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Andrea Brady Interview


Andrea Brady was born in Philadelphia, and studied at Columbia University in New York and at Cambridge University in the UK. She teaches early modern and contemporary literature at Queen Mary, University of London, where she runs the Archive of the Now, a freely-accessible online repository of readings by over one hundred UK poets.


Her collections of poetry include Embrace (Object Permanence, 2005) and Vacation of a Lifetime (Salt, 2001). A long sequence of materialist history of obscurity and phosphorescence, 'Wildfire', is published on Dispatx.comHer poems have also been published in Arras, The Baffler, Big Allis, Boxon, the Capilano Review, CCCP 9 Poetry Archive, Chicago Review, Dusie, The East Village Poetry Web, How2, Jacket, Mute, Onedit, Parataxis, Poetry Review, Quid, Ratapallax, Salt, Slope, Stand, Triquarterly and Verse


She has given many public readings in the UK and the US, including at the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver; the Centre Internationale de Poésie Marseille; Poetry Hearings Berlin, and a reading tour of the rust belt USA in April 2007. The US tour was mounted in support of the recent special issue of Chicago Review (53.1) on New British Poetry, which focused on her work along with that of Chris Goode, Peter Manson, and Keston Sutherland.  With Keston, Andrea runs a small press, Barque, which publishes contemporary innovative poetry. 



Andrew Duncan studied as a mediaevalist and started writing in punk fanzines. He has been publishing poetry since the late 70s. His collections include: In a German Hotel, Anxiety Before Entering a Room, Sound Surface and Surveillance and Compliance. He was one of the editors of Angel Exhaust and now reviews regularly for Poetry Review.




AD: This may go wrong, but I would like to suggest that your poems concern the behaviour of various figures, whose actions are described in great detail, who have in common that they want your trust and that if you want to live in society you have to decide where to give that trust. That is, politicians, friends, and philosophers have this in common and can appear in the same poems. Could you comment on that? The wealth of information in your poems has to do with the complexity of human behaviour and the accuracy with which you have to watch someone to see if their actions are different from their promises, is that right? How does the reader know you are trustworthy?


AB: I’d agree that my poems are inhabited by actors, rational or not, whom I would identify as the nodes from which different kinds of force emanate. That force can be rhetorical, political, social, amorous; its emanation can be weak or strong. The poems don’t suggest that these characters can be known in their wholeness; rather, the personal pronouns and names usually stand in for vocational identities. I’m more interested in how such identities might emerge to me (to the text) in the distinctness of personhood.


Even the most personal relations described in my poems are mysterious, and my interest in writing about/for them is the effort to apply the limitless complexity of language to human interactions which rely almost exclusively on the language of triviality. The poems work away at the smallest, and often least representative, moments in conversation, desire and exchange, and when I finish them I’m usually left with the feeling that I haven’t even begun to speak. The bounty of the poem is its inability ever to hit the exact mark: so I go back. The poem’s work does nothing more (or maybe less) than indicate the infinite possibility embedded in the practice of social life. Though I do feel that possibility remains just that, potentiality, and that I do less, examine less, than I should, and rely excessively on the banal: the banal as life force.


I think also that my earliest work is not good enough, because it presents the banality of others with too much irony; the only identity which is allowed to emerge in its complexity in those poems is “mine” (or “hers” where I was already trying to project the awareness of this problem a bit further away), and something of “yours” In poems like ‘Saw Fit’ I have tried to think with a little more of the compassion of recognition and anger about the dialectical relationship between suddenly-historical actors, i.e. Lyndie England, and the networks in which they find themselves: about the relationship between predication and will. I have no particular interest in indicting politicians for promising, e.g., that their actions are democratic, and acting like fascists; we all know that, it’s the basis of the rhetorical organisation of the media and the entire history of political discourse.


But, if we believe that language is constitutive (I do), then this difference has come to constitute our social reality: we live in the subjunctive mood, the present as a waiting-room for our acquisitions and hopes (both mendacious and gentle). So I’m untrustworthy, even to myself, because my relations to the order which keeps me fit, clothed, and idle are wholly contradictory. Like most of my contemporaries I have thought for a long time that the difference between language and intent contaminates speech in its totality, and that poets’ activities are beneficial to human life only insofar as they are forced to ferret out little sideways circumventions of the untruth of discourse: these might be our escape routes. I can think about these things because I have a job (I work in cultural preservation). When I’m not thinking about them, I am mostly happy. Recently I have also been thinking about how to write about happiness, how to be faithful without misrecognising ironic self-entrapment as commitment, how to escape the mourning attitude.


