Colin’s book about fabric’; this is Colin’s book about queer art’; this is Colin’s book about desire’; ‘this is Colin’s book about Co-option’ and I finally went for ‘this is Colin’s book about bubbles’. Trouble is, it doesn’t seem exactly to have worked. And I think I ended up with something like ‘this is Colin’s book about bubbles, queer art, the fancy, etc’. Jeffrey Robinson’s book Unfettering Poetry: Fancy in British Romanticism was really important to me when writing these poems – and still is. In that book, Robinson explores the distinction that Coleridge and others have drawn between the synthesising qualities of the imagination and the (generally perceived as lesser) ‘dispersive’, tangential qualities of the fancy, which ‘has been relegated into triviality, a childish impulse, immature, escapist, possibly eccentric, and thus to be provisionally tolerated until it grows up.’ Robinson’s book has these amazing intoxicating descriptions of the fancy – and all the way through I kept thinking of queer art, of the many queer artists whose work I adore and whose practice (I have this line in a poem about using the word ‘lab’ for things that are neither chemical nor canine but actually what about the word practice for things neither sporting nor surgical?!) seems oriented around the fancy. And I started thinking again about that sort of promiscuous glitter obsessed bubbling over hysterical energy and just started trusting my fancy and following my enthusiasms…. because I guess one’s enthusiasms and one’s anxieties probably in the end take you to the same place. Bubbles were my main guide though in the writing of this and they led me to Bubbles with a capital B (of whom more later!). That’s how the book came together.
This collection also reaches out to so many different poets, theorists, artists, and cultural figures. Can you speak about a few of the central influences?
I became obsessed for a while – and still am – with the Arabic poet Abu Nuwas who was born in c. 762AD, a poet of whom it’s been written that ‘the glories of dissipation could never fully be expressed’. His work is overflowing with queer love. There’s one amazing line where the poet fantasises about being the bubbles in the glass of wine a young priest is drinking. Nuwas’s poetry is full of bubbles and at one point the bubbles in wine are described as punctuation – I just love that sudden awakening to textuality – I want to learn bubble grammar syntax. I became equally obsessed with Asim Butt, an artist from Karachi who was part of the Stuckist movement – but the conceptual side of that wasn’t the thing that interested me – it was just his paintings – they’re so sort of scary and butch. There’s one that I talk about in a poem called Bully and Bitch – but to avoid spoilers I’ll talk here about another one which has this guy holding a petrol pump head/ gun – and begins there’s a sign for lubricants and there’s a guy with one leg on a step and the guy in the foreground holding it has a t shirt that says Cape Cod. The quality of the paint has this sort of terracotta tint that I find sort of like dusty dirt and there’s this beautiful criss cross floor they’re standing on that’s like a hard edge abstract composition. The guy at the front his jeans are purple / aubergine. But mainly this painting is absolutely sizzling with desire – it’s so hot this painting! There’s this whole mix of intense longing / boredom / attitude / disinterest / etc etc – and I can’t for the life of me figure out what cape cod is doing in there except it suddenly as a phrase sounds so weird and makes me gawp and gasp fish like caught on a hook! There are so many more I could talk about but I feel like I wear my enthusiasms for them within the book!
Tied to the previous question, I’m wondering whether you believe poems are always naturally made up of other poems or artistic works; can a poem ever be truly original?
John Wieners has a poem called ‘new form’ that starts ‘to try and contemplate time & age unfathomable’… I always have to try to stop myself using the words ‘innovative’ and ‘original’ when I encounter work that I find to be fresh, surprising, unexpected. Because, of course, nothing is really new or original – everything is always in conversation, continuation with other things. Innovation is a selling tool. Applied to art, it ignores the obvious questions – innovative to which tradition? from which perspective? – and assumes a single trajectory. An excessive culture of newness – things being replaced by ever newer things, cultures being replaced by newer cultures, etc etc – is damaging. It suggests chucking out the old and replacing with the new, which is all too often blinkered, confused, ignorant. That’s why it was important to me to include my gestures towards, for example Abu Nuwas, because in contemporary discourse around queer culture there’s a tendency to act like finding ways to queer the expressions of queer thought is new, when of course that’s nonsense. What in fact is happening is homonormative discourses are finding ways to open up queer marketplaces and ways to use queer culture to market ourselves back to ourselves! I saw a pride card in Sainsbury’s recently. I’ve gone off topic.
Innovation is dangerous ecologically, socially and politically (I don’t mean to distinguish between any of these) because innovation assumes a kind of domination – a vantage point. It’s almost the fancy / imagination thing all over again. Whereas the fancy plays around / revels in / subverts / deforms / even reimagines maybe, it never allows itself that synthesising, totalising vantage point from which those relations to the continuous, various, contradictory materialities of the everyday would be ironed out for the NEW. Make it New as a slogan unmakes itself before even that three word imperative is uttered. This book definitely prefers Bubbles’-via-Pearl Gates – aka Pearl Harbour of the 80s group Pearl Harbour and The Explosions: ‘shut up and dance’. The last thing I’m trying to say is that as artists and people we shouldn’t be finding ways of queering / understanding / writing afresh: it’s just that this is always relational to the teeming proliferating gush of trouble past and around us, never really new or original. Saying nothing is new is not about saying things are fixed and the world is the way the world is – it’s about saying that stuff is constantly changing – including us and it is possible to reconstitute in different arrangements and structures; they just won’t necessarily be new as such. I actually find that a much more giddy and delightful – not to mention politically viable – prospect – not one thing replaces another thing but all sorts of stuff going on all over the place abuzz. Like my bubble gun would tell you!
