‘I got my pen’: an interview with Marianne Morris

Photo credit: Ruth Owen

Interview by Vicky Sparrow


1/ First of all, congratulations on the book [The On All Said Things Moratorium, Enitharmon 2014]: it’s an exciting, engaging and complex collection and, sadly I’ll only be able to ask you about a tiny proportion of its substance here. This is your first published selected works; how did the selection process work? You don’t specify, in the book, which poems are new – and about half of them are. Does this choice indicate a sense of poetic time which works against a chronology that isolates and delimits the process of composition?

Thank you so much! It was exhilarating to finally get the book together as a real object in the world. There were two books in the pipelines with different presses in Norwich and Cornwall for a long time, which never happened. By the time Peter Target (at Enitharmon) approached me, I had sort of lost my sense of what I wanted to do, and I had a crazy amount of unpublished work. I had been expressing for months beforehand the wish for an editor who, I imagined, would help me to see the wood for the trees. Peter did just that. He put together an initial structure, and then we went back and forth adding and subtracting things.

We came to the final shape of the book through a lot of discussion. He was already interested in selecting from work I’d previously published in chapbooks, and I had so much unpublished work that I wanted to see in print. So it ended up being a loose chronology, book-ended by dates – the earliest work in the book is from 2004, the most recent from 2013. You’re right that it shifts the sense of poetic time – the book ended up spanning a decade, implying a continuity which I don’t think my work really has, and also scrambling other trajectories. Initially I felt that I would have to quit writing poetry forever in the wake of TOASTM, because publication is necessarily an axe chopping off the published poems from their continuation in unpublished writing life, and I felt I had been cut off from all of the serious work I had done as a writer. But 2013 was also the year that I finished my PhD in poetic practice, and so it really was the perfect time to take stock of things and make a new beginning.

Read a new poem by Marianne Morris, ‘Grandfather’s Loop’

2/ The On All Said Things Moratorium is a great title. It’s exemplary of your style: unexpected, playful and complex. The title’s ‘On’ is doing conflicting semantic work (it retains the sense of ‘against’, but also ‘about’) – could the simultaneous about and against of contemporary poetry be a response to the condition of being within, or being productive of, the ‘financial time of the lyric | self’ (p. 70)?

Oh, I’m so glad you think so. It is of course the most unwieldy and clunk-assed title. The day the book came out I went to the hairdresser. He asked excitedly to see the object, leaned in more closely, squinting, and said, ‘The On… WHAT’s the title? What is it?’ I said it out loud for him. ‘The on all…what? I can’t even say it.’ I wasn’t wilfully trying to be so obscure. The title is a line from one of my typewriter poems (most currently unpublished; an early chunk of them was published by Laura Kilbride and Rosa van Hensbergen in the first issue of The Paper Nautilus). It’s about the idea that poetic language is its own language. It isn’t adapted from speech, it isn’t adapted from theoretical or prose writing, and it isn’t a collage or palimpsest of those things either—it is its own language. You can’t express it through other means, you can only be in dialogue with it. If poems are going to produce more language, I want for this language to be a dialogue. Not a binary of didacticism. This is also partly related to my desire that a poem not have an answer or a key that you can read it with, and that there is no one right way to read a poem.

What you call ‘the about and against of contemporary poetry’ is exact. It’s been this weird philosophical obsession of mine for a while: the perversity of protesting the production of certain aesthetic values by deploying them ironically, and thereby essentially doubling them. The nexus of this tendency, at least in Cambridge poetry, is to my mind a small magazine published in Cambridge in 2004, by Keston Sutherland’s Barque Press, entitled Ira Quid. It was this subtly spectacular critique of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the poems interesting for their homo- and auto-erotic tendencies, and their knife-edge irony. Basically, what I love and hate about irony is the fact that it performs itself, because how could you do such a thing, unless you were of course a poet, because what else would make anyone do something so perverse, as to act oneself. To hamlet oneself.

