Thursday, 2 May 2013

Q&A With Poetry Lecturer, Critic and Faber Published poet Jack Underwood Part 1

Jack Underwood
The Q&A series continues - 29 year old Jack Underwood, a lecturer at Goldsmith University with a PhD in Creative Writing. I attended a lecture of his on Contemporary Poetry recently. Jack is in his late 20's, therefore he has an understanding that contemporary poetry isn't a title that belongs to modernist poets that died over half a century ago (HURRAH).  In his lecture he referred to Spoken Word, ridiculing the art-form and its place in Contemporary Poetry (that's what he does with all poetry, he's a critic). I reached out to Jack and was pleased he was up to meet and chat poetry over a hot toddy and a pint of Guinness.

Hope you don't mind me saying this, but aren't you a bit young to be a professor of poetry? ... I mean, what does that even mean? 

Well, I’m not a ‘Professor’, which is a much higher-ranking and esteemed position than the one I hold. As an early career academic I’m no way near that ballpark. I am a lecturer.

That means that I help discuss and problematise the philosophical territory, the ideas and questions around the subject of writing, with people who are also interested in writing, and I edit and discuss their work with them alongside those discussions. There is an ugly idea going around that knowledge, debate, and art should be required to justify themselves in terms of monetary return at some point and this is dangerous, so I’m definitely in favour of more poetry professors, lecturers, students etc. if it helps to argue otherwise.

oh' right, well you cleared that up... How does a poet educate?

I don’t educate ‘as a poet’ so much. My being ‘a poet’ is really only present via the practical knowledge of writing I might bring to the role, and the knowledge of the contemporary field I might have as a result of being somebody contributing to it, rather than trying to describe it. Educating as ‘a poet’ as an idea sounds a bit embarrassing, like I might give seminars entirely in verse, or click my fingers or wear jaunty hats or write on the white board with a quill or something.

But I sense you’re asking me if the values that poetry might advertise as a discourse are useful in teaching itself, which they are. Poetry (by which I mean good poetry) is largely a means of interrogation, of asking questions about difficult subjects, intersections, phenomena, so-called ‘Truths’. It also does so in a way that announces the provisionality and subjectivity of any possible answers to such questions, which in turn invites the question of whether such questions can be ‘answered’ at all, and this is essentially the rhetorical shape of most philosophy: we understand this thing according to these terms, and these terms in relation to this thing, and we will rejuvenate and reinvent the terms until the thing is seen from another perspective and the terms broaden and refine or die. That’s what poems do, and it’s what knowledge is: though this is all a little too general a point to make I’d say.

American playwright Gwydion Suilebhan ranted on twitter recently, taking swipes at all contemporary poetry by stating, “Poetry is dead. What pretends to be poetry now is either New Age blather or vague nonsense or gibberish. It’s zombie poetry. There is no longer, really, any formal innovation possible. The constraints of meter have long been abandoned. What is left? It is a parroting of something that used to be radical. It is about as useful as the clavichord. There is no “Howl possible or “Song of Myself.” There is no “The Waste Land.” - 

Does poetry have a golden era? when was it and what has changed?

The whole hierarchial approach to poems is weird to begin with, but the idea of a best age is dumb because you’d have to set a firm criteria to judge bestness and then apply it merrily across all of history. I pity the sociopath that has missed the mark so widely that they feel the need to be so empirical about poems, to set poetry in competition with itself on such reductive terms. I didn’t realise the sociopath I’d be pitying was an American playwright, though. That is news! On the other hand ‘vague nonsense’ sounds like something I could enjoy, and something Mr Suilebhan appears to do a mean line in himself, judging by the generality of his arguments above.

There are tons of lazy ideas I’d object to here, but I think they largely announce themselves: we’ll never write another Howl, for instance? Well I was rather under the impression we already had one of those. I just sure hope Mr Suilebhan doesn’t write another play using the tired formal tactic of actors, or involving the constraints of speaking or movement, otherwise he might accidentally bump off theatre too and find himself out of job. Then maybe he’d have to take up talking spurious shit full-time. 

