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I Love Roses When They're Past Their Best: Harry Burke Interviewed
Sam Riviere , June 1st, 2014 16:24

Sam Riviere speaks to poet, curator and editor of recently published poetry anthology 'I Love Roses When They're Past Their Best', Harry Burke, about defying borders and boundaries, technological determinism and whether or not poetry should be free

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Harry Burke is a London-based poet and curator whose work often connects poetry with the visual arts. While poetry can at times seem isolated from its contemporaneous art forms and cultures, a generation of writers and artists who came of age online are currently exploring the possibilities for new connections, and reinvigorating the long tradition of poetry’s dialogue with art. I Love Roses When They’re Past Their Best is a landmark publication for this refreshed engagement, a recent anthology edited by Burke which groups sixteen poets from the UK, Spain, and the US. The book is published by the innovative press Test Centre (Ian Sinclair, Derek Jarman) and was launched in Peckham last month.

Congratulations on the publication of the anthology, I feel like it’s a forward-looking and fairly unconventional assessment of what’s going on with poetry at the moment.

Perhaps one of the things that’s immediately interesting about this (highly subjective as you admit in your intro) grouping of poets is its disregard for various boundaries or borders that the poems spill across: geographical (poets from Spain, the US and the UK), and the disparate ‘scenes’ or what have you of contemporary poetry (the works of Francesca Lisette and Gabby Bess, for example, seem to have emerged from quite distant-seeming, or even hostile, sets of poets). Did this selection grow out of your interest in these divisions, or rather out of your disinterest in them?

Both. The poets are only from three countries; three countries with strong historical links. If I was to repeat this exercise in the future I'd hope it would be very different in that respect. I'm very aware that a lot of my favourite poets turn out to be from the US, and even more so that a lot of them are living and working and communicating with each other in New York. There's definitely loads of stuff going on there, but my ambition as a reader now is to try and move beyond this big-scale cultural filter bubble. I'm interested in the different ways different users of language are able to change language as much as I'm interested in the American poetic tradition. It would be cool if our temporary or contingent cultural platforms – blogs, journals, cities, small publishing projects, scenes, our own reading habits – could work out more ways to facilitate this sense of difference.

But I think it's this idea of difference that informed the inclusion of perhaps disparate scenes beside each other in the anthology. I wanted to bring different voices and styles together to see how they challenged each other – it's quite an empirical investigation in that sense, and no more ambitious. But also I was wondering about that idea of disparateness itself. The critical poetics Birkbeck, Brighton, Cambridge scene that Francesca is often associated with and then the S/S/Y/K, Faber new poets, Norwich, London, Poetry London scene that you yourself are associated with and then the alt lit Crispin Best scene can seem very different at first glance. And certain members certainly perpetuate or antagonise that, which is also cool – you need your tribe. But also these people are living next to each other, using the same libraries, reading the same books etc., and have often surprising mutual friend combinations on social media. So they're disparate, but if you were to network map them, they'd be almost right on top of each other. It was maybe this extended scene, or network architecture, that informed the fact the poets came from only three particular countries. Which is kind of just an observation, and I don't think I have a concrete point to go with it. I'm not interested in flattening difference, but rather using it to think about a relationship to language, a relationship to the other, etc.

Perhaps you could talk a little about what you think of as uniting the work in the book? You talk in your introduction about the use of the internet more as a method or even cognitive schema rather than a subject…as reflected in your discussion of the selection process, the book seems more comfortable with a sort of horizontal or decentred mapping of poetry. What the sort of future for poetry do you think your editorial approach is suggesting or hoping for?

(See network architecture comment above.)

I'm wondering if we're taking on Jameson's idea of cognitive mapping in a very literal sense, by this point. His idea of cognitive mapping came from the claim, in architectural theory, that alienation in the modern city occurs when people are unable to map (in their minds) their own position in the urban totality which they are aware they are inhabiting. You're just drifting in the big grid city, like Detroit or Milton Keynes, where traditional markers of space are largely absent, or at least everything looks the same. Jameson applies this notion to culture: it's the difference between alienation within totalised, globalised, homogenous culture, and having markers to create meaning, or a sense of position, within this. You can quite easily understand this as a metaphor for cultural production within industrial internet infrastructure of today. Perhaps poetry anthologies are a cognitive map of the present. In fact certainly there are, I think I wanted to create one that was aware of this and gave people interesting points for rejecting it as a definitive map, or one that subverted other, more conservative maps, if that happens to be the perspective you're looking from.

