Contrary Imperatives: an interview with Tony Williams

Tony Williams is a poet and lecturer of Creative Writing at Northumbria University. His first collection, The Corner of Arundel Lane and Charles Street, was published by Salt in 2009. His pamphlet All the Rooms of Uncle's Head (Nine Arches Press) features poems ostensibly painted on tiles by an inmate in an early 20th century asylum.

Charles Whalley has reviews published in Under the Radar, Sphinx
, and Sabotage, and has been anthologised in The Mays. He contacted Tony Williams after reviewing his pamphlet to learn more about the ideas behind its creation, and to discuss the relationship between poetry and Outsider Art.

In the pamphlet each page is filled with text, running in different directions around the page, and with marginalia commenting on or relating to, the matter of the poems. How did you manage the relationship between the marginalia and the poems? Am I perhaps incorrect in speaking about marginalia and poem as separate things?

That's a highly pertinent question which I don't quite know how to answer. It goes to the heart of this project - one of my aims was precisely to write things which didn't fit with our conceptions of what a poem should be or do, so I guess I should be pleased if people, including myself, can't quite account for what's on the page. I suppose, looking back to the process of composition, that although I would note down ideas and phrases in bursts, sometimes spanning several pieces and sometimes concentrated on one, the central text (the 'poem') tended to come as a unit. I didn't, for example, move much material between the central text and the marginalia. The movement of a poem happened as one thing, and the marginalia were a slightly different sort of thing which happened alongside or simultaneously, but for a given phrase or line I pretty much always knew which type it was.
Having said that, there's a real problem of how to read these pieces, which I haven't really solved myself. The simplest thing in performance is just to read the central poem-y bit, but that's unsatisfactory. Reading the page, of course you have to decide which order to read things in. That's precisely one effect I wanted - not for the text to be inaccessible, but for the reader to have to renegotiate how reading might happen.

So the writing process did involve dealing with marginalia and main text as separate types of text. Sometimes I might write the marginalia in the light of the central text, but I also had banks of marginalia which I then distributed amongst the pieces according to judgement, whim and intuition. And, as the page fills up, you're left with a design constraint which doesn't quite arise in most poetry but which is analogous to a formal constraint: I might have 37mm of margin to fill up, for example, so I'd invent a phrase to fill it. Just as working with rhyme or metre you need to fulfill that demand without it looking like that's what you're doing (the solution has to work for the poem as well as for the form), so the filling of that 37mm needs not only to do the design work you need but also suit the mood etc of the piece it's part of. And like formal constraints, what may seem a cynical or banal process of filling space actually often produced effects I liked best, by boxing me into unusual corners.

One of the interesting things arising from the poem and marginalia as 'separate types of text' is, I suppose, how they enact the poet reading himself, the poet being his own reader and curator. In a pamphlet involved with ideas of freedom versus restriction, would you say that the speaker - understandably for an asylum inmate - is unwilling to relinquish (hermeneutic) control over the poems? Could you, for instance, imagine your speaker ever sending his poems to be published, or would they always have to have been 'discovered'? Is this something all poets have to come to terms with?

Yes, I think for my speaker, and I guess for many such artists, it's about control. (Maybe for all artists - controlling the world, putting together a particular narrative about it.) The writing is a way of gaining control over his environment, and in that sense he would I think be very reluctant to, as you say, relinquish control by submitting the work to the judgement of others. There's the ordinary aesthetic judgement, which any one of us might feel anxious about; I have a hunch that my speaker might make one, and only one, attempt to 'publish' his work, probably at a very high and slightly inappropriate location (e.g. he'd send them to the Professor of Chemistry at the Sorbonne, or to Wagner's cousin). But there's also a sort of metaphysical judgement which he would be wary of - by asking someone to look at the tiles he'd tacitly be saying, 'Is this true?', and that's a very frightening resignation of control.

Both of those aspects hold true, perhaps in different degrees, to anyone submitting their work for publication or other forms of approval. The difficulty is that what my speaker is looking for is precisely approval, to be 'discovered' and feted as a complete artist, whereas what art is really about is dialogue: 'this is good is x and y ways, butÉ'. The final gift of exposure is that you see the work's limitations clearly and move on to do things better. It's the doing which matters, so showing off what we've done, while jolly, ought to serve future doing. That's not what my speaker wants. He wants an end to art, he wants to have done something unbetterable.

That's one reason I think why it's difficult when people enrol on creative writing classes. Consciously they may want to learn, but there can also co-exist the sly, contradictory, lazy desire to have done enough, to have a tutor say, 'This is wonderful!' I like it when students are embarrassed when I praise their work; it means they have little of this demon about them. But I don't despise the others. Most of us have a little of both, the desire for praise and the desire for real, critical engagement. Ultimately the maker of my tiles is unusual for having little of both: he does his engagement alone, and his desire for praise is of a particular, spectacular kind: he wants God to peel back a corner of the sky and say: 'Correct.'

The madman's ravings have, I think, for a long time been close to the poet's scribblings. What or who were your literary influences, if any, in writing in this style?