AD: I think the multiplanarity of your poems may be a problem for some people, and especially the transition from one plane to another. Its nothing people arent used to from TV news broadcasts or newspapers, but anyway there are transitions which may leave some readers standing. I wonder if we can talk through one poem and follow the flow of sense. The one I propose is Inaugural Weekend, which new readers will find in Vacation of a Lifetime. (Its simple enough to be tractable but it does go from Westminster to America, which is a long way.)


AB: Is it such a long way from Westminster to Washington? Most of the poems in this book argue it isnt or from Cambridge to America, which is where I had planted my boots when writing them. I reckon that most people living under the shadow of the special relationship wouldn’t see it as too far either. Some of the poems references were drawn from reading, some from the news; while they might be discovered by someone researching the poem, I think (well I would think) the fatalism of the poem registers quite clearly without painstaking scholarly exegesis.


The upper part of a queen / held in our arms and kissed is a paraphrase of Pepys description of how, on the 23 February 1669, he took his wife and servant to Westminster Abbey and there did show them all the tombs very finely, having one with us alone ... and here we did see, by perticular favour, the body of Queen Katherine of Valois, and had her upper part of her body in my hands. And I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen, and that this was my birthday, 36 year old, that I did first kiss a Queen. The soup of iron is therefore also a reference to a less-well-preserved corpse; I think Id been reading about other experiments in exhuming corpses, where someone (was it Pepys?) actually dipped a finger into the liquidified remains to taste it. At any rate, the relic of monarchical authority, revealed as a gruesome exhibit of morbidity and subjected to his mocking amorousness, then develops into the gruesome spectacle of right-wing American citizens jamming the subways in Washington as they arrive to enforce Bushs first electoral victory by taking tours of the Capitol over the inaugural weekend.


Under the sign of the Coffin is probably the directions to a bookseller in an early-modern printed book which I was reading at the time the poem was written in Cambridge, while I was working on my thesis; but more generally its a pendulum above our heads, a mark of the morbidity of the built environment. The girl covered in 180 wounds was Victoria Climbié, whose awful death had just been reported in the newspapers. This child was starved of affection in life, her body only cared for in death the inquiries and autopsies and newspaper articles I guess resemble Pepys stooping over Catherine of Valoiss mouth. Between these topical references is a subject struggling to avoid the tripwires of an exploitatively gross interest and complicit actuarial attention to death: from the 180 wounds to the numbers of the bank account. Thats why the poem opens with a problematization of laughter: a showing of teeth, an aggression in the midst of bad news. And it also worries about the complicity of loved ones”, of how my own family and friends, the people I admire and respect, are being distorted by the context both of their political environment and of my own critical regard for it.


The poem now seems to me rather embarrassingly morbid but I was writing on mortuary ritual and elegy at the time as well as occasionally too ironic: the lines Hey I believe in change are too static in their depiction of my voluntarism; compassion in the poem is only registered negatively. It plays with the auguring in Inaugural: that the future can be predicted from dissection of the innards of birds (maybe I should have been eating a chicken wing), smoke and entrails and burnt offerings. The deathly souvenirs stacked that day at the Sainsburys suggested that future would be more burnt: and so it turned out.


AD: We had a vision in which the proletariat would be liberated and the rules of history would change. Demographically, this is quite close to what actually happened, and the weakening of Left parties in the whole European Union was due to the transformation of so much of the proletariat into the new middle class. But this leaves an old Leftist like me with the question of what direction a radical poet of now wants society to go in. How do you want things to change? Or, what is drawing your audience together?


AB: Is this really an accurate description of the course of recent history? Incomes and buying power may have improved in the developed countries, where labour conditions have changed for many from manufacturing to information technologies and management – but gross inequalities still exist, and as the welfare state is dismantled in favour of private enterprise and charity, we seem to be returning to prewar social and economic conditions. In the US and UK the underclass, if not necessarily an industrial proletariat, certainly does still exist. And the “majority world” still suffers the brutalities of industrial and agrarian exploitation described by classic Marxism. The rules of history, such as they favour the free market, the exhaustion of natural resources and of labour power, and the trumping of state governments or local protections by international and unregulated corporate entities, have not “changed”, rather they seem to have unleashed a grinning hybrid of capital and state terror which is the apotheosis of capitalism. These conditions look set to worsen with the onset of ecological crises, while the demise of trade unions (and the forms of production under which the trade union can evolve most efficiently) means the only advocates for reform in the developed world seem to be NGOs and self-regulating governmental bodies – which are themselves so corrupted by the ideology of non-ideology that they offer no resistance to the most outrageous predations of the imperial will. It’s a bad fucking time.