Pablo Neruda says "poetry comes from the people, poetry belongs to the people" - what is the divide between poetry and "the people"? why does it exist?

I’m not sure who “the people” are, really. I do believe in society, in collective responsibility and poetry can be part of that, but what is Neruda saying poetry doesn’t come from and isn’t for? The State? I don’t know what he’s on about, basically. Sorry Ray. I would, by way of a more general waft in that direction, say that I do see poetry as a means of affront to the pervasive capital value system we have, because it seeks to foreground other ways of looking that might suggest different systems of value and understanding, but I think there are all kinds of art forms that overthrow that system, if only for a second. If there is a divide between the poetry world and other people it is probably because they don’t need or value the terms of overthrow that poetry provides, for whatever reason. Maybe they prefer circus skills, or sex.

You are a renowned critic of poetry, does this role make you more self-conscious when writing your own poetry?

I don’t think I’m ‘renowned’ as a critic at all, really Ray, though it’s flattering to be thought of that way because my prose always seems very awkward to me, and I’m a painfully slow reader. I do write reviews for Poetry London, and now for Poetry Review, and it might have got round that I’m fussy, and I don’t actually like very much poetry, and that’s true! But I’m not a bully, and I don’t expect to be agreed with. I think it’s good to reserve the right to be fickle in your tastes: you don’t like the cauliflower poem because you hate cauliflower? Fine. I think why you like something is very complex and weird and unpredictable. That’s why in reviewing I tend to keep my subjective taste out of it and just try to describe what’s going on. A couple of very good friends were telling me they thought this was opting out, being too polite and nice: “of all the opinionated, harsh, snobbish people I know…” they were saying. Well, I guess I know how tenuous my feelings can be day to day, how a poem works uniquely with each reader and their associations, so why should I publicly prioritise my own reading in a magazine read entirely, bar one exception, by people who aren’t me?

For my own writing I don’t think about criticism, no. I don’t think about language theory, current trends, but all that stuff might creep in after, during editing (when does the point of writing begin or end anyway? At your desk? The day before when you made a weird connection? The year before, the day you learned the word ‘concubine’? When you learned to write at school?). At the first draft stage I just tend to concentrate on the feeling, the idea, or the feeling of the idea, or an idea as the feeling. I like the idea of writing as a physical act. Not in a mystical way, but in terms of writing being a gestural, moody, visceral business where you welcome the unconscious wobbly bits to the table too. I’m not especially cerebral. I don’t like certainty. Maybe these instincts and the fact that I try and shut everything too conscious out, are a result of certain critical understandings: a sort of negative pressure being exerted, but if ever I feel that I’ve ‘deployed’ something too consciously I screw up my face and go and read Lorca: wash that sense of ‘craft’ and ‘device’ out of my system. Craft is for nerds and repressed perverts. It’s the dullest kind of fetishism. Craft is to poetry what driving-gloves are to a road-trip.

You were part of the Faber New Poets series, what was it like working with the most prestigious poetry-publishing house in the UK?

We got to go to (Seamus) Heaney’s 70th Birthday Party! That was weird and good. The Faber New Poets series was obviously very good for me in terms of finding an audience for my work. The tour was amazing fun, and I’m glad it was a pamphlet-length thing, because in fairness I have needed the three or four years since to get a measure on what kind of poetry I actually like, and ought to try and write myself. I went down a rather self-satisfied route for a while afterwards, playing around for the sake of it. Being a FNP has basically bought me valuable time to put together a book I feel comfortable putting into the world. We’ll see how that turns out, and where it might end up living soon, I hope.

Otherwise I’m still editing Stop Sharpening Your knives, and I’m curating a reading series for us, the first of which is on the 14th May at the Servants Jazz Quarters in Dalston, so I’m looking forward to the narcissistic whoosh of reading things out again, obviously. I’m still knocking out the odd poem too, thankfully, and drinking booze with people like Raymond Antrobus occasionally…

Part 2 of this interview has Jack talking about the tensions between page poets and stage poets, and why oral tradition and poetry aren't as linked as many people claim they are... Stay tuned...

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