The Prolific Myth: Interview with SJ Fowler

SJ Fowler and the bears
SJ Fowler and the bears
Last year I had the pleasure of working with the poet SJ Fowler on two projects: Electronic Voice Phenomena (a touring experimental literature and new media show produced by Penned in the Margins and Mercy)  and Enemies (the result of collaborations with over thirty artists, photographers and writers). Both projects have been shortlisted in the Saboteur Awards.
During Electronic Voice Phenomena Steve dressed up as a bear and read a Russian novel (or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – when we were in the Shelley Theatre). He delighted in getting a confused or angry response from his audience, although I suspected that he enjoyed the laughter too. When he’s not attempting to contact the dead, throwing up on stage or wearing a bear outfit, Steve organises large scale collaborative poetry events, like this one at the Southbank Centre, and writes vast amounts of poetry. I did an extended interview with him for the British Library sound archive, here is an extract in which we discuss his approach to publishing – grinding it out and moving on.
SJ Fowler in Electronic Voice Phenomena, St George's Hall. [peter guy's blog]
SJ Fowler in Electronic Voice Phenomena, St George’s Hall. [peter guy’s blog]

SJ Fowler:

I think that the huge factor in the volume that I’ve published has been to do with a distinct, decided engagement with a writing lifestyle. I write a lot and I write in a very specific way, which I think, because of the more traditional modes of writing poetry for the page especially, is often seen as strange. I’m interested in finding a subject that I’m very passionate about, and then somehow without too much forethought or analysis, mulching that subject into a text, whether that’s through very obvious approaches like found text, or through boiling myself in the bath, or working when I’m tired, or just some organic, natural methodology for engaging with something that I really care about. Each one has very naturally produced different kinds of writing. That’s been a real pleasure for me, engaging with people who have read one of my books, who then automatically think that all of my writing is like that. Each one of my books couldn’t be more different. So because I’ve had quite a reasonably easy, menial job for the past six years, where I’ve been able to just sit down all day and write, I’ve produced these huge volumes of works, and about half of what I’ve produced is published. So there’s a huge amount that I’m glad I didn’t publish, or that is waiting to be published in the future.

That approach does a lot of things against you as well as for you. I think there is a really specific notion around what a first collection must be, and it goes forward for these awards, etc…But I published three books at the same time – three books in three months, and I realised that nobody really read any of them, and I didn’t really care about that. I found that out, I found that it wasn’t about readership or engagement with other people. It’s nice that they exist now, as time goes by they’ve come to mean something different to me. I become quite obsessive about a certain idea, I use other poet’s work, anything I can to get to where I need to get to. I know essentially if it’s authentic or not authentic. I put it together, I deliberately create relationships with publishers or people who are engaged in that environment, because I think that it’s the only thing I would never do in poetry. The one thing I would never do is publishing, because I think it’s absolutely thankless and brutal and if it hurts me that a few of my books only sell a few hundred copies, that lasts for two minutes, I’m writing the next book. But the publisher lives with that and the financial reality of it for a long time. I don’t envy them that at all. I move on, I don’t think about that work at all, and when I come to do a reading and someone has read one of my books from years ago and makes a nice comment about it, I honestly don’t even really recognise it, I don’t really know what they mean or are talking about, because I don’t really remember what’s in some of them.

I’m glad about that but I think that it would horrify some people, that this thing exists in the world that represents you, that’s got your name on it, and people can read it and you can be ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’. That happened to me recently. Someone published an extract of one of my poems, and I was like, where did you get the title from? He said –it’s one of your poems, I said I’m pretty sure it’s not, but alright…I just don’t care about that. There’s poets who have done this, and might not be in the public’s consciousness, who I really admire. People like Pierre Joris and Tom Raworth who just pump out book after book, I’ve always believed in that. When I was interested in film, it was people like Bergman, who’d create radically brilliant, often different works, year after year. I admire that approach because they are I suppose professionals. That’s how they saw it/see it. It was a life engagement, not about dropping their rarefied thoughts on the world, but about grinding it out and if it pops out and it’s genius you can just see them smiling ‘oh alright that was genius, onto the next’ – that’s how I feel, if people say something I’ve done is rubbish, or brilliant, I don’t care. I care about writing, I love writing, it’s helped me be a better human being, it’s helped me mediate the world around me, it’s helped me sublimate really fundamentally aggressive energies in the world and I feel better for that. I’m not going to slow down or strategically launch the books so that people can take the time to actually read the work I’ve done in order to somehow mitigate the form…I think there’s a myth about being prolific, that it harms you, but I don’t think anyone will read me anyway and if they do I’ll be dead. Why not just do fifty books, and then they’ve got lots to read?

I’ve had some great conversations with people about their first collections, and I’m really interested in it, like Jack Underwood was in the faber young poets pamphlet and I don’t know what happened, something with faber, and now his next book is out, he announced on twitter it’ll be out in 2016, he announced this last year, and that to me is amazing because what that says to me is that …he’s going to get a huge reception and I hope he wins prizes, he’s a sweet man and he’s well known, he’ll do so well and he’ll be known by so many more middle class people than me!…But, the reality is that to me that says he’s going to spend the next year and a half not writing, because if he writes hundreds of poems in the next year and a half they’re just going to be in a dusty drawer…maybe not, but that’s just how it feels, that’s my instinct.

I’ve spoken to a poet who was told off by his PhD supervisor for publishing an extended chapbook because the guy was like: your first collection is the most important collection, you must go to these people and make these connections and slowly breed these relationships over five years and then launch your book when you get to around thirty. That to me just seems like an absolutely crazy backward view of what your work is.

It comes down to this fundamental thing – if I see musicians, like Radiohead, their work has changed, that’s the way it should be, but when I see someone doing the same music, like Korn for instance – I grew up listening to new metal – and they’re still doing the whiny music twenty years later – they’re moribund…I don’t want my work to ever be the same. I’m glad to be ashamed of stuff I’ve put out because I’m a different person now.

My publishing happened because I invested in getting to know the people who were foolish enough to do ground-up avant-garde presses. They were interested in how I was doing things. And half of my books have come about through me relentlessly badgering people, and the other half have been people asking me, which makes me feel really gratified. My first book, Red Museum, was the fourth book I wrote, but it just happened that a publisher asked me for a book, so I just sent him it and he said he’d take it, and that I didn’t need to change it. That’s my first book! And then my prison book I did in two months because the publisher said ‘I’ll do one of your books’ and I didn’t happen to have one that was ready. I wrote it, didn’t look at it, just sent it to him. And it’s my favourite book by a mile – it’s really good because it feels like someone else has written it.

The whole publishing process for me has been a complete mélange. I take real, genuine pleasure in holding new objects in my hands, and moving on.


[whilst I was transcribing this interview, Steve has published another poetry collection, it’s called ‘The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner’ and he’s launching it on the 21st May. ]

One thought on “The Prolific Myth: Interview with SJ Fowler

Comments are closed.