Interview with Sean Bonney
Sean Bonney was born in Brighton, raised in the north of England and now lives in East London. His poetry has been described as something that ‘attacks rather than seduces‘ and forms an important voice among the British avant-garde. His publications include, among others, Document: poems, diagrams, manifestos (Barque Press, 2009), Baudelaire in English (Veer Publication, 2008) and Blade Pitch Control Unit (Salt, 2005) as well as a number of pamphlets and chapbooks. He also regularly publishes poems and other works on his blog, Abandoned Buildings.
Questions by Kit Toda, Dan Eltringham and Annie McDermott. Interview conducted via email.
Ben Watson has described your book as ‘scores for impassioned recitation’. You are certainly noted for your strong delivery in poetry readings but I found this assessment an odd one as it seemed to place your work as a written form in a secondary position. You make great use of the page, its white spaces, as well as unpronounceable symbols and typographical changes. Do you consider your poetry to be a primarily oral or written form?
Ben wrote that a few years ago, in a review of Poisons, their Antidotes, and at the time it was probably accurate. I was very interested in the use the spatial form of the page as a chart of performance, influenced at first by Charles Olson, and then later by Bob Cobbing – I thought performance was a necessary element in the entire process, but also that performance meant much more than reading the words from the page in a more or less impassioned way.
How would you characterise the relationship between delivery and form in your work?
When I’m doing readings everything goes fast – I don’t really rehearse any more, so I’ll just respond to what’s on the page instantly. Over the last couple of years – in “The Commons” and the “after Rimbaud” things – I haven’t been thinking about spatial arrangement at all, and so it is really a case of reading what’s on the page, and following the energies contained in the language and the content. In earlier work, where the page has a more complex, or just fractured arrangement, there’s more room for improvisation: I went as far as I could in that direction with Baudelaire in English, where the words on the page were compressed to the point of illegibility, and were crowded-out by marks, stains, and so forth. I’d never know in which direction I’d read those things – the page was such that I didn’t feel I had to start with the top left hand corner of the page and follow it through. As the poems were visual forms as much as verbal ones, I could start anywhere in them, and move about more or less as I wanted.
Like I said, I’d been very influenced by Bob Cobbing – when I arrived in London in the late nineties, I started going to the Writers Forum workshops, which alongside Iain Sinclair’s anthology Conductors of Chaos, which came out around the same time, really blew apart my sense of what was possible in poetry. Bob’s sense of the page as a score, and of anything being performable – going beyond even language – was fascinating to me. I loved the way he would focus on the text as material, would blow up the words until they fell apart, became simply marks on the page, and then still perform them. My Baudelaire poems were very consciously a response to his work – though I still insisted on content: for me, I want my poetry to still talk about things. More and more I’m interested in poetry as a form of communication, and the ways it can communicate that are specific to poetry, as distinct from other forms.
As far as my way of performing goes, my ‘strong delivery’ as you put it, I’ve always been like that, right back to my beginnings. The very first readings I did, going back to the late 80s and early 90s, were at punk gigs. I was hanging out with a bunch of people in Nottingham who were putting on hardcore shows, mainly visiting American bands but also local ones, and I would get up when the bands were changing the equipment around, and read my poems. Pretty awful poems,as it goes – I didn’t write anything decent till I got down to London – but, with an audience like that, who were there to hear a very ferocious, aggressive music – stuff that I still love – I had to be, well, energetic. I wanted to have the same power in performance the bands had. Of course, that’s impossible, but that’s where I came from.
Plus, for a long time I was disconnected from any poetry ‘scene’ – the few poets I’d met in Nottingham, I thought were horrible, middle aged, middle class dorks, and so, I didn’t actually know how a poetry reading usually went. My experience was punk gigs, and I tried to replicate that.
I want to ask a little about your writing method. Do you compose your poems pen to paper or do you compose them vocally or both?
