Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Andy Spragg speaks to Joshua Jones

Thoughtful, passionate and occasionally provocative, Joshua Jones has recently had his debut collection 'Thought Disorder' published by the Knives, Forks and Spoons Press. He is also the editor of Etcetera. Josh has an enthusiasm that stands as testament to his commitment, not just to his own poetry, but that of others too. He recently answered a few questions for Misosensitive --

When did you start writing?

I started writing poetry when I was about 17/18, and it stopped being terrible rhyming Dylan-aping crap a year or two after that. I was lucky enough to workshop a lot with a more experienced writer-friend, Jos Smith, whose poetry and feedback helped me to, y'know, learn that editing might actually be a good thing.

You mentioned about work-shopping - what value do you place in Creative Writing courses and the workshop experience? Do you think the two tend to be mutually exclusive? I appreciate you had an informal workshop experience, but I get a sense that it tends to be fairly rare for writers of that age - hence the popularity of Creative Writing courses at university level.

On a personal level, I place very little value on the entire CW experience. I have had a singularly negative experience of it, and have no desire to ever engage with any CW course again. I think to properly discuss some of the failings of workshopping in CW at an undergrad level would require massive diversions into the British educational system as a whole, which we obviously have no desire to do here. But yes, I think to an extent they are mutually exclusive -- it's difficult for people to engage in in-depth critique in large classes, with not enough time to properly read through the piles of poetry you're given, coupled with generally poor structuring by tutors. At the same time, the majority of the work I read was pretty poor, and the majority of students I 'CWed' with had very little conception of how to read a poem and very little confidence in their own ability to speak and express. Not a single person in my second-year poetry class even read poetry. And if they did it was at best Modernist stuff they'd been taught to read in their first year. I think a lot of people enter a CW BA thinking they're going to be taught, that they're going to learn, be told. It's quite embarrassing. But hey, their money.

I'm sorry this has become a rant. I'm still on my BA and have yet to geographically or mentally distance myself from the infuriatingly poor course I unwittingly became involved in, and as you can gather I still feel a degree of bitterness. I can, of course, accept that a lot of people have positive experiences work-shopping on CW degrees and possibly even learn something vital on them. Perhaps they have better organisers than UEA's. But, very generally speaking, I see them as being a bit of a waste of time. They are helping fuel the culture we have now in which there are tons of decent, schooled, polished writers, far fewer plain bad ones, and not that many good or great ones. Though it's not like I haven't worked with some good people at UEA -- Stephen Benson, with whom I'm completing a poetry dissertation, has been an excellent supervisor and immaculate critic, Andrew Cowan has repeatedly helped me with the logistical stuff of having a book and needing to promote it, and through meeting her I discovered Agnes Lehoczky's poetry (Budapest to Babel), which is genuinely innovative, and I wish I'd had the chance to work with Andrea Holland and Meghan Purvis.
Who do you feel has had an influence on your writing?

Well, Jos aside, there are a few writers I'm conscious of having a big influence on my work. Luke Kennard is the most obvious. Reading him forced me to not write like him - which I was naturally inclined to do - as there was no way I'd ever be able to produce anything in that style worth reading that wasn't derivative. Edward Hirsch too, notably the way he manages to balance a grounded profundity with imagery that often veers towards melodrama. Other than that, Jorie Graham is a writer I admire endlessly, as is John Burnside, and, more recently, the absurdly unread Tim Lilburn, who is doing things with language that make me quiver with jealous awe.

What was it specifically about Kennard's writing that you recognised in your own?

I think it was just the surreality of the whole thing, the distinctly contemporary deadpan irony, the sheer pleasure of linguistic play. The negation of needing to really mean anything. Which obviously I can see now as being not quite an accurate reading. I hadn't really read much at all poetry-wise when I first encountered Kennard's work. I had no way of relating it back through the New York school to the Surrealists and Dadaists, couldn't compare him to Voltaire, didn't even know what post-structuralism was. By which I mean to say his poetry embodied so much of so much without me even knowing quite what it embodied. And these approaches to writing, to the world, are and were ones I seemed to share with his work, ones that were fairly newly being established in myself and thus in my poetry.

You mentioned melodrama - it seems to be an aspect your writing as well - I mean that not in it's negative sense, but in a very deliberate use of melodrama. Do you feel that to be the case?

Definitely. My favourite Hirsch collection, the one in which I think his melodramatic tendencies are most evident, most unschooled and, for me, most effective, is For The Sleepwalkers. I acquired the collection from a friend familiar with the poetry of my 19-year-old self who had been browsing some obscure charity shop, found it, read a few lines and immediately connected it with my stuff.

I think, perhaps, it is worth clarifying what I mean or understand by melodrama, at least in relation to my own work. It's something I'm yet to master, but am developing, especially in some of my newer pieces: the contrast between a control of form, an understanding of (for brevity's sake) 'projective verse', and the honing of diction, mixed with a wild, flailing subject matter, an imagery veering into otherness and out of logic but held together by the structure, however idiosyncratic or personalised that structure is. I think 'Glimpse' and 'Face' in Thought Disorder are apt early examples of this, as well as some of the more experimental pieces about eyes and dreams and whatever else I'm liable to ramble on about.

One of the Hirsch pieces that most influenced me, with which I still very much connect, is 'Dusk', which I'd like to copy out in full:


The sun is going down tonight
like a wounded stag staggering through the brush
with an enormous spike in its heart
and a single moan in its lungs. There

is a light the colour of tarnished metal
galloping at its side, and fresh blood
is streaming through its throat. Listen!
The waves, too, sound like the plunging

of hooves, or a wild hart simply
crumpling on the ground. I imagine
there are hunters beating through the woods
with their scythes and their tired dogs

chasing the wounded scent, and I suppose
there are mothers crying out for their children
in the fog. Because it is dusk. Yes,
dusk with its desperate colours of erasure,

its secrets of renunciation, and its long
nightmares beyond. And now here is the night
with its false promise of sleep, its wind
leafing through the grass, its vacant

spaces between stars, its endless memory
of a world going down like a stag.