It's not really horizontal, perhaps just more aware of the vertical structures in place that produce it, or trying to be. Almost everything I do is the same process, in that sense; different particular configurations of the present.

At the launch for the book at Arcadia Missa in Peckham it struck me that the book’s real function, or ambition, might actually be social? As in the audience the book is interested in creating seems composed of a mingling of distinct and previously unconnected audiences. We’ve spoken before about the tradition of coterie reading, and I know you’ve circulated poems privately, in ways that seem to reinforce social ties/friendship, and in a way encourage intimacy among the writers you know. Is this something you’ve thought about? How focused are you on the social uses of poetry?

I'm not going to be a prick and mansplain the social uses of poetry. The launch was so nice, the atmosphere was really lovely and I feel like the majority of the audience encountered a poet for the first time that night. There's a very small, select group of people that I've circulated my poems to, often because of total trust in them combined with a sense of, at least in that moment, not knowing them so well. It's led to some of my closest friendships. The anthology is probably an attempt to facilitate this in a wider way, among other people than myself. We took the decision not to have an interval during the reading so as to create an intensity and an intimacy among best friends, strangers etc. all sitting cross-legged on the floor. That's something I love about poetry readings, as soon as the poet starts speaking, you're trapped, but also she's trapping you. So maybe poetry is a way of trapping people. There's no good or bad poetry, just people who are better or worse at that.

I think also exclusion is better than exclusivity. Anyone is able to enter or be part of it, but if you're unduly rich or obnoxious please don't enter our space.

In your introduction, you mention Kenneth Goldsmith’s mantra about writers needing not to produce more texts, but rather repurpose existing ones. I sense you have some suspicions of this as an ethos. At the same time, some of the poetry in the book uses appropriated language, particularly text sourced via internet searches. I’d be interested in your assessment or feeling about the interest in ‘uncreative writing’ at the moment? Especially perhaps in light of Kenny G’s recent attempts to co-opt ‘alt lit’ or whatever you want to call it, in any case a non-establishment, uninstitutional, and probably more experimental and less dogmatic constellation of writers, connected online, than any recent grouping suggested by academic discourse… But my question already sounds cynical. Would you posit anything against in the anthology as opposing the values of a continuous ‘post avant’ poetry, or of uncreative writing’s assertion – that enough poetry has been written? Is there a perhaps new task for an ‘expressive’ lyric, or something?

I think I turned to that writing for lack of much better discourse re: digital production (certainly as far as poetry's involved) in which to situate the anthology or the arguments in the introduction. But also to push away from it. It felt like the arguments in Uncreative Writing epitomise a wider tendency towards technological determinism regarding the implications of the internet upon writing. Like, “the internet came, everything changed”. I think the narrative is more useful as “the World Wide Web came and was commercialised and is now hugely influential within our culture and lots of things have stayed the same, maybe even we've lost certain freedoms, but also there are increased avenues in some senses for expression or representation (for some people)”. Perhaps the internet is a symptom not a cause, and we should look to underlying economic, political or historical changes.

Context seems very important to me, but I don't think it replaces content, as is Uncreative Writing's main claim. I just think it's important to put the one against the other, and that internet technologies can help make this process more visible. Sophie Collins said something really important to me when we were talking about exactly this question: “the implication of uncreative writing' on ‘minority writers’ i.e. the notion of excess language as a kind of ~fascinating textual junkspace~, indeed, the notion of the existence of any ‘waste language’ at all only functions for those individuals occupying positions of relative privilege within a hegemonic discourse— those whose demographics have had the opportunity to publicly record their thoughts.” So I've answered the question with a quote. If you can dispense with your subjectivity so readily, there's probably nothing at stake.

In a sense this idea of context within the poem helps socialise the poem – it helps situate it more concretely, or materialise it, within a social realm. It is in this direction that I'd look towards the expressive lyric as exciting right now.

In a short essay about The Bernadette Corporation’s decision to publish a 130-page epic poem as part of a gallery show in 2009, Chris Kraus noted the response at the opening:

“…it was especially terrifying to visual artists, whose miscomprehension of poetry rivals the philistine mantra of mid- century dentists – ‘My four-year-old could have done that’ – when looking at paintings by Abstract Expressionists. “Is it a…real poem,” art colleagues asked… “Is it sincere or is it a parody? Is it – umm, any good?”