Pen to paper. I accumulate materials in my notebooks – like I’m sure most people do – notes from reading, little bursts of things and so forth. Eventually it’ll reach a critical mass, and I’ll sit at my desk, the notebooks open, and improvise off them straight onto the laptop. Usually a very fast process, followed by a careful period of revisions and so on. Probably more or less the same as what everyone does.
A few years ago I was working on a typewriter – my Baudelaire book, of course, and also the “Black Water” sequence, which was included in Document. It increased the speed of my writing enormously – I’d feed the paper in, hammer away, take the paper out, feed it in at a different angle, and respond to what was already there on the page. Very very manic period. Before that, my poems would go through numerous drafts in notebooks and I’d type them up when finished. But now I compose straight onto the keyboard, and the screen. Short, highly intense, highly focussed bursts.
Some of your poems such as “Expulsions (on Marchmont St with Coffee)” have a specific place and a reasonably concrete situation. Assuming that the situations described in the poems happened to you personally (dangerous!) – were the poems born of instant responses? Did you write them while they were happening or afterwards, having mulled over it?
“Expulsions” is an unusual one for me – I tend not to be an observational poet, and rather work with ideas and so forth. But that one, I was in a caff on Marchmont St – it’s a very nice street – having breakfast, and as I walked in someone was saying to her friend “I am not George Bush, I don’t have to think”. This was in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, and of course, I thought it was a pretty weird thing to say. “Think”, “George Bush”, you know. It cracked me up, really. Anyway, I started messing about with the poem there and then, and typed it up all in one go when I got home. It’s not usually what I do, but even though I’m not really interested in writing observationally, my work tends to be very specifically placed. It’s all situated quite specifically in London. I used to be interested in psychogeography, though that’s become such a recuperated, conservative concept it’s unusable now.
But even if I don’t write about personal incidents, the things are usually sparked off by them. The last set of things I wrote come from the student demos at the end of last year. They’re not really about them, but they wouldn’t have been written without them, and the energy from them is carried over into the work. You can’t get ridden down on by police horses, or watch the cops breaking people’s heads, without it getting into the work. Impossible.
Recently you have written many poems which are ‘after Rimbaud’ and you have also published renderings of Baudelaire’s work. Could you tell us about the effect of these two symbolist poets on you and your work? Have their influences been of a similar kind?
They’re two very different projects. For one thing, the Baudelaire poems could still be called ‘translations’ in some very loose sense, but the Rimbaud ones are not. I did wonder what I was doing when I started messing about with Rimbaud, it seemed a bit ridiculous after doing the Baudelaire book, but as it’s developed I don’t think it matters. But anyway, to answer your question, they’re two poets who were very important to me when I was a kid, as I’m sure they were for a lot of kids – it was the type of stuff you read if you were a fairly literary punk. As far as the Baudelaire book goes, I started writing it in a period of very intense personal crisis – and one of my ways of getting through that, was to go back and read all the stuff that had mattered to me as an adolescent, to try and get back to some sense of purpose, and so on.
I did a talk on Baudelaire a few years ago, and in it I said that I’d written the book because I’d been thinking a lot about Baudelaire, but didn’t want to write an essay. To an extent that’s true. I’ve been obsessed for a long time with Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” – the idea that certain clusters of energy within the past – the history of the oppressed – can be brought into the present in a more or less explosive way.
It’s actually an idea that can only make sense in a revolutionary situation – outside that, it can only work in art, in writing, in thought. As the Baudelaire book progressed, that became a quite conscious part of the process – Baudelaire appears, through the static of the typewriter, in contemporary Hackney, sometimes as a bored office worker, sometimes as a psychopath drinking White Ace and harassing people. One of the notes at the back of the book compares the process to “getting a phone-call from the Paris Commune”.The book started, actually, from a set of photographs I took in a derelict building on Dalston Lane. I’d broken into this place, and I was in this totally dark room, and I wanted to take some photos of the shreds of sunlight getting through the boards where the windows used to be. And I’d forgotten I had the flash switched on, and the flash illuminated the whole place, and so I ended up with these photos of a room that I hadn’t actually been able to see when I took them. I’m not sure I can say exactly why – in fact I can’t – but that moment was the start of the Baudelaire book. And the photos are in the book, on the first few pages.