Recently I had the experience of submitting an article to a respected academic journal and the peer reviewer commented that the poets whose work I was looking at (contemporary writers writing urgent, formally dynamic writing) were not from an ‘innovative’ tradition. This astonished / astonishes me. If the article had been about poets of 50 years ago employing stylistic devices that were in fashion 100 years ago, the piece would have been applauded / waved through. Off topic again! Yes poems are made up of other poems! Poems are made up of poetry, which is a particular relation to language. I couldn’t write without reading and listening to poems. Judy Grahn talks of a kinaesthetic movement of influences / obsessions in the poet. What you listen to / look at / feel an emotional connection with is not just what your poetry will be like but also who you are at any time, I guess. I think of poetry as usually affiliated with ‘em-’ prefix words. Grahn talks of ‘emotion and emphasis’ but embodiment, emergence, embolden, emanate, all those too – any words that are about ‘putting into’. Grahn also says ‘As we used to say, whatever women do, if they want to call it a poem, it’s a poem.’ And about that I couldn’t agree more.
I’m interested in how your work as a critic intertwines with your poems. Do you see criticism as a form of poetics and was there a sense of bringing these two forms/perceived binaries together in You Name It?
There’s a line by Diane Wakoski; ‘yes yes yes I cannot deal / with the dichotomies’. Beverly Dahlen seems worth mentioning here. Beverly Dahlen is a wonderful contemporary poet whose work includes the mesmerising A Reading, a long, unfinishable, multi-volume poetic sequence that blends narrative, lyricism, criticism. A Reading excites me because it intertwines the acts of reading and writing so energetically, thoughtfully, sensitively. Charles Bernstein uses the term ‘wreading’ which I like too for the way it suggests ‘wreaking’ as in havoc. When we’re reading we’re almost always writing too whether that’s in our heads, in the margins, etc. I wasn’t thinking about being a critic in this book – except that I think poetry is an ideal space for critical thinking – it allows stuff to get soupy, into conversation, challenged, troubled, stay messy, not get worked out. I think I like poems which sort of articulate / question what poetry is within the poetry. I recently started tweeting these little tweets that start ‘I like poems..’ So like ‘I like poems where it’s like they’ve been on a quick-wash-dry setting but too full & everything comes out excessively spun, very hot & wet.’ / ‘I like poems where the poet’s got a ticket for the train but not a seat and they sit on a seat that’s reserved for part of the route.’ / ‘I like poems where it’s like you’ve been following a recipe and not had one ingredient and improvised by replacing with nearest equivalent.’ People seem to like them, I think because what we think of as poetry, what we consider poetry is actually quite important to us, which is why people like to say ‘but is it poetry?’ Etc… The work of poets like Fred Moten, Juliana Spahr, and poets like Nat Raha or Mike Saunders, all of whose work I totally love by the way, turn the dial so much higher on critical thinking than I can – as I say in one poem ‘my department is surface aesthetics’ – but all poetry is critical thinking, or can be read as such, as having a critical relation to language and the world, simultaneously, and then it’s about thinking what any given sequence of words actually says about the world or how they mean, what the relation a poem establishes with the world is.
There is an obsession with bubbles in You Name It; they just keep popping up in different variations throughout the collection! There’s something so satisfying about catching them unexpectedly and reading into their possible meanings. How did you begin this exploration into bubbles? Do you view the poems as shaping a theory around bubbles? Perhaps you could speak a little about the figure of Bubbles as well: the long poem about this intriguing character seemed to me to be a kind of anchor for the other bubble explorations.
Yes, the bubbles thing! Well, that comes from my reading of Eileen Myles, CAConrad and Kim Seung-Hee, all three poets whose work I can never get enough of. I started to see bubbles everywhere after reading Eileen Myles’ section on foam in Afterglow. In the book – especially in the piece Syllabubble which is made up of some of the book’s influences – I trace some of the obsessions with bubbles I followed but I think the thing I started to think about is bubbles as a way of thinking about how we relate to one another – there’s something totally wondrous about bubbles – we all kind of stare at them in awe… they’re definitely fanciful – they float they burst they conjoin to other bubbles. They’re queer I think in that they have queer associations but also they suggest alternative arrangements of humans and more than humans. They’re desire: Eileen Myles puts it best: ‘foam means I want’. Did I ever tell you about this short play I did about the Merman Umpire? I sat on the stage in a Merman’s tail and blew bubbles with a bubble gun. During the writing of this book though I was chatting with the poet Erin Gannon and the conversation introduced me to the artist Bubbles who was from San Francisco and who was murdered in a homophobic attack. You can read about Bubbles in the book but Bubbles became this figure of an artist who produced art for its social interventions more than any commercial gain or fame or success. Bubbles would hold solo raves as a kind of performance art. Would paste little stickers around all over the place that said ‘shut up and dance’. Bubbles’ Instagram was an amazing gallery of their art. Their art was also the way they dressed. Bubbles to me is one of the artists I absolutely most admire more than anyone. More probably than the person mentioned earlier at the recycling centre in Craigmillar. Sadly Bubbles’ death is indicative not just of what Matilda Bernstein Sycamore calls ‘the end of San Francisco’ in her brilliant book about radical queer art… but actually of the pressures and dangers that radical queers are always under everywhere. And just because queer culture gets more and more co-opted into mainstream culture doesn’t make any difference to that really.