economic subjugation is a wonderful muse, it bestows so much eros

It is perverse, and human, to do something so wrong-headed as believe in irony, and I prove it as triply perverse and human by being obsessed by it in turn, like a little insect remnant, behavioural echo, infinity. Something about not liking what you do, which maybe we can talk about more later. Commitment tried to do a very particular thing which was to stomp out its own tendency towards irony by indulging it completely. Being ironic about itself, about its condition as art. But the experiment also proved to me what I had long suspected – that the worst thing in the world is when no one gets the joke. I was talking to Ariana Reines about this in London last summer. I described Commitment to her as ‘a performance of Dick-ness’. Written in the rhetoric of cock. Performing the impossibility of unbreaking a broken eggshell underfoot – but maybe I was the only person who saw it that way. One section of the poem makes a long list of really devastating and only-half-devastating injustices from all around the world and attempts to mourn it all at once, a bid to poke fun at the idea that one could by listing enough atrocities somehow make them into a reasonable bouquet of representation – an attempt to enact Judith Butler’s description of ‘the real [as] a syntactically regulated phantasm’. But then, on witnessing a live performance of this poem, one poet revealed that he had taken my list of litanies and accompanying artificial compassion as straight.

Enitharmon, 2014

3/ A reader could take the statement: ‘Now I don’t know about you but I jog | carefully I watch where my feet fall’ (p. 23), as a statement on your poetic practice (the fall of metrical feet). Feet-fall, such as this, might hope to ‘Make a rhythm out of some | cheaply found data’ (p. 124). When you write poetry, what do you feel is the relationship between intuitive composition and careful construction?

That’s a really lovely question. I think it fits almost perfectly into writing and editing – the intuitive part being the writing part, and the construction being the editing. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about writing as listening – because of where it intersects with healing. In both disciplines, the best work comes from getting out of your own way, from disengaging with what you think you ought to do. And from trusting the work. Editing is weird because you’re suddenly deciding where you don’t trust your initial impulse, or need/want to obscure it.

My first drafts are usually fairly quick, in the sense that I have the overall shape of something ready in one sitting. There is a speed which comes with the intuition part of it. I have two main methods of editing these days – in one I am scanning for sounds and rhythms which need to be brought out more clearly; in the other I am digging down into the structure of the poem and mining it. Like, sometimes when I am reading through the first run, I’ll find a point where it feels like, if I dropped down through the surface of the poem, I could find another cave of language there, and bring it up into the poem. Or maybe it’s like there’s a little hole in the poem and some new lava erupts out of it. That’s what the editing part of writing feels like sometimes. Or maybe it’s just a different kind of writing. I will go through a poem, from start to finish, over and over, and add to it, and change it, and cut it, until it’s done.

4/ The new series of prose-poems ‘All I Have Is The Body To Go On’ sees your focus shift from questions of linguistic life to embodied being, in some remarkable explorations of the relationship between the self and its inhabited subjectivity. What do you see as the importance of the body in poetry?

It is everything. My time at Dartington, and then University College Falmouth, saved my life. I had done so much failing in the years’ prior. I was desperate to have a place of my own and to have the time to work things through—to rescue my poetry from wherever it had disappeared off to, to get my body back into health and shape, to start being able to feel things, and to clear away the amazing accumulation of muck that was making me stiff and fucked up. I was not well when I started the program – I was depressed, getting sick all of the time, and had an h. pylori infection. During my years in Devon and Cornwall, I was able to heal myself. Food was my main medicine, but I also developed a committed yoga practice, did teacher training and set up a class in Penryn, had a course of craniosacral therapy, and got a therapist. It was an amazingly productive, healing, and fulfilling time. A time of grace. And I am so grateful to that opportunity, and to the Dartington that was (it was incorporated into University College Falmouth in 2010, and the Performance Writing department was lost). But what seems especially magical about all of this, is that it all happened because of poetry.

The practice-based program provided all of the materials I needed in order to exact infinite growth in all directions—with the sole aim of the exercise being to make better art. It gave me so much. I wrote constantly, I learned to cook for and nourish myself, I learned what it was like to feel safe and anchored, I lay around reading feminist theory, I battled with my thesis, I wrote poems—it was paradise. The exact opposite of what life is really like. The exact opposite of work, unemployment, purposive labour, economic and social struggle, persecution, racism, sexism, indifference, injustice, debt, fear, signing on, being too broke to move out of your parents’ house and too broke to be able to quit. Grace to be born and to live as variously as possible.