Radical cultural producers, including poets, including you and me, recognise, lament, and live with such continuities of exploitation in the economic base. But we also respond to the cultural effects of alienation and reification which the transportation of some members of the working class into a middle class have not eliminated. It is still difficult to live in a community, even a virtual one built on the resemblances solicited by the Internet. That is to say, I don’t feel that I write for and out of a community, with whom I am collaborating for social justice or revolution. What draws the audience together? I’m not sure that anything does. My poetry spills out into a very limited readership, which assumes many of the characteristics of the larger communities of nation and city: it competes for the dwindling resources of attention, it values individual productivity over collaborative exchange, it preserves cultural capital for an elite which is not representative of social, ethnic, class, or gender demographics. Art (including poetry) is either public, visible, and supported by the media (i.e. neutered), or private, invisible, and scorned by the media, to which it has no access. For an example of the former, see Mark Wallinger’s simulacrum of Brian Haw’s protest for Tate Britain: Haw’s commitment (he has lived at the spot on Parliament Square for five and a half years), the sited and communicative value of his protest, were turned into a bland installation concept with no risk attached to it whatsoever. This seems to me like artistic parasitism of the worst kind.


The poetry I write, the poetry I care about, is formally and lexically inscribed with the conditions of its production as an isolated and boutique pastime which is largely irrelevant to the social and economic processes on which it comments. Where’s the risk in that, either? Perhaps poets living in countries where art, culture and intellectual life are traditionally valued don’t have to content with their own obsolescence (I’m thinking of France and Germany). Other practitioners I know – particularly those working in the US, floating in the acidic reflux – are using more confrontational strategies to reincorporate poetry into the body politic, such as street performances, wheatpasting and détournement of corporate and civic signage, etc. These strategies combine the playfulness of Situationist interventions with the urgency that comes from living through a history-defining crisis. I’ve often tried to get such work going on here, most recently during the war on Lebanon, but those efforts have fallen flat. There’s a disconnection between the poetry of political protest and political protest, and only a few poets I know (Harry Gilonis, Ben Watson, Stuart Calton, Sean Bonney, Josh Robinson) are actively engaged in anarchist or socialist political activism – though a lot of us agree with them.


Poetry in isolation can only “want”: want things to go in a different direction. But a redeemed society would have room for poets, in articulating the limitless capacity of human desire, using the most sophisticated technology humanity has developed: language. Maybe that is the tiny crevice we are working on, and in, to keep drawing attention to the freedom of language which resists totalizing exploitation, as a sign of the possibility of a genuine lived freedom.

AD: I think there was a whole era of poetry in which the long-term view of the future was vague or vacuous and the short-term view of daily reality was dense with information but withered the imagination. This was idealism in the bad sense. The two time-zones crashed, separately. The point of your poetry - possibly your kind of poetry, rather - seems to be to resolve this problem - breaking through into something which is fantastically rich in information but also full of radical uncertainty which invites conjecture. Would it be fair to suggest that this breakthrough makes specific structural demands, a kind of “capital investment”?

AB: I argued in a little article about blogs (‘For Immediate Delivery: on the semiotics of blogs’ in Put About: a critical anthology on independent publishing, ed. Maria Fusco, London: Book Works, 2004) that information has become a new category of the sublime: apprehensible by the imagination but occasionally terrifying in its extent, it veers over the workstation and distracts every waking hour of the day with episodes in a quest narrative. If poetry is one mode of information management, I could say that in my work, it operates in two ways.


First, my poems retrieve historical and linguistic information with specific and programmatic intentions for the present. These “activist poems”, like the recently-completed poem Wildfire, seek to stimulate resistance through a re-invigoration of complex historical phenomena; or they synthesis disparate narratives in an attempt to shade in some aspect of the totality of relations, to replace contemporary events in the systems of power, money and motion which breed them. These poems are intended to be seductive as well as demystifying. They invite contemplation of complexes of meaning and subversion, and reward that contemplation with the novelty of the phrase.


