The Argotist Online
Iain Sinclair Interview
Iain Sinclair was educated at Trinity College, Dublin. After training at the London School of Film Technique, he published his poetry (and that of Brian Catling and Chris Torrance) in his own Albion Village Press imprint. His early verse shows the influence of the Beats and the Black Mountain School of poets (especially Charles Olson's “open-field” poetics) as well as of British figures such as Eric Mottram. Among his his publications are: Back Garden Poems (1970), Muscat's Würm (1972), The Birth Rug (1973), Lud Heat (1975), Suicide Bridge (1979), White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987), Downriver (1991), Radon Daughters (1994), Conductors of Chaos (1996), Lights Out For The Territory (1997), Dark Lanthorns: David Rodinsky as Psychogeographer (1999), and Landor's Tower (200), Buried at Sea (2006), and The Firewall (2006). A Worple Press publication, The Verbals (2003), comprises a conversation between Sinclair and Kevin Jackson.
There’s seems to me a certain amount of editorial distancing yourself involved
in Conductors of Chaos: you rather disingenuously claim that the
anthology almost put itself together. Do you not feel part of this kind of
poetry? Or is it just a defensive move?
Conductors of Chaos
is dust. It was published as dust. The commissioner of the project, a man I’d
met through my activities as a used book dealer (he assembled junk heaps of
Booker shortlists and the like), wanted me to edit an anthology of pulp crime
writing. The obvious move was to trade sideways into pre-pulped poetry.
introduction was strategic, designed to infuriate the deadbeat verse-police who
operate in the corners of broadsheets (it had the bonus of also infuriating many
of the small-press essayists). Otherwise, quite simply, the anthology would have
been un-reviewed. Scorn was the best we could hope for, an argument. The meat of
the book was the poetry. Much of which I admire, some of which I love. Choices
were again strategic: I thought that this sort of public manifestation required
poets who were prepared to perform. My sympathies are still – always were,
always will be – with this writing. I think, from the mid-Sixties, most of
what is worth putting on paper comes from poets (and the prose-visionaries
associated with Moorcock’s New Worlds stable). Some of who are still
marching. It’s a period now of elegiac gatherings-up, the bolting together of
collections by presses like Shearsman, Reality Studios, Etruscan Books and the
ubiquitous (but covertly virtual) Salt. (All my books, one way or another, pay
their dues to that landscape.)
It could be argued that the likes of Salt and Shearsman both seem to have
concluded the publishing project you started with your Paladin anthologies,
namely a re-mapping of British 20th Century poetry. Do you think we will now see
the likes of Tom Raworth, Allen Fisher and Lee Harwood take their rightful
places in a poetic/literary [alternative?] canon alongside David Jones, Basil
Bunting and W.S. Graham? Or is the postmodern world so fractured that any kind
of critical agreement is no longer possible, or perhaps even desirable?
It’s a fine thing that
blocks of Raworth, Harwood, Prynne, Griffiths, John James, Wendy Mulford are
becoming, if you search hard enough, available. I don’t believe this impacts
on the flabby centre of things: the compulsory amnesia, the fog of spite, vanity
and self-preservation. We have, after all, the most successful Poet Laureate
there has ever been, a customised
New Labour figure: visible, camera-friendly, on the move – and positioned as
far as it is possible to be from the heart of the matter, the old heat.
will be minor political shifts in the poetry mapping, strange alliances (Mao and
Mandelson). By unimagined accidents, Prynne’s “difficulty” will be
Larkin’s availability as a two-minute radio feature. (If you go back far
enough, deep enough into the vaults, you’ll find Prynne reading and discussing
his work on the old Third Programme, at the time of the publication of his first
poets do take their place in the canon of the academically respectable (funded
research, readings, forms to fill), but not in the Ghost World of goldfish
memory (last night’s TV is smoke you can try to trap in a bottle). David Jones
and Basil Bunting have no visibility here either and W.S. Graham’s survival
relies on the sponsorship of such as Harold Pinter.
of this matters. What lasts, lasts. The doing is more important than the
selling. Obviously, yes, the energy of that moment, the so-called “British
Poetry Revival” (or whatever), will become a brand, a franchise, a local
industry. Mimeo to mausoleum in forty years.