The “after Rimbaud” things are, as I said, entirely different. To a degree it’s a critique of the Rimbaud myth, the poète maudite taking lots of drugs and having lots of sex and this fairly chaotic life. I’m trying to write against that romanticism: a lot of Rimbaud comes directly out of the Paris Commune in 1871, there’s a very good book by Kristin Ross that argues just that. His famous manifestos, on the systematic derangement of the senses, were written in May 1871, the last week of the Commune, when everyone was getting massacred. I feel that Rimbaud’s work is best understood in that context, so “I is another” – one of the famous formulations – seems to me to be the transformation from a personal subjectivity into a collective one through the experience of social uprising, and, linked to that, the “systematic derangement of the senses” has to mean the social senses, the world turned upside down. And then the very fragile, damaged nature of his later work seems to me to be linked to that, in that it’s coming out of the pain of that collective subjectivity returning to an isolated, personal one.
I’m right in the middle of it, and it’s moving pretty fast. I’ve been thinking a lot about a thing
André Breton said, about putting Marx and Rimbaud together to transform the ‘alchemy of the verb’ into ‘real chemistry’. I’m rereading a lot of Marx at the moment, primarily for clues for where to go next in the sequence, which in any case is full of references to the history of revolutionary movements from the middle-ages up to right now, tho whether that’d be clear if I didn’t tell you, I’m not too sure. I have to work on that.
In an interview with us in 2009, Mark Ford said of allusive poems ‘I guess the poem has to work regardless of whether or not the reader knows that stuff. It’s a risk.’ I was thinking that perhaps with ‘difficult’ poetry, it has to work – to elicit some strong response other than mere confusion – regardless of whether the reader has much idea of – for want of better words – “what’s going on”. Do you agree or disagree with this hypothesis?
Well yeh, the poem has to work as itself, has to be such that some communication takes place whether or not the reader knows where the sources are. Or, if it’s not allusive – which mine increasingly are – it has to work whether or not the reader is familiar with the theories the work is coming out of. The poems have to be more than just illustrations for something or other – though, of course, they shouldn’t want to stand alone either. The poem is always part of the world, is part of a constellation of energies making up a particular reality.
It would be great if someone read, say, The Commons, and went and followed up all the allusions there – folk music, zombie movies, late 80s hardcore, Brecht, Mayakovsky and so on. But they don’t need to for the poems to work. If a reader of my Rimbaud poems knows that the central members of the Red Army Faction were killed at 4.30 on the 18th October 1977, then it will add something to their reading of the poem. But they don’t actually need that information. An ideal reader would go and follow that up, of course.
You have stated that you used to be an anarchist and you are now a self-declared socialist, as is evident from much of your work. Have you ever felt any tension between your politics and the perception of poetry as being an elite art form, particularly since your works are considered part of the ‘difficult’ poetry of the British Poetry Revival?
Not really. When I was younger the tension I felt was more in terms of commitment – I felt that I had to either commit entirely to revolutionary politics, or to my work, and I had a lot of trouble with that for a long time. I’m talking about when I was in my early twenties, and art did seem to me to be, not so much an elitist thing, but I wondered about its relevance compared to what I was doing related to anarchism, especially around the poll tax revolt. In the end I burned out with activism, and it’s only in the past few years that I’ve returned to being involved in left politics on an active level, and far, far less intensively than when I was young. But obviously these days I don’t have any hang-ups about which way my commitments should lie – I’m capable of doing both: they’re different, though to an extent complementary, parts of my activity.