Second, there are poems which place a person, or people in intimate relations, within a cloud of information, in order to transport them secretly and safely to a vantage where they can observe and be observed. Readers of such poems are required to decide what is true, what is useless, and what obscurity means in relation to the drama of closeness which is being enacted. Are there forms of communication which are not driven by the rhythms of information retrieval? How can my communication of the experience of the particulars of happiness, love, disappointment and so on acquire value for others? Especially now, when there is no reason to believe in humanism, and when the conversion of the self into a node in a network merely pins us fluttering to a bigger wall.

A word about conjecture and investment – Wildfire experiments with distraction and supply. The text is linked to pages which reveal and explain the source of the language, images. The project is bloody-minded, willing the reader to
synthesise the history of the use and manufacture of Greek Fire, phosphorus, and other obscurant munitions. I had no desire to force readers to replicate my labour in collecting this research; the poem’s moral expectations do not lie in the reader’s self-improvement by following an unspecified paper trail. It is not meant to be a tough hermeneutic exercise. I’m not sure I’ll work in this form again, as it can be difficult (people have told me) to focus on the poem without being dragged outwards, through the reference pages, into the wider network. This is not necessarily the poem’s fault; it’s an indication of how we all think now. It also removes the room for conjecture, the pleasure of being smart enough. It is constrictive, and maybe even puts readers in a weak position, predicting the failure of their concentration on the top-layer text.

AD: So, when reading your poems we should be thinking about critical evaluation of data issued by governments and corporations, about breaking loose from attachments and forming new ones, about transferring power from the partial to the just, about moving towards more equal shares of power and knowledge? And in fact this would dissolve the landscape we see to leave only a few fossils.

AB: Hmm, fossils of injustice, left to trouble the creationists who make art the spectacle of the potential renewal of the world through love… I hope I don’t come over as quite so Augustinian as that. I don’t believe the visible landscape of power and its attachments – which are cognitive as well as material – can be simply dissolved by imaginative revision. But certainly my poems are part of a general poetic movement, which takes up the humanist belief in the utility of textual interpretation as a moral and interpretive training ground for the independent ethical engagement of the reader or writer with the world. And which does not recognise barriers between forms of discourse which can be permeated by feeling and disentangled by critical thought.


In fact, I feel an enormous debt of gratitude to the previous generations whose investigations have given my generation the freedom to move around in the totality of the material and human sciences. We may not yet use that freedom with the discipline or learning of other twentieth-century poets, and we may also view its transformative potential with a great deal less idealism. But the challenge for us, I think, is to combine critical evaluation with a register of just how ridiculous the world is becoming. Yesterday I read about a robot which will rescue fallen US soldiers from the battlefield which has the head of a teddy bear. In such circumstances realism in poetry can only be conveyed as absurdism,

AD: You have just published Wildfire, a long poem of revolutionary form. There is an author’s note on that site, to which we refer the reader. There is a history of poems about current affairs, affairs of state. The news give the story and the poem is the emotional reaction, roughly. The media give us facts corroded by the vested interests they represent. You reject what the media say, and you have the problem that you don’t have an alternative access to pristine facts. Even though you do, via the Internet and whatever left-wing media exist, your audience probably doesn’t, and your argument may be unclear to them. However, data get cheaper all the time. One way out of this is to accept a much larger-scale project, which incorporates story, argument and emotion into its own fabric. I believe this is a description of Wildfire, a critical account of the use of white phosphorus to bombard the inhabitants of Fallujah, which is both pristine and entire. I am wondering if this is the direction in which poetry will now go. Actually, there was a sort of romance between poetry and documentary in the 1930s, via Auden, MacNeice, Madge, and Macleod, which crystallised this problem but didn’t produce an elegant solution.

AB: In writing this text I assume that the audience does have alternative forms of access to information about the bombardment of Fallujah, and the long history of the use of incendiaries and obscurants as anti-personnel munitions. Whatever information I collected from old-fashioned sources (i.e. books) I have supplied as quotations on the “source” pages, but much of the research was done online, and I’ve provided links to those sources wherever possible.


The project was partially an exercise in concentration. It is easy to flip through endless images of human destruction like a fairground zoetrope. At that speed, personal feeling (sadness, anger, triumph) becomes as transient and inaccessible as critical thinking. A position of permanent irony, embedded in a vague sense of the totality, is more appropriate to these media than an attempt to really think through the position of events within economic and political history: why here, now, in this way? The danger is that the constancy of predation might leave us, consciously or not, simply reviling human nature.


