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Rupert M. Loydell Interview

Rupert M. Loydell the Managing Editor of Stride Publications, and is currently the Editor of Stride magazine, as well as Reviews Editor of Orbis, Associate Editor of Avocado magazine and a regular contributor of articles and reviews to Tangents magazine. During 2003-2004, he was a Royal Literary Fund Project Fellow, working in Exeter schools, following a RLF Fellowship at Bath University. In 2004-2005, he was a RLF Fellow at Warwick University and Visiting Poet at Sherborne School. He is currently a Lecturer in Creative Writing at University College Falmouth. His publications include A Conference of Voices, The Museum of Light and Endlessly Divisible, and four collaborative works. He has worked in hundreds of schools and colleges, and run workshops for the Arvon Foundation.     

Jeffrey Side has had poetry published in various magazines such as Poetry Salzburg Review, and on poetry web sites such as Underground Window, A Little Poetry, Poethia, Nthposition, Eratio, Pirene’s Fountain, Fieralingue, Moria, Ancient Heart, Blazevox, Lily, Big Bridge, Jacket, Textimagepoem, Apochryphaltext, 9th St. Laboratories, P. F. S. Post, Great Works, Hutt, The Dande Review, Poetry Bay and Dusie.


He has reviewed poetry for Jacket, Eyewear, The Colorado Review, New Hope International, Stride, Acumen and Shearsman. From 1996 to 2000 he was the deputy editor of The Argotist magazine.


His publications include, Carrier of the Seed, Distorted Reflections, Slimvol, Collected Poetry Reviews 2004-2013, Cyclones in High Northern Latitudes (with Jake Berry) and Outside Voices: An Email Correspondence (with Jake Berry), available as a free ebook here.


JS: What got you interested in poetry?


RML: My Dad reading me The Waste Land, seeing Adrian Mitchell read, talking to Brian Louis Pearce, hearing Ted Hughes read Crow, finding copies of Slow Dancer magazine in an Oxford Street bookshop. Lots of things, many of which I wrote about recently in an essay in The North.


JS: How did you get involved in poetry publishing?


RML: Naïve excitement about the possibilities of the small press, having got my first poem published. My mum having a Gestetner duplicator. The poetry group at a hospital where I was working. My friend Graham Palmer who co-edited the first Stride magazines.


JS: Has your involvement in poetics informed your painting procedures?


RML: I suspect it’s been the other way round, and either way only indirectly.


JS: Do you think non-mainstream poetry has an audience apart from poets, critics and academics?


RML: I’m sure it does, but I’m not sure it matters. Populism doesn’t seem a criteria for making or writing, I’m afraid. Maybe a poem will only find one readers—that’s OK. Most paintings only end up with one or two viewers once they are placed on somebody’s wall.


I think if people understood poetry is first and foremost about language then they would read it. People keep telling them that it’s difficult, it’s not. It’s exhilarating, complex and wonderful.


JS: In what sense can we say that poetry is relevant—or has a purpose? 


RML: It’s relevant because people write it and we are all people, and because it is written and alive today, in a world we are part of. And because language is how we think and know that world. But I don’t expect poetry to be universally relevant—I don’t believe anyone can speak for all of us.


It is relevant but I don’t think anyone makes poems for everyone. We are too much part of our own individual histories, our gender, our nation, our upbringing, our interests. Poetry’s purpose? For me to explore how we think and the possibilities of language; for others to share moments and ideas with others; for others to entertain and amuse; for others to preach or instruct; for others to make sound scores or visual artefacts; for others to declare their love or hate; for others to “express themselves”. And a million other uses.


JS: Are there limits to experimentation in poetry; if so what are they?


RML: I don’t see why there should be, no. That doesn’t mean all experiment becomes great writing, but people can attempt what they like with language. I personally have my own limits of what I perceive as poetry, or at least am willing to read; other people go further into experimentation or less further. Authors have their own specific interests and concerns.


JS: Does a poem cease to be “poetic” once the semantic element is excluded and extra-lexical ones such as the use of typographics replace it?