Ironically, I had tasked myself with the problem of reconciling poetry and politics from such a position of self-indulgence and solitary time. Hilarious joke/not a joke! I ended up with a working methodology of using performances to gather material with which to edit poems—like energetic material, based on exchanges I had with people afterwards, or in correspondence. After a reading, I would look back over the poems I had read and gauge the intensity of the memory of my response, change the syntax or prosody, re-think the ideas or scour out the prejudices. The exercise showed me that I needed to be more connected, in my writing process—to stop using irony and rhetoric—and write my own embodied experience. And how could I write of my own body if it was sick, and mysterious to me, and prone to dark thunderstorms.

To make a long story short, I’m now training to be an acupuncturist. So I have come all the way through to the body.

The best thing about poetry is that it is free. This absence of money makes it naturally tend towards revolt

5/ The eponymous moratorium prohibits things already said, so it could be a form of debt moratorium. Debt seems to infuse this collection; against ‘our long history of debt’ we find ‘plans to pay off the credit card bill | but with love’ (p. 72). While ‘Here you are and I’ve named you, | naming made you cheap’ (p. 41) exhibits anxiety about how to resist linguistic value’s easy transition into exchange value (also considered in the brilliant ‘Murdoch Can’t Buy Me Love’, p. 63). How does your poetics (en)counter debt and its utilisation in constraining lives through anxiety and material poverty?

So I’ve kind of already told you how in recent years, I was spared from debt and its constraints. In terms of how this is encountered by my poetics, I guess it is most prominent in Tutu Muse, the collection in which ‘Murdoch’ and other of the TOASTM poems originally appeared. That book was very much working through the failure to understand that debt means having nothing – and also being caught up in the eros of having nothing in other ways, too. Having debt means not having money. It sounds simple, right, but it took me a long time to understand that – I couldn’t afford to understand it. Those years between my BA and my MPhil, when I worked in London as a secretary and research assistant in various positions in various offices were characterised by the way that debt fucks up your life, takes away your possibilities, enslaves you to its own rhythms and routines. I was never making enough money to get me through rent and bills and food for the month, always finding myself penniless a week before payday – at the bottom of my overdraft, with nowhere to go. I couldn’t get a credit card back then – thank god. I could buy myself no time. Being trapped like that was very scary. Office culture always terrified me. I worked in dozens of different offices over the years, and they all essentially came down to the same horrible things: the same strip lighting, the same sealed windows, the same stale, freezing air, the same grey palette, the same rage. I cried at the photocopier, I cried in the bathroom, I cried in the walk-in filing cabinet (filing a stack of single pages of A4, a stack as high as my knee, in a filing system contained in lever arch files organised AA-AH, AI-AL, AM-AW, etc, across three long metal shelves). “I went to Cambridge,” I sobbed.

But at the same time, I am not sure whether I can agree with the notion that art is subject to the same unfreedom as socioeconomic experience. In a way, economic subjugation is a wonderful muse, and it bestows so much eros, which is also a reliable muse—but one that I was growing sick of. The title ‘Tutu Muse’ is about this perfect little imaginary princess I’m dating, but I chase her around all the time and she doesn’t even love me. I’m just chasing after the tails of her tutu, loving her in an empty room.

Once I decided I had to get out of the cycle of debt, I found a lot of opportunity to help me get there. I had to make a few leaps of faith, but they turned out all right. It scares me now when I hear so many of my younger friends in England leaving university with their degrees and signing on because they can’t find work. As a graduate in 2004, I was almost always able to find work. It’s odd to think of those frustrating, soul-sucking jobs now as a privilege.

I think maybe my poetry confronts greed more than it confronts debt. I guess there’s some pessimistic part of me that believes in the permanence of capital, and some idealistic part that believes evil can be reasoned out of itself, that temperance is possible. The poem ‘So Few Richards, So Many Dicks’ is a background track to the realisation that every asshole banker has a wife, a family, a bunch of friends, who make no effort to challenge his beliefs about the world. (They pass around copies of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. An oil-trader-ex once FedEx’ed me a copy of that book.) I can’t think about it for too long because it basically means that all of the people in those constellations think the same way.

