Monday, 25 March 2013

Aggressive Interview #3: Andrew Bailey, Zealot, Coder

The Paris Review normally kicks off with some kind of faux-environmental positioning, as per: I am sitting in someone else’s office, drinking tepid, thin coffee from one of those annoying rippled paper cups that somebody worked out disperses heat without burning fingertips. I don’t have Bailey's book, Zeal (promotional link and available in all good book stores, if there are any left), anywhere near me, nor have I prepared for this interview. I am sweating a little, like a broken lawn sprinkler. 

Andrew Bailey enters the conversation, like [a simile about whirlwinds in a Welsh border town] and through the digital doorway of a Google Docs access account. I don’t notice this because I’m not using an intelligent enough computer, or connection, or because Google Docs is old generation software and simply doesn't provide sufficient functionality for the purposes of this introduction. Nevertheless, I blithely continue adding questions and logging out, returning again to see if Andrew has replied, or because of the lack of functionality, or my lack of understanding of the functionality, has edited my questions to things he wants to talk about and left my original questions hanging in the unreachable ether of past revisions.

George Ttoouli


Right, that's out of the way. 

Andrew—I mean, ‘O, Andrew’, what’s with the vocative? Bit, last century—sorry, bit two centuries ago?

Beyond its being fun and my being fond of it? Sometimes it’s exasperation (Oh, George.) Sometimes it’s a stab at heightening the tone, as I’m open to a bit of lily-gilding. Sometimes it’s because I’m gesturing towards dialogue; in ‘Going to the Chapel’, it’s from found text that I've been working with. Sometimes I mock myself for enjoying it – sometimes that means I remove the O and you end up seeing a less vocative line, sometimes it manifests as self-mockery, which you might be able to see in ‘A Biscuit in Both Hands’ in the Brittle Star anthology Said and Done (promotional link and available in—oh, you know the rest). I’m not sure about the timing though. There’s no O, but Frank O’Hara’s – sorry, Frank Hara’s – ‘Les Etiquettes Jaunes’ addresses that “Leaf!” with a very vocative exclamation mark. Still last century but that’s something. I’m sure I can find something more 21st century when I’m nearer my shelves.

Maybe I can point you at Dr Fulminare? “Where the 'O' is dominant, we find the building blocks for centuries of love poetry and religious verse.” Thus Andrea T Judge, which I wasn't really thinking of at the start of this response but I do have a second tab open in the browser.

Anyway, try this out loud: vocative vocative vocative vocative. You’re on a train.

Referencing yourself in anthologies I don’t own is just. plain. rude. Providing a purchase link is like gobbing through someone’s letterbox and asking for it back.

(Dude, you started the rude. And I thought I was just footnoting helpfully! Incidentally, I missed this, which I’m not in at all.)

(Quit complaining - this is supposed to be an aggressive interview, and I've only done it twice before. You can’t reasonably expect me to abandon the project before it’s gone beyond coincidence.)

But there’s something attention-grabby about the vocative which seems to stand at odds with the introverted tone that runs through Zeal. That tone lets you get away with some of the surprising moments of physical intimacy (I’ll come back to that, I need to steel myself with a discussion of technique first), but I haven’t decided yet if I’m comfortable about having this nutter in the corner bursting into Blakean expression every few poems. 

 Sure, yes, O’Hara (and, alright, I’m guilty of it myself - [purchase link deleted by my conscience]) and others make use of it and there are ways of signalling the vocative without a screaming O. But the compare to the more subtle ‘Oh’ that occurs at the end of your poem ‘Eel’. Like the ‘Pff’ also in there, you construct a performance of the self arguing with the self and, perhaps, the performance makes room for the vocative, consciously. 

 My second question, then, after all this circumlocution. What the hell are you ‘playing’ at, exactly? In case your literal brain takes over, as it has with mine, revisiting this phrasing, I mean, What is the attraction to ‘play’, to performance, to ludic musing with language? I’m referring as much to your love of Go as I am to your poetics.

AB: “[B]ut I consider play to be / A deeper outside thing,” after all. To some degree I’m flattered by that ‘consciously’ in yours above; part of the purpose of play, at least as I play, is that you don’t wholly know where it’s going, and if it seems I deliberately set out to do that in ‘Eel’ that’s more to do with the editing afterwards than the truth. The first time that second voice popped up it was sort of as a note to self to challenge what was becoming a fairly certain voice, one for whom there wasn't really any irony in the Zeal of the title, one I wasn't comfortable with letting into the world. But then I liked the way it sat against the earnest first voice, and started experimenting with – playing with – having him appear in other places too. Its disagreements brought a bit more life out of the first voice too, I hope. I’m not sure why the Montale references came into it, but I couldn't now imagine the poem without them. So yes, work out what the result of all this play is then work on it until it plays smoothly and so on.

Sometimes play is an end in itself, though, isn't it? It’s pleasant to use a phrase like “fleshy thistle” whether or not that signifies. Or to put that pearl in ‘Aspire’ at the hinge of the oyster, or to use a word like ‘teporingo’ and work out how to slip the definition into the poem. Or, indeed, to mutter “vocative vocative vocative” as before.

But there’s antagonistic play and, what, syn-agonistic? The difference between playing music together and playing chess together, I guess. On which, the main reason I prefer Go to chess is the way in which you’re supposed to win by only a few points – if it’s too much of a landslide, either one of you wasn’t attentive or you got the handicap stones wrong. It’s also creative – you gradually reveal the final layout from a blank space, rather than destruction and removal and overthrow through checkmate. Plus, you know, all Go stones are equal, none of your Jubilee back-row folks here.