To answer your question, I don’t think of poetry, ‘difficult’ or otherwise, as elitist at all. Poetry is a very marginal artform, it’s true, and for all sorts of reasons – a lot of people don’t like it, and I’m certainly not one of those people who goes on about increasing its readership, and so on. But elitism – I’m not sure whether it’s something that’s restricted to the anglophone world, but in Britain at least there’s historically an anti-intellectualism that calls anything that’s complex, or a little difficult to understand on first hearing, elitism. In the Blair era, ‘elitism’ basically became a synonym for ‘criticising the government’. It’s so obviously repressive, that way of thinking, and ultimately very right wing. I read an article in a performance poetry magazine a few years back, where somebody or other was going on about how the simplistic crap they were writing was stuff that the ‘working class could understand’. That’s the same logic as The Sun newspaper, all the consumerist media really – clever, educated people talking down to people – they think proles are thick, basically, and they want to keep it that way. It’s stupid – especially when you think about how so many of the really important avant-garde artists Britain has produced, Tom Raworth and Derek Bailey, for example, have been from the working class.
But it’s true there is a very real resistance to complex poetry, and it’s strange because people don’t have the same problems with music, or the visual arts, or film or whatever… Poetry, or at least the areas of it that I’m interested in, is always going to difficult because it’s consciously focussing on language as the medium people exist within and understand the world through – a medium that’s usually only used for information, instructions, commands and so on. It’s probably the most alienating of the artforms. Great. I’m happy with that.
I think that it is quite difficult to casually come across any poetry without seeking it out, particularly avant-garde poetry. One of the reasons is perhaps because small poetry presses often lack the money or the will to mount large advertising campaigns in the way that, say, a huge conglomerate like Pan Macmillan might do. I understand that you left Salt Publishing (a small independent press) because you were not happy with the way they started marketing your work. But do you feel that it is true to say there is a difficult conflict between an anti-capitalist (and socialist) preference for small presses and the partially consequent exclusivity of such poetry? (If not, why not?)
Well, I’m not sure how exclusive it becomes just because it’s not on Richard & Judy’s Book of the Month club. It’s a choice you have to make. For me, the attitude of the publisher is quite important – it’s idealistic, but I like to have the stuff brought out by people who think the work matters in some way, have some kind of artistic and political commitment to it, rather than by someone who’s just using it as a unit to keep their business afloat.
Do you feel that the lack of money in the poetry world – whether publishing or writing – hampers or helps to create a vibrant poetry scene?
Lack of money hampers everything. It’s probably why poetry doesn’t get any attention – if you haven’t got a price tag you literally don’t exist. It’s only your money makes you comprehensible to others.
How do you feel about the divide between the so-called traditional/mainstream poetry world and the so-called avant-garde/alternative poetry world?
I try not to give it too much thought. Though, obviously, it makes me furious that a great poet like Bill Griffiths died of poverty, while Andrew Motion gets to swan about like he’s fucking Wordsworth. But that’s a class issue as much as anything.
Most of the poets that get called “mainstream” have got absolutely nothing to do with the work I make, or the work that I admire. To say that everything is just ‘poetry’ is weirdly reductive, and ignores the specificity of the work, all sorts of aesthetic, intellectual and political conflicts: there are very different ways of doing things, and different reasons for it, and there’s no reason why they should want to, or be able to speak to each other.
But it’s equally simplistic to reduce everything to a binary between “mainstream” and “avant-garde”, anyway. It’s not as if it’s two huge monolithic areas staring each other down. The real aesthetic arguments I have are with other members of the so-called avant-garde.
You once stated that you write poetry ‘to make some fucking noise. Noise, not as an addition to the consumerist traffic hum of the “way we live today”, but as unwanted information from within the system. Noise as the etymological relative of nausea. Noise in the face of every apologist for corporate reality’. I am told that you have read your poetry through a megaphone at anti-war rallies. Do you then believe that poetry has the power to instigate political or social change?
No. I don’t think it has that power at all. That’s not the reason to write political poetry, though it’s always the thing that people say when they’re trying to tell you that you shouldn’t write it.
