Friday, 17 January 2014

On SJ Fowler's Enemies

It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that SJ Fowler has charged the poetry scene in London (and elsewhere) with a fresh vitality. Since he entered the ring of writing, editing and, particularly, event-organising some years ago, the diverse factions that poetry habitually splinters into seem to have converged that little bit. The scene(s) have brightened that little bit. It's probably for his relentless curatorial efforts that he is known best - for Steven a worthy and totally valid way to grapple with poetry. The byproduct being that he has created fertile ground for those working under the umbrella of avant-garde and literary writing to begin conversing anew.

His poetics, residing squarely in the avant-garde, are not altogether distinct from his role as event organiser. Enemies, his recently-published book from Penned In The Margins, which collects extracts from his numerous collaborations, is a comprehensive statement on his perspective on writing. Benefiting from coming to poetry on the back of what are on the surface unrelated longstanding concerns, Steven's nonlinear and outward-looking approach offers a route out of the insularity typifying much of it. It punches a hole through poetry's preciousness. His commitment to collaborative practices is also a way out: out of the poetic ego - as he writes in his introduction to Enemies, "a testament to my refusing to be alone in the creative act." It's also a "record of friendships." Steven refuses to see writing as a way of separating himself from other people, whether these people are fellow artists or readers/audience.

His numerous collaborators over the years, some featured in Enemies some not, range from poets to visual artists to photographers, musicians, illustrators, sculptors, filmmakers... He strays not only from English (linguistic & national) territories but also from accepted literary patterns of expression in order to seek appropriate modes for a confluence of form and content - in what seems to me an attempt to get closer to something crucial. There's a healthy lack of respect for convention; at the same time there's deep respect for the avant-garde tradition. He is frighteningly prolific. The seemingly inexhaustible energy he pours into arranging events - the list seems to be lengthening year on year - to showcase the work of so many of his contemporaries and forerunners in experimental poetics, and to encourage innovation with processes of composition, is also evident in his publishing endeavours. Humility and generosity are recurring themes. The quickness of mind he displays on stage, whether in the role of producer or performer, is a vital element of his writing. Fretting about inserting the right word at the right place seems not of overriding importance or interest: if an element doesn't materialise at the primal compositional stage then there's probably no reason for it to be there at all. In this sense, his work is as close as you will get to live literature on the page - and the results are incisive, exhilarating and bursting with potentiality. The key lies at the pre-compositonal stage: already pregnant with a conceptual turn, and with a mind in perpetual take-and-give-back-in-spades mode, the act of writing becomes, in Steven's work as much as anybody else's, the content itself. This is at the core of what we get and what's inspiring in this book of collaborations, as has also been the case with previous books like Minimum Security Prison Dentistry or Fights.

Since he wrote to me a few years ago seeking to feature my work in his 'Maintenant' series for 3:AM Magazine, Steven and I have worked together several times (apart from one or two occasions, our relationship consisting of him showcasing or promoting my work...) so much so that on greeting me at the book's launch the publisher of Enemies congratulated me on being part of it, which I'm not. "Probably better off not being associated with me," according to Steve! Nevertheless, plans are afoot for us to work together as curatorial partners and, in extension, as writers: in Yes But Are We Enemies?, part of the 2014 programme of Steven's extraordinary Enemies Project, we will be bringing poets in/from Ireland together with poets in/from England to produce and perform new work in rolling cross-border collaboration. Format, dates, venues and participants TBC. Watch this space.

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