The architects of our unfreedom have thought very carefully and intricately about its maintenance, and to dismantle it we must do likewise. I will go back and consider the poets of the 1930s you mention; I hadn’t recognised the similarities between what we’re doing. Obviously they also failed to head off crisis. I’m not sure if the documentary style poem will become a model, though I can think of several of my contemporaries who are working to combine ‘story, argument and emotion’ in large-scale works – Keston Sutherland’s ‘Hot White Andy’ poem, published in the recent issue of Chicago Review (Vol. 53, no.1, Spring 2007: British Poetry Issue), is one example. I suppose for me it seemed one way out of the cul-de-sac of personal impression. I got sick of writing occasional poems which flex skeptical registers of public events through homespun analogues of private feeling. There’s more to do than stand aghast, brushing my hair.


AD: Recently I had to deal with some people at Chicago Review, and their attitude just wasn’t what I was expecting. Repeated exposure made me think there was a distinct regional culture, in their city, which didn’t normally reach the British media. Can you tell us about cultural politics in Philadelphia?

AB: I’m actually not the best person to ask this question to; it’s been a longtime since I lived in Philadelphia (15 years – God, really that long?), and whenever I go back there I’m struck by how estranged I am from the cultural references of America. I don’t watch their TV; I don’t take lunch breaks in their cities. But I’m attached to Philadelphia. Growing up there, you really feel that you come from Philly, from somewhere particular. It has its own traditions and references – the Mummers’ Day parade, the distinct characters of each parish – and a strong working-class culture, which is more influential in shaping the identity of the city than the old blueblood money of the Main Line (the’ Philadelphia Story’ stuff).


The city has had a great musical history – Charlie Parker lived there, the “Philly Sound” soul and funk records of the 60s and 70s. For the US, it has a long history, and the optimism of the early American project is still apparent in the city’s layout, its green spaces. But it’s also a tough city, lots of crime, and a ring of deprivation surrounding Center City which looks like a war zone. Some of that is beginning to shift, neighbourhood getting gentrified and so on, but it’s typical of an American city in some respects. The flight of manufacturing jobs led to huge social and economic problems; most of the wealthy who work in the centre live outside the city tax limits – the city was left to struggle on its own. Lots of corruption. Racial segregation is still pretty intense. Though it’s not as bad as the dark days of Frank Rizzo and Wilson Goode’s decision to bomb the MOVE headquarters, Mumia Abu-Jamal is still in jail.

In poetry terms, the city is thriving. There are some excellent poets there, people who are also very active in the community. Linh Dinh edits The Drunken Boat. The Washington poet Jules Boykoff showed me some photographs of a performance by the PACE (Poet Activist Community Extension) project, in which Frank Sherlock, Linh Dinh, C.A. Conrad and Mytili Jagannathan took their poems to the street in January 2005 – I’m not sure if that project is still running however. Aaron Levy runs the outstanding cultural centre the Slought Foundation. Kyle Conner and Greg Fuchs run the Highwire Reading Series (or at least used to). You have Jena Osman and Rachel Blau Du Plessis teaching at Temple, Charles Bernstein, Bob Perelman and Kenny Goldsmith at Penn, Ron Silliman upstate.


Others have moved down recently from New York: Brian Kim Stefans is there now. I’m certainly forgetting some people. I don't know how these groups fit together; I'm sure there are internal factions, loyalties etc., but from the outside it looks like a buzzing and positive place to write poetry. You can find out more about the Philadelphia poetry scene at Cross-Connect, a magazine run out of Kelly Writer’s House at Penn, and Philly Sound, a blog for Philadelphia poets.  


My disconnection to Philadelphia sometimes worries me – how long can I trade on the ethical dilemmas of being American now without actually participating meaningfully in its social and political life on the ground, on Broad Street?  Except that I am writing increasingly about London, where I now live, and except that, as I wrote once, ‘All my life I have spent / the dollar’, as we all do.  Perhaps the default position is to regard citizenship as inessential.  What I’m trying to do in my work is to remember that citizenship is a big red trigger stuck in the middle of our lives.  We need to keep an eye on it, but also to find a way to regroup and recharge our connection to history and to each other so that we might eventually make it a material irrelevance.

copyright © Andrea Brady & Andrew Duncan