The thing that people in poetry communities do really well is challenge each other’s beliefs about the world.

6/ You’ve said before: ‘It depresses me when someone says […] “I don’t get poetry”.’[1] In this collection we find: ‘Going mental I do do coffee I do do café’ (p. 88) and: ‘Put the lab rat in therapy’ (p. 63). Does poetry have a relationship to mental healthiness? Or are these moments in your poetry more related to mental health and social change?

HA HA YES. HAA. No. Naw. Haw! I used to think I had to be unhappy in order to write. My most eros experience ever was when I was living in Paris in January 2009, trying to regroup my Harper-Wood plans. All I ate for about a week was bread in olive oil and all I drank was white wine and coffee and I smoked cigarettes and I smoked joints and I got seriously fucking sick, but right on the crest of getting seriously sick, just before I tipped over into a crisis, I remember sitting working on a poem at the local café one morning, drinking coffee, smoking a cigarette, so hungover I could barely think, and the one thought I had was, I will die like this, and I will love my death, and I was smiling. I was listening to Mozart’s Requiem every fucking day.

You don’t have to be insane to make good art, but mental health changes your genre.

7/ Your work is characteristically rapid in its formal movement – often exhibiting fast transitions between multiple subjects and points of reference – while this is counterbalanced with returns to reoccurring themes. This aspect of your poetic style has been remarked upon as ‘mimic[king] libido’,[2] perhaps inspired by your proposition that ‘Speed is the opposite of careful undressing’ (p. 65). Could this formal quality of your work also be related to a kind of passionate fidelity to thought – the way that ‘thought wanders | inventing the connecting wires’ (p. 33)? Does this poetic wandering hope to create linguistic pathways for new conceptualisations?

YES. The keyboard provides one with the ability to write at the speed of thought (or something near to it). And in the first draft stage, where it is just thought, and I am open to whatever is coming through, there is a chance to witness the mental constellations that surround a given topic—and also, sometimes, to thereby bring to light or excoriate the kinds of ideology that drive it. Thank heavens for editing – but editing a poem sometimes is maybe a kind of editing of thought. Like, if I find something in a first draft that seems totally off or surprising, I try to figure out how it got there in the first place. What it was in my thought process that took it there, and is it a thought that I can change. There is a line in my poem ‘Untitled’, about a conversation I had with Keston Sutherland a few years’ ago, in which I ask him what’s the use of poetry, and he responds, ‘to think yourself into language that makes you live your life differently’.

[recent poems] signify a shift into wanting to have more awareness of and clearer conscious thought about the interaction of feminism and language […] I worked on [a sequence] for a long time called “Mother Poems”. About a kind of love that was lumped under the oikos category in Ancient Greece, and thereby excluded from the political arena

8/ In ‘P O R N O G R A P H I A’ you write ‘it is the syntax that makes it so troubling, the thrashing | sluts’ (p. 78) – how far is gender a linguistic issue for you?

We create ourselves with language all of the time, and gender is a big part of that. The words we associate with practices we might think of as girlish, the speech we use in order to portray ourselves as girlish, or otherwise. It is easy for me to identify ‘maleness’ in writing, even though I shy away from the notion that things have inherently male or female qualities – but it is impossible to think about patriarchy without thinking of a) authority, b) the mansplaining of e.g. politicians who use tactics to avoid answering questions, c) patronising tones, d) the overabundance of reason that is actually fantasy, e) the prominence of rhetoric, f) winning. But patriarchal language is not INHERENT to men. I can’t tell you how many times I hear perfectly reasonable and intelligent women saying that they aren’t feminists because they love men. Feminism is about loving men, and believing that they have as much potential as women to do to make the world better.

9/ This collection refuses to give us easy answers to problems through those oft-cited redeeming powers of love: ‘love is now internalized as violence | done to the self’ (p. 128) and speakers describe themselves as having ‘loose politics | because I love you’ (p. 83). Yet these sentiments are also balanced with some unexpectedly intimate lyric poetry – ‘if I were | to find myself as skin growing hard over a wound of no | origin you would be the last to know’ (p. 47) and later, we find you ‘in whose presence I remain | who I am when I am alone’ (p. 83). What is love’s place in lyric now? And what is love’s relation to resistance against domination?