Why do you think poetry has become so fractured and ignored? Are you someone who
believes poetry ever was, or ever could be, populist, or has it always been a
Poetry is intense. It takes
time, concentration, intelligence: qualities that are not readily available. The
payback is not instant. Populism is something else – and frequently involved
with performance, staying on the road, like those Archie Rice vampire-figures
who have been doing the festivals since the Second War (when the major schism
occurred: the mask of English irony muzzled continental and transatlantic
influences). This was mostly fear and careerism, but it worked.
How do you differentiate between your prose, which at times is very poetic, and
your poetry? How do you write your poems – are they process-driven,
improvised, heavily edited and reworked, collaged?
I write prose, now, to make a living: it’s a late profession. I know there are
people looking over my shoulder. I use techniques from subterranean years of
small-press poetry composition and publishing - and the reading of other poets -
to give the thing its bite (if any). But I’m aware that I have to shape
material towards a potential audience (however small). My kind of fiction exists
in the place where poetry used to be (in the period 1965-1975): a few hundred
readers, a few un-public readings. The books of mine which perform best, though
the content is much the same, are the ones that appear in “Travel” sections.
You have to be able to lay the pitch down in a single sentence: ‘I walk around
poetry – that spasm, the notebook – is freed up as an hermetic (largely
unpublished) activity. I suppose a mad hobby, reflex compulsion. I’ve been
assembling a collection, mostly written on the South Coast, called Buried at
Sea. With the prose, I have to know pretty much what I’m doing. The other
stuff, as with our dialogue between blind machines, comes off the top of my
head: uncensored, very fast (the poems will be worked over before they reach
daylight). I fill a notebook with tight scribble and then, if I can sneak a day
or two, over Christmas or whenever, I make copies. See what I’ve got.
an ideal world, I’d like to take time out to work through the files: much,
much more is unpublished than published (rightly so).
The linguistically experimental work in Conductors seems a long way away
from the work of Allen Ginsberg and the beats, which your poetry seems to have
originally been influenced and inspired by. Could you talk about how your poetry
I would say that what has happened in my life, the kind of other writing I do,
has fixed the poetry. It is now a very strange beast, fiercely inelegant,
awkward and unconcerned with shape and structure. I grew up with Beat writing
(especially Burroughs and Kerouac) but the major poetic influence would have
been Olson, Black Mountain and the tradition that takes in Ed Dorn, J.H. Prynne
and John Wieners. I don’t know who would relate to what
am now doing: I have been reading Celan, Brian Catling, Bob Dylan’s Chronicles
and Anthony Mellors’ book on ‘Late Modernist Poetics from Pound to
Prynne’. What I miss, really, is the making of the book as an object: the old
vanity of self-publication, getting it done, clean, when and how you fancied.
Using images, inserts. Shipping the booklets out or taking them over to
Compendium in Camden Town. Making swaps. Gossip with Mike Hart. Putting the
business in other hands is the first mistake, from which all problems accrue. It
was fine when publishers were themselves poets. That is a climate to be
reclaimed, perhaps by the Internet (though not by me).
poetry was one thing, mixing documentation and lyric, up to the publication of Lud
Heat and Suicide Bridge. At which point, I felt, the game was over. I
couldn’t push further in that direction. The novel White Chappell, Scarlet
Tracings was the final lurch in that direction: it belonged in the
Seventies, not the Eighties.
then went on the road as a book dealer, poetry was resolutely occasional,
booklets were published and given away. But I feel, presently, that I’d like
to put something together, a more substantial sequence: a shift to marine light.
(Hastings feels so much like old Hackney: crime as nostalgia.)
I’ve said too much about
Blake. He is one of the inspirations for the sturdy independence (at the edge of
mania) that I’ve been describing: the work-life. His mapping of London is
still the most useful to me. I visit the place where he isn’t buried, the
memorial slab in Bunhill Fields, often. And relish the triangulation with Bunyan
and Defoe. Non-conformity is the only conformity worth having.