I think the real question around political poetry is to ask what it can do that other forms of political writing can’t. And I’m not sure I actually know the answer to that, other than to say there’s certain poems that give me an information, an account of a social reality, that other types of writing don’t. It’s something to do with the speed of connections through the work, the intensity of the communication: conjunctions and intensities that put information across in a way that I don’t find anywhere else. That’s very vague, I know. I’m not sure I can be clearer. Probably best to give a few examples. I think Adrian Clarke and Ulli Freer’s work is very interesting in the way it’s able to investigate capitalist damage – and in a different way, Will Rowe’s recent The Earth Has Been Destroyed is a fascinating work. I’ve been extremely interested in Anna Mendelssohn’s work recently. And everyone should read Andrea Brady’s Wildfire, which explicitly investigates the possibilities of the verse essay, and I think may be one of the most important books of the last ten years. None of this is what you’d call ‘protest’ writing, or in any way is agit-prop, but it’s all intensely political writing.
I’m very influenced by the political ambitions of the European avant-gardes, its leftist manifestations anyway, most of which assumes poetry has in itself a political dimension, and has its own specific contribution to make to leftist discourse. It’s true, for instance, that if you sit down and read Mayakovsky’s work, and even more so that of Khlebnikov, then you’ll learn something about the Russian Revolution that you wouldn’t get if you only read Lenin and Trotsky’s writings, or the more conventional histories. I’m not saying for a moment that you should only read Khlebnikov, but if you do, you get a sense of the massive changes in social life, in thought, in transformative desire, that you don’t get anywhere else. Similarly, if you read Vallejo’s work, you get both an account of capitalist alienation that is more fearsome, more intimate than anything else you can find – and his Spanish Civil War poems will give you information you won’t get from a history book or an autobiographical account. I don’t mean this in terms of an intensity of subjectivity – it’s something else, something more, something specific that poetry can do that other forms of writing, or other art forms can’t. In Walter Benjamin’s essay on Surrealism, he talks about the necessity of writing a history of esoteric poetry, and of doing that for Marxist, for revolutionary ends. I think what he means is, he’s trying to get to a sense that the utopian centre of all the revolutionary moments of history, is something that can be found in poetic thought, in poetic thinking.
Of course, in the essay he’s aware of the problems with that, and turns back on it immediately, talking scornfully about “poetic politics” – as in the type of utopianism that Marxism was meant to overcome. It’s an intensely problematic area. What, for instance, did René Menil mean when he talked about how poetry would transform itself dialectically into the voice of the crowd, or what did the Situationists mean by the realisation of poetry? Well, obviously they’re referring to, any maybe detourning, Marx’s realisation of philosophy, but, it’s also making claims for poetry, has an understanding of what poetry might be, that – to go back to your earlier question – seems to be totally alien to the mainstream’s understanding of that word.
I think it’s essential also to always remember that poetry can’t be isolated from other arts, other discourses, other social processes. Just as poetry has a peculiar cusp position in terms of artworks – it’s literature, but it also moves close to music, and to visual art – it can also border on philosophy, on journalism, and on actual social practice. It’s in its interconnections with other forms that it really comes alive. Even the most hermetic, perhaps especially the most hermetic – when actual social practice smashes it open.
You have shown a great deal of support for the recent student protests. How do you think the rise in university fees and the abolition of EMA will affect the poetry world? What would you say to Michael Gove if he were sitting in front of you now?
I wouldn’t say a word to Michael Gove. I’d shoot him.
Seeing as how the changes in university funding are set to destroy the idea of the university as we know it, it’s obviously going to have massive repercussions. A lot of important things come out of universities in relation to poetry: there are the readings and talks at Birkbeck, there was the fantastic Women’s Cross-Genre Festival at Greenwich last year, things like that are obviously going to be threatened. But to be honest I feel quite uneasy about only talking about this in terms of poetry. It’s not only poetry – it’s critical thought in general [that] is being explicitly attacked. The government are set on rolling back all the social gains that have been made in the last, at least the last sixty years. With the rise in fees, and the abolition of EMA, what’s left of the university will revert to pre-war social privilege. But whether they’re going to get away with it is open to question, to say the least. We’re seeing social uprisings, on an international scale, that we haven’t for around two generations.