RML: No. It just means a poem is primarily concerned with other parts of poetry rather than the semantic. “Poetic”, especially in inverted commas, is a strange word to use, though. It brings to mind flowery thoughts and misty scenes. I’m not keen on poetry that tries to be “poetic”. But that’s probably not what you meant, is it?


JS: At what point does a visual poem become a visual work of art?


RML: When its maker says so, or when a reader or viewer wants to regard it primarily in visual terms.


JS: Does visual poetry have to operate semantically to distinguish it from visual art, or is there “something” intrinsic to visual poetry that inevitability distinguishes it from visual art?


RML: Poetry always works semantically because it uses language as its primary element. What it may do is disrupt expected semantics. I don’t believe language can totally be separated from notions of sense or semantics, however abstracted, exploded or cut-up it becomes. I might allow that the work of people like Bob Cobbing becomes quite difficult to “read” in terms of language, but in the main I feel my point holds—and Bob’s work I find easier to view as visual art than poetry, though of course he often regarded his work as art, poetry and sound score!


JS: Is a poem’s semantic element more important than its formal and visual elements?


RML: No. Why should it be? That’s like saying is the tone or line more important in art than the colour? It’s all up for grabs, and an artist or writer may choose to focus on certain aspects of what they make. The problem comes when anyone says, “this is the only way to write/paint”, not otherwise.


JS: When you say that you have to create the world with language, what do you mean?


RML: I mean we think in language. Until we name things, we don’t understand or experience the world; all our senses are converted into language. Language is all we have.


JS: In relation to your painting, you have said ‘Colour, of course, can be as lyrical as any language’. What do you mean by this?


RML: I mean I find colour as beautiful and as full of potential as language, and vice versa. And that colour says as much, or as little, as language.

JS: You have said: ‘Language excites me—you can do so much with it’. This suggests that you view language as raw material, aware of its plasticity. Does this view of language grow out of your experience of working with paint?


RML: I’m sure it does have some bearing on it yes, and also I feel that contemporary classical composition and improvised jazz have a mainly subconscious bearing on my current writing. Mainly, however, I have to say that this view of language came about through various friends, colleagues and teachers showing me that plasticity in action, through reading and critical discussion of poets and poetry new to me at the time, and also through workshops.


JS: You have said that you dislike poetry that is narrative. Do you think the reason that the majority of poetry today is narrative is because of the increase in poetry workshops that tend to teach poetry as a branch of fiction writing?


RML: Well, I’m all for writing workshops if they include critical reading, and separate ideas of enabling and creativity from the end product. We aren’t a nation of poetic geniuses or natural poets, and many people should be told their work is not very good nor interesting. It’s often not even good therapy. Anybody who has now published one or two poems seems to think they can run a writing workshop! Aspiring poets need to read, read, read and read some more.


I think most poetry is narrative these days because people don’t understand the nature of language, or how poetry can and does work; they’re still bound up trying to tell the reader something, not realising how banal and ordinary most human experience is. We don’t need any more poems about sunsets, cats or falling in love! I can’t believe it when I meet self-declared poets who don’t understand syllabics, internal rhyme, half-rhyme, breath pattern, collage, concrete poems, syntactic disruption, prose-poems, etc. etc. and haven’t read more than two or three contemporary writers. They often can’t even be bothered to get down the library and read some of the wide-ranging anthologies of contemporary poetry, or read something that they find challenging, yet they somehow think their poems are going to be good. People need to understand there is no one correct way to write, there are thousands of processes and poetic forms available to the poet. I want open-ended poems that explore the language, not something closed, final and declamatory.


JS: Today many poets write without a basic understanding of the historical or literary context they inhabit. It is as if the past 200 years of poetic development had never happened. As a result, they follow only the fashion of the particular poetry workshop they last attended. Is this the reason, perhaps, why so much bland poetry is being written? It seems to me that artists would not find themselves in this position.


RML: I think, as I said above, it’s a lack of reading, discussion and critical work—literary criticism and self-criticism. Workshops, whether a local group or a loose affiliation over the internet, can be a godsend and massive support for the writer, but you have to be prepared to actually debate things, to voice an opinion, and to listen to others’ criticism. You might also have to accept that whilst you have every right to write poetry, there is no automatic right anyone has to publish it! I’m afraid I think artists of all persuasions and art forms do find themselves in this position. I’ve long thought local poetry groups, intent on writing end-of-line doggerel and light verse are pretty analogous to the local watercolour groups who simply haven’t got any notion of paint beyond using it to make “nice pictures”. Each to their own, but let’s not pretend it’s good art or good poetry.