A poem’s not a tsumego, in which a reader-opponent can make the right move to kill the poem’s corner; once it’s in a reader’s hands, I’m thinking maybe of play in the sense of music or capoeira. Like you’ve made a record for them to play. You read some critics approaching difficult poems as if their authors were competitive – as if the poets think that, if the poem is not understood, they win – which is not something I subscribe to. Not as a writer trying to win, not as a reader finding that in difficult poems so often. But there is an element of antagonism in the writing stage, when you start to realise what you’ve set yourself to do and end up trying to get the actual poem as close to the platonic one you’ve set up as you can. If it’s chess you’d have to throw all the misses away as losses; if it’s Go, you can end up only a few points away and win on komi. Or at least think you have. It’s not really my place to know with my own.

I seem to have drifted away from the aggressive part. Ahem: “You arse”. Circumlocution right back at you in revenge.

Don’t get away with yourself here. The “consciously” was prefaced by a “perhaps”.

The way you describe the emergence of that second voice reminds me of when I first read Chakravorty Spivak – an essay on Yeats, I think. Clauses and subclauses, parentheses slipping out of hyphenated phrases. The language seemed to wrestle with notions of deliberateness and forceful argumentation, as if trying to enact a syntactical liberalism. She irritates a lot of people, of course, too.

So, we have three threads to follow here, some of which may appear to logically follow on from the preceding discussion. I will ask three questions at once and you can fill in your answers between them.

1. Your alter ego begins to sound like a Luke Kennard rip off, only nameless, less funny, less critical. Discuss the potential merits of your alter ego in relation to the Wolf, the Murderer, etc.

Of course I’m less funny than Luke Kennard. Who isn’t?

(Original here.)

[Editor's note: This is an oblique reference to Planet Shaped Horse, by Luke Kennard. That's all you're getting.]

2. This antagony-harmony dichotomy: Go appears to be antagony, but with an ambience of harmony, in that the goal is not to destroy the opponent (subtract them to nothing/submission), but to take their construction as one’s own. Who have you robbed for your poetry, under the guise of harmony? E.g. Montale, Ashbery? What have you stolen from them that you are most proud of?

Those two are there, obviously; also Peter Redgrove, of course, but this is all conscious. I'd guess it's the things I've accidentally stolen that are more interesting, and you're more likely to spot them than I am. It must be embarrassing for you that you've not found more.

But in poetry you expect a certain amount of connection, collection and conscription of predecessors, no matter how much Harold Bloom you believe. (In passing: at university I wrote an aggressively anti-Bloom essay for one strand of my second year and learned after handing it in that I had handed it in to a course leader who was a come-round-for-dinner-level friend of the professor. He was remarkably kind, as it goes.) I’m as proud of the borrowings from other sources – non-fiction, newspapers, comment strands, services – as I am of the ‘proper’ literary ones. Between the metamorphic effects of your own efforts and those of translation software, Markov chains and N+7 programs, these things are ingredients. Sometimes they’re strawberries, sometimes they’re lemons. Still you cook. Or play, if we’re going to maintain that metaphor. Other times you’re not trying to win; ‘Ruin’ is as direct a translation from the Old English as I can manage, for example. I’m trying not to get in the way. If you’re looking for somewhere I see balance between self and source it’s there.

I sound like I steal everything in this answer, like I never start from straight observation. It’s more that there’s no way of being in the world without aesthetic influences affecting what you notice, so while I might be happy with noting that “wet red / diamond” of a baby’s yawn, in ‘Someone else’s baby’, I’m happy in a literary way, and it’s in a formed poem, and one that took several revisions to get this way. Whatever you call the source is the point where you choose to stop working backwards. Plus, however organic and wholegrain your source, once you've annotated your observations into words they end up subject to the same methods and developments as they come to be a finished thing.

3. You do reference a lot of trendy almost-avants, don’t you? Popular convention-breakers, like O’Hara and Ashbery. But there’s something a little more Movement-y in the book than your influences imply; perhaps even a little bit of Craig Raine? I’m thinking in the relationship poems, that old sex-and-lovey-dovey trope you keep plundering...

And that almost-avant is almost a useful taxon. John Ashbery I found very early in a remainder bookshop in Preston in the old Paladin livery, April Galleons, and was joyfully bemused for long enough that I read him until he became nothing but central to my canon; he’s a triangulation point from which other writers are different. And there are reasons that you may be on to something; my earliest steps into knowing my way round the postcodes of the twentieth century did involve reading, if not the Martians so much, then people who respect them, so there might be something second hand. Which is not to say that I recognise Mr Bleaney in me, but I realise that you are now picking up those unconscious stealings from above. I am chastened, slightly, though I know hardly any Craig Raine beyond his anthologised 'Postcard...'. Kathleen Raine, though, is a powerful resource to plunder. A powerful influence, I mean. And speaking of powerful, it’s a shame that you dismiss love so easily. Your poor beached jellyfish of a heart.


George throws in the towel here, unable to tolerate any more of Andrew's backhand brutality. Andrew grins and runs a quick circle round the ring, such as it is, holding up a sign for his debut collection, Zeal, published by Enitharmon last year. (That unfortunately indicates how long it takes to do one of these things to a point I'm willing to abandon it – though do get in touch if you'd like to be grilled for the series). 

Andrew also runs a campaigning blog on behalf of fundamentalist atheist materialists, called Zealotry. Well, OK, it's just his blog. But he might start using it to promote a secular utopian scientific rationalism, one day. Don't discount the possibility.

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