I'm not saying it's a masterpiece, or a key to what I am doing and would like to do with my work. Just that the earnest melodrama of the piece, coupled with Rimbaud's ghost clearly swimming through the lines and spaces, is, for me, irresistible.

What do you feel are the challenges for a young writer such as yourself?

I think the main difficulty is the sheer number of other poets, both young and old, all of us trying to sell our couple of hundred copies to a largely absent audience. It's so hard to stand out. The major problem I have with British poetry, generally speaking, is the aversion to 'experimental' or 'innovative' or 'whatever you want to call it' poetics. I'm embarrassed that boring poets like Paterson and Heaney are so worshipped. It's ridiculous that our only major movement has been the Movement, and that so much of the poetry being published seems unconcerned with exploring the possibilities of language in the way that, say, the poets who were tagged as Ellipticists were/are, and all the other post-avant stuff going on in America. I was reading Norton's American Hybrid anthology the other day and thinking of how few British poets, off the top of my head, are doing anything similar. I'm not saying interesting British poetry doesn't exist, not at all, just that the dominant poetry over here is fairly bland, and that poets that are trying to do something different generally won't get as much recognition or promotion

An interesting stance - do you not think it's the nature of the 'experimental' to be on the fringes though? Genesis P-Orridge (of Throbbing Gristle, Coil etc.) talks about ideas of being a cultural engineer - unleashing a concept like a virus into culture to see it returning years later in a mutated form. I think I'm thinking specifically here of Kennard, who, for me, draws reference to surrealist poetry without deriving a whole aesthetic from it.

Principally I agree with you -- of course the experimental will always be a minority interest in any discipline, occasionally banging on the fence of the mainstream. I think my issue is with British poetry culture compared with American. And yes, the Americans have the Billy Collins/Sharon Olds/bland confessional lyric with obligatory epiphany poetry. They have polite reams of it. But they also have - very present - weird, experimental poetry incorporating Mallarme and Ashbery and Olson and, recently, Jorie Graham et al. And this poetry isn't sidelined, isn't ignored the way, say, the Cambridge School largely is over here. Which is a loss for British poetry, and a pain in the arse for a reader looking for something different, something interesting, something other.

I'm not familiar with Throbbing Gristle (love that sentence!), but I think that's a wonderful idea. There's a selfless kind of interconnectivity to it, and as revolutionary a personal approach it is, it is also admirably pragmatic. With a nice token of idealism. It works with Kennard's stuff to an extent, I think, but I can't help but see it as somehow limiting: a nice cultural-narrative entry point into what he's doing and a validation of the importance of, in this case, the surrealist movement, but a reduction of the text itself to a position in the history of experimental poetics. I don't know. Perhaps that really is the best and only way the revolutionary will enter the mainstream, or the more popular, consciousness. There just seems to me to be something passive about it, a knowing acceptance that these 'other' ideas and works will never be accepted as they are, when they are.

A lot of the poems within 'Thought Disorder' use the 'You' and 'I' pronoun's - how far would you say you see your poetry as an active dialogue with its reader?

That's a really good question. One of the aims in compiling the collection was to try and not write from a place of certainty regarding the speaking self, the poetic I. With that in mind, the interaction in the poems between the various I's and you's are, I'd like to think, dialogues about what the actual poems and what poetry in general can do. This is obviously more apparent in some than in others, but on the whole I don't think any of the pieces are simple addresses to established addressees. Subject matter, the multiplicity of representation and the limitations of language are being written and unwritten in the poems, and this 'unwrittenness' seems to be where the dialogue occurs, and is I guess an apt place for the reader to come in: the reader engages with these conceptual I's and you's that are focussed on language - the only tangible bond I as writer have with you as reader - and fleshes out, humanises, brings the commonalities of thought and experience that are (I hope) in the poems to the fore. Completes them. In that sense, you could say there is an active dialogue embodied in the act of reading the poems and the necessary reconstruction they require.

I love the sometimes seemingly random procession of pronouns in Ashbery's poetry. The way I becomes you and he and she etc. The way that, while initially appearing other in comparison to more conventional writing, this sprawling, perhaps inter-subjective depiction of self reduces the otherness and the absence inherent in any conversation or text when it is spoken or read or whatever.
What guided the decision to split the book into four sections?

The four parts thing is fairly simple -- it just breaks the poems up thematically. Since finishing it and rereading the MS in book form, there are four or five poems I really shouldn't have included in this collection. Maybe that's not true. I guess it's easier to criticise your own work when it's 'finished'. But yes, the parts: all of the poems, aside perhaps from the four or five I just mentioned, are related to each other in terms of subject matter. They're all full of eyes and acts of looking or recording, at the same time as questioning the truth-content of these acts and picking apart the binary between self and other. I'd say there are three types of poem in the collection: the chopped-up philosopoems ('Size', for example), the lightly absurdist pieces ('They tend to come at night') and the tactile, sometimes deconstructed lyrics ('Glimpse', 'Face'). The structuring of the collection through four different parts allowed me to incorporate these slightly differing styles as opposed to isolating them, which I think would have been a bit boring and too authorially forceful. The structuring and the part-breaks allow the poems to better play off each other, engenders them with a more compelling relationship to and with each other. Well, that's what I intended at least.

{Editor's note - You'll notice we dropped the soup premise. There wasn't time and this interview was done over a new thing called e-mail.}

1 comment:

  1. I expected soup and was mis-sold the premise of this article. I demand my time back. Lovely though. x