JS: You have said that you believe myth and allegory is more real than factual truth. Do you think that much of today’s poetry is too descriptive and grounded too much in reality?


RML: Some of it, but I think the problem is really that people still try and use myths and stories that many people in today’s world simply don’t understand or know. Britain is no longer a Christian society, so there’s little point in assuming people know about church liturgy or Bible stories. There’s little point in assuming everyone has read Shakespeare or Chaucer, or knows the name of Greek gods. Poets need to think about what we currently share in the way of stories and shared experience. For instance, I think the notion of “the muse” is just ridiculous in the 21st century. My quote actually says I believe in myth and allegory more than factual truth. This was to do with questions of my own beliefs, which isn’t quite the same thing. I think people who want to pin everything down and prove this or that happened or exists are in trouble. I’ve always hovered between faith and doubt, called things into question. I find surety tends towards political and self-fascism, the conservative end of things, declamation and bullying. I prefer to be open towards things—this doesn’t seem to me to compromise what I personally believe.


JS: The various statements you have made on the relationship of the reader to the text I think are very important. For instance, you acknowledge that the reader has a significant role in the creation of a poem’s “meaning”; and that poems that are content driven (narrative, confessional, protest, etc.) tend to inhibit this creativity because their didacticism forces the reader into a passive and compliant stance in relation to the text. Whereas poems such as yours, because of their use of collage, assumed voices, asides, associative matter, etc., operate intertextually, resulting in a wider network of allusion from which the reader can draw upon to create individual meaning for themselves. If we assume for the sake of courtesy that mainstream poetry publishers are aware of this approach to the text and the reader, is their opposition to it based on market forces alone or sincerely held aesthetic beliefs about the nature of poetry?


RML: I suspect it’s to do with both. Neil Astley at Bloodaxe, for instance, seriously seems to believe in popular poetry—most of which I, and many others, find pedestrian and dull. But he has sold tens of thousands of copies of some of his anthologies. However, he has also published the big Prynne volume, presumably with an eye to both “posterity” and aesthetics but also the market—that is, he thought he could sell a few hundred and get some credibility. I do think it sits very uneasily in the Bloodaxe list though! I must say that although I find a lot of the Bloodaxe list dull there’s also some great stuff on it, too, especially from the earlier days of the company.


Other mainstream publishers don’t seem engaged with poetry at all; it’s a kind of token nod to literature, supported by sales of their fiction or gardening titles. This actually, to my mind, makes it even sillier that their lists are so mainstream and pedestrian! I’m sure it’s basically to do with saleability or perceived saleability of poetry per se, not individual poet’s work. I’d probably argue that mainstream fiction is fairly ordinary in the main, but of course I’m aware that the influence of William Burroughs, J. G. Ballard and other experimental writers, often from science fiction or slipstream genres, have influenced and infiltrated the mainstream and changed reader’s and publisher’s perceptions of what can be marketed.


JS: I think you’ve already answered this question in your previous answer but here it is anyway: If mainstream publishers’ opposition is based on sincerely held aesthetic beliefs about the nature of poetry how can we account for Carcanet and Bloodaxe having John Ashbery, Peter Riley, Tom Raworth, Roy Fisher, John Kinsella and J. H. Prynne on their poetry lists? Is it a case of these publishers poaching what others have nurtured to fruition? If so, is this historically remarkable given the mainstream’s adversity to risk taking?


RML: Let me say clearly that in many ways I don’t care what the mainstream publishers publish. Each to their own; good luck to them. What I have spoken out about in reviews and interviews about publishers and their lists, and do object to, is if they start believing their own hype about poetry being “the new rock and roll”, or some new poet being a genius, when often it’s just more of the same middle of the road tosh. I also don’t believe in any trickle-down notion of poetry sales; people who read Simon Armitage or Linda France or whoever don’t suddenly rush out and buy Tom Raworth or Robert Creeley books.