The instances you’ve chosen make me think about how the collected-style curating of the contents of TOASTM do not reflect an engagement with love in the lyric consistently. The first poem in the book, ‘His Silence Poem’, is chronologically the last, I think, and ‘Change the Game’ is chronologically the penultimate – and both of those poems signify a shift into wanting to have more awareness of and clearer conscious thought about the interaction of feminism and language, whereas earlier poems run the gamut – I wrote unrequited love, complained about loving someone gross, had a brief anti-marriage rant stint, and just a general overall cynicism that I definitely do not have going on these days, not about partnership anyway. There was a long sequence in between the TOASTM poems and the poems collected as DSK (Tipped Press, 2013) which I worked on for a long time – called “Mother Poems”. About a kind of love that was lumped under the oikos category in Ancient Greece, and thereby excluded from the political arena. But I haven’t published those…

10/ In (one of my personal favourites) ‘So Few Richards, So Many Dicks’ (p. 71), you write:

controlling my means of production means

I got my pen

I got my pen I got my pen

my pen my pen my fucking pen

I got my pen I got my pen I got my pen I got my pen

Does the humour here question how far we really can consider writing poetry to be a form of self-actualising, non-alienated labour?

No, it is not intended to question poetry as that kind of labour. Poetry is absolutely that kind of labour.

11/ It’s been written elsewhere that your work resists the kind of order imposed by accepted hierarchies[3] – hierarchies of discourses and categories of knowledge. Your poetry does seem to make little distinction in its poetic treatment of, say, Seneca and the Golden Globes 2010 WORST-Dressed (both feature in ‘On Spectacular Charity’, p. 40), and likes to invoke literary theory both seriously and playfully (‘Freud leaps about in the wings wearing a red | chicken-print leotard’, p. 27). Does this attitude aim to collapse certain kinds of distinction, in the sense of taste and class? Might it also be a way of avoiding becoming, what can be the blight of contemporary poetry, ‘a suffocating discourse on art | a regime’ (p. 57)?

Totally, yes. A total pisstake of distinction, as much as an inability to cultivate it. I’m excited you read that poem as a levelling of the playing field. There’s a lot of that in my chapbook Commitment, which ‘On Spectacular Charity’ was taken from—trying to eviscerate piety from the work—to dismantle any mechanism by which it might utilise its class power. That’s really important, in both the dismantling of the authority that certain kinds of knowledge can command, and in a bid to reduce or neutralise the fetishism of certain cultural markers over others.

12/ You said, back in 2010, that poetry is ‘about creating culture instead of reproducing it’,[4] and in a new poem in this collection you write ‘I say [revolt] is constant, | an attitude felt in all things, and threatening all of the time’ (p. 127). How far do you see poetry as a form of cultural revolt?

The best thing about poetry is that it is free. This absence of money makes it naturally tend towards revolt, I think, because, like Marx said, ‘Money is the real mind of all things’. How rarely we are actually permitted to do things which do not relate to our current or future income. There is the flipside of poetry, in that it brings a pretend kind of fame, which is like a crap version of money, in that it, too, corrupts.

13/ And finally, a bit of a silly question: if you could choose to have written one poem by someone else, which poem would it be and why?

Frank O’Hara’s ‘Having A Coke With You’! Partly because imagine being Frank writing that poem, how much vibrant and alive and in love. Partly because he really does take you there.

Thank you!


[1] Marianne Morris’ author statement in Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets ed. by Carrie Etter (Exeter: Shearsman, 2010), p. 193.

[2] Kennedy and Kennedy Women’s Experimental Poetry, p. 164.

[3] David and Christine Kennedy Women’s Experimental Poetry in Britain 1970-2010: Body, Time and Locale (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013), p. 159.

[4] Marianne Morris ‘Total Literary Stuffheads’ <http://mannemo.tumblr.com/post/493304097/total-literary-stuffheads> [accessed 11 May 2014].

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