And how did film come into it? You were at film school in London, yes? Were you
there as a writer for films or as a filmmaker per se?
I began as a filmmaker,
actually shooting film, hands-on: 8mm and 16mm. I went to the film school in
Brixton and got my first taste of London life. (I was writing poetry. I never
liked, and still don’t, writing film scripts. A few doodles on a sheet of
paper, a few drawings and off.) The keeping of a film diary (1969-1975),
influenced by such as Stan Brakhage, went in parallel with the publications from
Albion Village Press: versions of lives and places (lyric and documentary
again). A late collaboration with Chris Petit (and digital technology) has
opened up new (old) possibilities: film as essay. The film version of the M25
book, London Orbital, was very useful to me, as research and as a
“poetic” response to material worked over for public consumption. Speedier
editing processes allow us the freedom that was previously available only to
writers in their solitude. Using film as a front, I was able to meet and
interview writers like J.G.Ballard, Francis Stuart, Derek Raymond. It was an
excuse to visit David Gascoyne on the Isle of Wight: a few moments of tea-party,
in shimmering afternoon light, shot for a poetry reading at the Albert Hall.
am talking to Chris, at the moment, about ways of getting back to making films
outside the commissioning process (which is silted up, loss of nerve, obsession
with celebrity - all the old commissioning editors have now stuck themselves in
front of the cameras, doing the baby talk, making everything sound like Blue
You delight in forgotten authors and hidden narratives. Do you hunt out the
unknown and obscure, or do you simply come across them? Presumably when you were
book dealing there were things that caught your eye?
I take great delight in the
apparently forgotten. As Ed Dorn said, ‘just because you don’t see
something, it doesn’t mean that it’s not there’. I’m editing a fat book for Hamish Hamilton called London:
City of Disappearances. An ironic concept: producing the mounds to prove
that they no longer exist. Along with vanished buildings, books, people, there
are accounts written by the re-forgotten themselves. One unfashionable writer
will often lead us to another. Certain names, promoted from time to time, make
up a spectral establishment: Patrick Hamilton, Gerald Kersh, Jean Rhys, J.
Maclaren-Ross, W Pett Ridge, Arthur Morrison, Mary Butts. I’m happy that I
have been able, at one level, to make the Disappearances book into a
sequel to Conductors of Chaos. Contributors include: Jeff Nuttall, Lee
Harwood, Tom Raworth, Bill Griffiths, Allen Fisher, John Seed, Brian Catling,
Vahni Capildeo, Alexis Lykiard, Paul Buck, Stewart Home, Ben Watson, Tony
Rudolf, John Welch. Alongside: Marina Warner, JG Ballard, Michael Moorcock,
Derek Raymond, Jim Sallis, Will Self, Alan Moore, Sarah Wise, Rachel
Lichtenstein, Tibor Fischer – and the film-makers, Patrick Keiller, Andrew
Just as I’ve suggested you distanced yourself as editor of the Conductors
of Chaos anthology, I feel you do the same kind of thing with some of the
more occult themes in your books. The reader is never sure whether you dismiss
or champion the power lines and dark forces you suggest exist as part of
“place”. Could I ask you what you actually believe – are these fictions or
deeply felt ideas?
About the occulted elements
of the books. Of course, a slippery ambiguity of approach is the preferred
method. Belief shifts. It is never fixed. Theories are road tested. What is
written is what is felt, at that instant. Fiction operates with improvised
versions of an unanchored self. I’m drawn towards all kinds of curious
theories, but I’m not going to make a career out of preaching them (elective
Mormonism, industrial weirdness). Somehow the darker pitches, once you give them
house-room, and present them with a particular force, evolve into mass hysteria.
Always a slot, as Dan Brown knows, for another good conspiracy. If you want fame
and fortune go for Xerox occultism. The shamanism of intent, a much harder path,
is more appealing.
You’ve left London now, I believe, but for years it has been both the theme
and setting for the majority of your fiction and non-fiction. Could you talk
about what London has meant to you, how it differs from other metropolises or
I haven’t left London.