I think Simon Thirsk at Bloodaxe is a fantastic marketing man. I heard him speak at a debate at Warwick University on the future of poetry publishing that I was also involved in. But I simply don’t believe you can “market” anything or everything—and sell more. I’ve been involved in Arts Council initiatives where they’ve spent thousands on promotions and launches and we’ve sold very few copies of the titles involved as a result. Word of mouth and peer review seems to me to always work better in the long run. As does getting a really huge grant, of course!


I actually think Bloodaxe and many other publishers are using an old business model—trying to flood the market with books they’ve already printed, making lots of noise about individual or groups of titles whenever possible, and seeing what happens. Bloodaxe got lucky very early on, and followed-through brilliantly, with Ken Smith and Irina Ratushinskaia, but they are still doing the same kind of thing. Since the book trade has changed immeasurably I think it’s a problem. The way ahead for the small publisher is print-on-demand and direct sales. As I see it, the two most successful poetry lists at the moment are Salt and Shearsman, both producing fantastic amounts of brilliant poetry in good-looking volumes, with low overheads, great websites and lots of sales. We’re somewhere in-between at the moment: Stride hasn’t gone over to “true” print-on-demand, but we are doing very short runs/reprints on demand!


Yes, there’s an element of poaching going on, but there always has been and will be in the arts. It’s only like an indie band signing to a major label, but of course without the big contract fee! I don’t think you can suggest Ashbery and such have been poached though—strikes me as more to do with an overdue selection from unobtainable small press volumes (Raworth, Prynne, Kinsella), foreign rights (Ashbery), or in Roy Fisher’s case picking up the mess that Oxford left behind. Obviously there’s an element of the moment being right—for instance, Tom Raworth and J. H. Prynne are only two of a number of poets being re-assessed in this way with the publication of big Selecteds or Collecteds. Others include John James, Allen Fisher and Lee Harwood.


JS: You are a supporter of poetry that is difficult because it discloses more of itself with each new reading. You believe that if people read widely and had an understanding of how poetry worked then the issue of difficulty in poetry would be irrelevant. Do you think this ignorance of how poetry works is particular to British readers, and if so is there an explanation for it?


RML: Actually, I like many sorts of poetry. Much of the poetry that is perceived as “difficult” isn’t, it simply doesn’t involve linear narratives, self-confession, extended metaphor or epiphanic endings! I used to think this ignorance was particular to Britain, but now I’m not so sure. From over here American poetry seems much more exciting than what’s on offer here, but my American friends complain how lacklustre publishers’ lists are over there, how cliquey etc—all the same complaints as usual!


I think the British are lazy as a nation: we don’t like having to learn things or find out for ourselves. We don’t speak foreign languages very well, we expect people to speak our language; we like pictures of pretty things, not art; we like poems which tell a story and have obvious rhymes in. I actually like finding out things for myself, wondering what something might mean rather than being told. As a nation, we don’t really seem to have absorbed Modernism yet, do we? Let alone Postmodernism! I do feel in general terms that poets in America took on board Pound and learnt from him, whereas we got Eliot, retreating back into conservatism and declamation. We don’t even understand him, do we? We prefer to try and annotate The Waste Land for A-Level [school exams in the UK] than start thinking about language and fragmentation, the music of the poem.


If a poet hasn’t read, have some knowledge of, or simply isn’t aware of (off the top of my head) the Beats, Dada and Surrealism, the Objectivists, Eliot, Pound, Olson, Duncan, the New York School, Black Mountain College, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, Buntings, concrete poetry, The Liverpool Poets, Auden, Berryman, MacNiece, William Carlos Williams, Ted Hughes, then they’re in trouble. I haven’t even touched on works in translation or from non-Western cultures. If they aren’t reading contemporary poetry then they’re in trouble. If they aren’t reading poetics then they’re in trouble. If they can’t shape language in any other way than prioritising content then they are in trouble.


I want people to be excited by poetry. It’s not that I like or would proscribe difficult poetry—it’s that language is fantastic stuff. If a poet isn’t excited and surprised by language then they may as well forget it. And a lot of what comes through my door for review or submission is neither exciting nor surprising.


  copyright © Rupert M. Loydell & Jeffrey Side