I’m more interested in what these struggles will do to poetry itself. Jow Lindsay was talking about the protests around Christmas, and he said that all of our poetry had got 100 times better because of the new contexts it’s coming out from. I agree with him, I also think it’s got 100 times worse, and I think that means the same thing. In my own experience, in what I’ve been writing since November, there’s a sense of urgency, of welcoming the fact that it feels necessary to put in statements and so forth, that from some angle might wreck the poem. If the poem is to be true to the social moment, & speaking for myself I don’t think it can help but be, then it’s going to be messy. If you’re not going to revert to just writing some kind of agit-prop – which would be useless – then the new content comes out in another way, the poem, in a sense, cracks open. It becomes something else. Maybe more ephemeral, who knows. I’m certainly not talking about writing lots of angry shouty poems – I’ve done plenty of those in the past anyway, and I’m not interested in that any more. Most of what I’ve been writing lately is very calm indeed. Again, that’s very vague, it’s hard to talk about what I’m working on right now.
It’s too early to say what’s going to happen, really, whether in terms of social struggles, or in writing. I feel that a lot of things changed on the 10th November, and even though the initial intensity of the movement has receded, it’s by no means business as usual yet.
‘I could go South, / to the heart of smooth success [. . . ] And come back up here three times a year /for humanity.’ (Peter Riley, ‘Alstonefield’) . Like Riley, you also ‘went south’ – do you think the tension describes persists today? And do you think there are differences in poetic voice between north and south?
Well I live in a working class, multicultural part of east London and there’s plenty of humanity here. There’s definitely a tension between London and the rest of the country, isn’t there.
Seriously though, I’m not sure how to answer that. Historically there’s obviously been a massive north-south divide, economically and politically – which I was very aware of when I was growing up under Thatcherism, and was one of the factors that politicised me. The scars that Thatcher left on that landscape are still there – massive deprivation and generational unemployment, however much they’re hidden away by gentrification. But it’s too simplistic to talk about it as a north-south divide – try hanging out in some of the towns on the south coast, try checking out the parts of Hackney that the hipsters haven’t got to yet.
In terms of poetic voice, there’s always going to be regional differences. If you live in, I dunno, Middlesborough, you’re going to write in a different way than if you live in Dalston. Again, historically there have always been inevitable differences. But also for reasons of class as much as region. I think it may be different with the younger poets – again, there’s definitely differences, but less pronounced than in the past, perhaps.
Is there a London scene? How would you characterise poetry and poetry readings in London at the moment?
There’s not a self-consciously “London” scene in the way there still was when I arrived on the scene. Like I said earlier, I was a regular at Writers Forum, and I’d also go to the readings at SubVoicive. It was a scene that was very aware of its traditions, and rightly so – poets like Allen Fisher, Bob Cobbing, Maggie O’Sullivan continue to be massively important to me.
Things seem a lot more fluid now. The scene is a lot younger, for one thing. The Openned series changed things a lot, and for the better, made things much more lively. More recently there’s been The Situation Room up in Tottenham, lots of interesting stuff there. And Xing the Line, that Jeff Hilson runs, and I pretend to help out with, has been going for getting on for ten years. Presses springing up all over the place, lots of young poets, a very interesting non-commercial scene. Things are a lot less regionally based now, it’s less accurate to talk about a “London” scene, or whatever, than it was when I first turned up. People move around a lot – there’s close connections between poets throughout the country now, it seems to me.
Finally, a bit of a silly question, if you could choose to have written one poem by someone else, which poems would it be and why?
Ann Taylor’s “The Star”, perhaps. Or failing that, Paradise Lost. No reason. I just like em.