I’m also interested in the many other theories your poems were in conversation with; in particular I loved the exploration of the volatile body. Could you expand on why this was an important theme in the collection and what theories you were drawing upon here?
I think a lot of those first few sentences of Elizabeth Grosz’s Volatile Bodies where it’s about ‘somatophobia’ in philosophy and about an understanding of the body that isn’t dualist ie ‘the body is anything that isn’t the mind’ but rather that the body is this site of fluctuating/ social / fluid / living / sexual / cultural / encoded / possibilities. I actually think there’s a lot of really sophisticated stuff written more recently than Volatile Bodies – Somatechnics: Queering the Technologisation of Bodies Ed by Nikki Sullivan and Samantha Murray for example; Michael Warner’s Fear of a Queer Planet is another; I feel like there is somatophobia in poetry too – poetry that unfolds as if it isn’t being written by bodies in the same way. The poem about my lap top ‘lap lap lap lap lap lap top’ is sort of about this – the ways that our bodies interact with technology and the queer possibilities of thinking this through. It’s about obsolescence, about how the dull matchy matchy spaces of dating apps ate up queer spaces such as cottages and cruising grounds and what that means for the kinds of spaces our cities and towns are. These kinds of technology in a way have been used to clean up streets – to move queer encounters away from parks, public spaces and into digital / private spaces. So I feel like it’s important that we think about how these kinds of technologies extend our bodies and extend the ways in which our bodies might be conjoining with huge organisations and networks whose politics and intentions might be different to ours. That’s a grand way of framing the fact I wrote a poem about a MacBook Cottage. Akilah Oliver writes ‘the body is present in the visibility of language’ / ‘I mean to be textured paper’. Yes and yes!
I love the heightened sense of hyper visibility in your work; the explicit showcasing of poetry as an arena of embarrassment which has been carried through from previous collections Swamp Kiss and Click and Collect. Did you feel like you were exploring this idea differently in You Name It? What do you think it is about poems that make them so embarrassing!?
Kirsty you’re embarrassing me now stop it!!! We could also talk about my first book Too Ok – because I have a poem in there which is called ‘paper does not blush’. I like the idea that poetry basically is embarrassment – ie if poetry is language used when it is self conscious – or if poetry is figured as embodied language (either works ok for me) then embarrassment is that visible badge / sign on the body and in the language of that waking up / self consciousness. Kevin Killian – who was my greatest literary hero – and who personally did an insane amount to support and help me as a poet – has this amazing essay ‘The Twitch’ – which draws on Catherine Clement’s ideas of the syncope. That’s what I always love in poetry; when it takes its language to the places of shame / guilt / ecstasy / embarrassment / humiliation / desire / all the things we get told are illicit / all the things that get normalised out of us. Writing is or can be really sexual, that’s at least part of what it is. Embarrassment happens when you turn up – ie when you actually take a risk and when exposure of some kind is on the line? I’m sort of addicted to embarrassment because embarrassment is this emotion of being inside outside – ie being aware of what you are in a particular moment and being horrified / terrified of it. Embarrassment brings you up against all the social norms and expectations and creates a space to open them up? People find embarrassment untenable, hard to cope with – it brings us up to this urgent need to change – to be someone or somewhere else. Isn’t that the greatest state to be in for poetry? Squirming, teaming, hot, barely able to imagine that it’s possible to go back to how you were before? Actually sometimes embarrassment is an actual vacating of the stable self – it’s where you actually desperately wish you / feel like you could exit yourself / bury yourself turn yourself inside out or hide under a pillow but you can’t – it’s this me not me me not me me not me moment and as such it seems to offer possibilities outside of our usual senses of what we are and this is awkward for others! Actually that’s maybe where the political possibilities lie… in embarrassing oneself one makes others uneasy, almost embarrassed on your behalf and at least then there might be a chance of sharing some emotional connection? I have a poem called ‘Humiliation Fetish’ which imagines the disruptive possibilities of embarrassing oneself at a golf club.
In one of your poems in You Name It, you write ‘I want it to be our poem’ and I thought this connected really nicely to your showcasing of collaboration in the collection and also to your involvement in collaborative poetic projects/performances for many years. I was curious as to why you are drawn to collaborative works and how this has shaped your own poetic voice? Do you think poetry is particularly suited to collaboration, more so than other literary forms?