At the moment there are artists who are actively or intuitively interested in poetry. This is something that would have seemed so improbable only a few years ago, and makes me excited that some new sort of dialogue could be happening. With many of these artists, their work seems informed by internet usage – obviously large amounts of written text are encountered and navigated in online environments, and perhaps the aesthetics of specific texts is something we’re more used in general to identifying and thinking about… I guess I’m unsure how indebted or connected this practice is with the tradition of poetry I’m familiar with, and to what extent it’s more the possibilities of ‘Poetry’ as a term or label that are being explored? There’s the notion that seems helpful here, that, as Ben Lerner puts it, “Poetry is a word for art we don’t have.” Does the perceived obscurity of poetry have a value here? How would you account for this recent enthusiasm and experimentation with poetry by visual artists?

I think there are many ways of answering this question. Artists turn to poetry because they can't afford studios, or expensive materials, or are travelling a lot etc. But also it's part of a recognition that objects aren't necessarily discrete things, ontologically, and in fact are comprised partly through textual events and phenomena. And that textuality can help reveal different temporalities in an art practice. So you might have sculptural installations where meaning is created in negotiation with a body of text. Also that we constitute ourselves part textually. So there's an issue of subjectivity imbricated within it. And again if it's an issue of context I think it can locate objects or art practices in social realms, or at least fabricate certain ties. But I think this has always been true (think of long list of artist-poet crossovers), Modernism just tried to obfuscate it for a while. But, I don’t know, the art world loves trends though doesn't it. Perhaps some artists write poetry to validate their habit of selling objects in semi-illegal transactions for large amounts of money.

There is definitely the anxiety that artists are employing poetry for affect, and with a sort of lack of understanding of the precision or craft of language, or the history of poetry. This is probably true in a lot of cases. Your call as a reader.

There's also the work that Tan Lin is doing at the moment, arguing that poetry doesn't necessarily have to do with language (in the narrow sense) at all.

Oh and Deanna Havas is really important, someone should give her a job.

There was no book for sale at the first reading you hosted in Stoke Newington in 2013, or at the launch. It didn’t seem to matter. It’s also on a pretty limited run for an anthology. Chris Kraus again:

“Bernadette Corporation insisted on treating [their epic poem] as an original artwork. No press copies, no posting online, no Xeroxed handouts. John Kelsey recalls, “…artist friends basically say, ‘art should be for sale, writing should be free.’ It’s crazy how this conventional distribution of labor and value persists…it was a real point of contention that arose…[that] poetry should be free.’”

I can admit I appreciate poetry as a product – I don’t know, might the exclusivity or rarity of the book translate somehow into desirability, even around of a social/artistic grouping? And in a way that seems to echo the elusiveness of the objects of / in poems. An impression I sometimes have is that although a poem is fully dependent on and dictated by its form and appearance, its publishing channel, our encounter with it as text, a system that’s supposed to denote something else, means the poem is still preserved beyond its physicality somehow. Ben Lerner:

"Poetry is in some sense impossible. Poetry is a word we use to denote the perfect linguistic object. That's the poem. It's supposed to be better than prose, it's supposed to be deeper and more precise and more beautiful. And of course, you never get the perfect poem. There's no such thing. So there's this structure of frustration built into poetry."

I wonder if the virtual nature of poetry makes the decision to create a poetry book meaningful? To commit to a definite, if temporarily available object, rather than an ebook for example – a form which might seem to embody, if that’s not too strange a word to use, the special properties of a poem?

Why should a poem be free? It costs money to produce poetry, and poets need to eat, and are often underemployable in other ways. Support poetry. Buy your friends' books. If your into poetry, if there was more money we'd have more interesting design and more journals that paid for reviews and more radical presses etc. etc.

That having been said, there was a series of 6 illustrated poems available at the launch for only £5 (still available to purchase here) and the anthology was available to pre-order at the launch even though it was still stuck in Germany and would arrive the next day. You can still purchase that at the link too. If you're a savvy collector you probably should. Contact about framed editions.

Poetry is so virtual! I want to work on a big ebook publishing project, with poetry in the source code. The funny thing about poetry is it seems like all one big process to try and define poetry. That's pretty radical though, or at least honest. I'd just like to try and incorporate its infrastructure of production as well as structure of frustration into the poem. You can never get the perfect poem, but you should at least try and think about its perfect, or most appropriate, form.

☂ ☭

I Love Roses When They're Past Their Best is out now, published by Test Centre