I’m in the place where I’ve been since 1969. I do spent time, a few
weekends, the odd snatched week, on the South Coast – but, for the most part,
my days are fixed in the old routine. Matters became confused when I published a
novel, Dining on Stones, that made play with the shifts between fiction
and documentation, between East London (the A13 corridor) and a coastal exile.
The really strange moment came when, out of nowhere, I met a Dublin poet I
hadn’t seen in forty years, on the sea-front in St Leonards. I gave him the
book. He rang me, in deep shock. It was his story, he said. The right building,
the lost books and wives, the underworld connections. I seem to have transcribed
this man’s memoirs, without having the faintest notion that he’d moved to
the coast – or having thought about at him at all since I left Dublin (except
when I noticed his name, from time to time, on the credits of cop shows like The
Sweeney). My thesis, about fictions existing independently of their supposed
authors – a poetry of place
(Henry James, Conrad, Ford, Stephen Crane remaking English prose) – was proved
by the collision with another writer. And the feeling that my book, and my very
existence on the coast, might be no more than shadows of a more real banishment.
Although London has been your main theme it has been the detail and often
everyday, even mundane, people and parts of the city that you use to assemble
your books. Why is the everyday so important to you: the local café, the local
boozer, the push and shove of market day, the abandoned mental asylum. Is it the
sense of history in the making? The accumulation of individuals that somehow
builds up into some larger whole? And how does that then link to the bigger
facts and events you choose to engage with? Why is the M25 important to London?
To you? Why does the Thames seduce you so? Why does the East End demand to be
documented in the manner you choose – a mix of mythology, occult and
I’ve banged on about
place, city, edge lands, so often and in so many interviews, that I’ll refer
anyone interested to the books. A hobbled trilogy worries at everything I have
to say on the subject: Lights Out for the Territory (centre, labyrinth,
walking), London Orbital (the fringe, the limping future uncovered from a
reading of 19th-century speculative fiction), & – published in September
– Edge of the Orison: In the Traces of John Clare’s Journey out of Essex
– which draws the distance of the walk around the M25 out into the English
countryside (nobody at home). I re-walk Clare’s escape from Epping Forest to
Werrington (north of Peterborough) and contemplate the blight of coming
motorway-corridor estates (Stanstead to Cambridge to Peterborough). Flying,
dreaming, walking, drowning. Another period, 1821-30, when the Romantic poetry
franchise went out of fashion. Clare plunged from popular success (first book
syndrome, great pitch: Peasant Poet), to obscurity and madness. Handy metaphors.
Can you surmise what happened in the 1990s’ publishing world that allowed the
author Iain Sinclair to produce several basically avant-garde fictions and
experimental documentary titles and have them successfully mass-marketed and
sold? Although the word psycho-geography got bandied about and a few writers
seemed to have had books out in the wake of your titles, you and your work seem
to still pretty much stand alone. Is that window of opportunity as wide open for
you as it has been or is it starting to close again? I see the changes in
publishing, as in the music industry – that is the possibilities of cheap
production and dissemination of writing and music – as a fantastic
opportunity, but the major publishing houses still cling to concepts of huge
investment and mass marketing. Do you think print-on-demand publishing and the
Internet will finally be accepted and change mainstream publishing?
I think the climate has
changed, colder in some spots, meltdown in others. The slippage from the
small-press world (where such as Peter Ackroyd got their start) won’t happen
again. “Literary fiction” has lost its marketing niche: speed has increased,
front-of-house display to smoky oven in nanoseconds. What publishers are looking
for is the photogenic, one-idea pitch, the first novel. Novelty as a form of
celebrity: look good, look wild-but-safe. Have a story. The author is being sold
as much as the property.
answer is, as always, to ignore the system and stake out your own turf. Through
Internet publishing, events, private circulation. Don’t accept the fruit-fly
demands of the chains: books don’t lose value because they fail to shift
thousands of units in the first week.
bleak, but it always was. Time and place contrive the voices that time and place
© Iain Sinclair & Rupert M. Loydell