It's usually bad news when writers say, 'I try not to read much in case I get unduly influenced' - a misunderstanding of how writing develops and grows through reading. But in this case I didn't consciously read literary texts whose projects were similar to my own, specifically because I was interested in how someone without good access to tradition might write. For me the stylistic and thematic influences were the visual artists of outsiderdom. I tried to translate horror vacui, the schematic approach, the private vision, excessive elaboration etc from a visual to a literary context. That's not to say though that I wasn't influenced: of course I do have access to tradition, and to technique which I then misapplied more or less consciously. In that sense, though it's probably invisible in the finished pieces, there was the influences of the sonnet tradition, and particularly the early to mid twentieth century: tonally, Benn and the other German Expressionists; Robert Lowell here and there. John Berryman. Partly I think the Modernist moment was relevant to the writing, because that's when the poems are supposed to have been produced and because the, if you like, existential dissent that they express is very close to Modernist concerns. But actually if you look at those names, like Berryman and Lowell, they come after - I completely cheated by drawing on poets who wrote after the date when mine are supposed to be being written, but I hoped that I messed things around enough to make the influence untraceable.

Mostly it was a random mixture of things I was reading at the time (most relevantly Peter Didsbury, Michael Hofmann and Sean O'Brien programmatically, but the usual mix of other stuff as well), and things I came across by whatever means - found text, random Wikipedia articles, following chains of links. I got specific techniques sometimes - from Didsbury and Hofmann the cavalier treatment of sources - but mainly what I took from others was not technique or style but stuff
: images, objects, narratives. Very often I have completely forgotten the sources of words and phrases now, and even what they mean. I don't mind that at all. Anecdotally, there's a big load of specific influences I could relate. For example, the mesostic poem which has archaeopteryx running down through the text was prompted by, and alludes to, something in Lowell's Complete Poems (good luck to anyone trying to find that). One poem that didn't make the final cut was a reworking of Larkin's 'Church Going', and another was derived from Thomas Mann's Death in Venice. I made a list of some of these sources for my PhD, and it includes, for example, Horace, John Gower, J-K Huysmans, Strindberg via Didsbury, Robert Johnson/Faust, The Golden Bough, MR James, Tolkien, Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, Steinbeck and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but without the page references I'm sure I couldn't tell you what they all were, and that's as it should be. I don't produce this list, and didn't draw on those sources, in order to impress - the whole point is that the borrowing should be illegible, half-arsed, lumpen. It's all part of trying not to have too much control, letting the poems do things that are beyond me. I'd hope that mainly the use I make of all these things is basically inane - Modernism without the gravitas. That sounds dreadfully postmodern, but I do mean to go back to Modernism - I want my maker to be part of that world and project. Not knowing at all.
On a more boring but perhaps more illuminating note, there were of course also the generic commitments, which I was conscious of but tried to keep loose, of writing a species of pastoral/country house poem - Jonson, Marvell, etc.

Following on from this, what were the advantages and challenges of writing in this persona? I noticed that you paid special attention to vocabulary; how important was register and word choice in evoking time and place?

Register was central to the project, for a couple of very different reasons. The first reason is best described by reference to a photograph, reproduced in Colin Rhodes' Outsider Art: Spontaneous Alternatives, a book which I can't recommend highly enough as a primer on the topic (also here: It shows Katharina Detzel, institutionalised with schizophrenia, holding a stuffed dummy she has made. The photograph represents for me one of the most evocative pieces of outsider art, but of course the artwork itself is the dummy; the photograph is a mediation which frames the artwork in its distant, very moving and rather grim context. So what I wanted to do in my piece was not only to produce a piece of outsider poetry (the dummy), but also to render it evocatively in a fitting historical context - and register/vocabulary of course like various other linguistic features plays as much of a role in this as things like theme and content.

The second reason register and persona were important is not inward-looking at the project, as it were, but looks out at the rest of my writing. Somewhere near the genesis of the project, or perhaps unrelated to it, was a feeling that certain modes are barred to us. Peter Didsbury writes that 'the discursive mode/is lost to me behind swords of conjoined fire', and while that sort of thing can relate to individual temperament, it's also I think partly determined by historical and cultural context. I've always admired a certain type of lyric poem, epitomised by Rilke, which feels fraught and sincere (earnest, even) and metaphysical (rather than Metaphysical), but also as if it cuts through to Stuff Which Matters. It's not a way of writing I've ever really managed to approximate. No doubt that's partly just a failure of skill on my part, but I also feel as if English culture is hostile, and the English language temperamentally unsuitable, to that mode. And I do also rather feel that the Midlands milieu and attitude I grew up in is too easily tempted into irony and sarcasm for this sort of unhumurous poetry to thrive. Of course, you can't just take on Rilke's vocabulary - I want it to be me
writing. I had a poem about this stuff in my first book, a loose parody of The Duino Elegies, saying how scornful I imagined my home town being of this mode, and how therefore I couldn't write it with even imaginary scorn ringing in my ears.

The persona of All the Rooms of Uncle's Head
allowed me some new room to move in, not to write that sort of poem I've been referring to exactly, but, partly because the persona isn't me, and partly because the register of the persona isn't mine, it allowed me to write about areas of my own experience which had previously felt inaccessible. Although the poems are fictional, the fictions opened up a kind of weirdly oblique autobiographical writing. In particular, my usual modes don't really allow for more-or-less straightforward lyricism - I'm too inclined to make jokes or ironise, and when I consciously don't do those things the results are rather flat. These little fictions, with their bits of narrative and their conceit which enabled a more fraught language and manner, helped me to revisit certain very vivid memories, particularly of place, in a way I hadn't managed before. So for example, the one which begins 'Scrap of lawn outside the kindergarten' takes place imaginatively for me, is about, the ground of my primary school. And so on. Of course that imaginative space which for me is rooted in a real location can only for others be unrooted, or rooted elsewhere. It would be nonsense to think of these poems as primarily autobiographical. But I was struck during and after the writing how in some ways these persona-poems, written in someone else's idiolect, are truer in some respects to the texture of my memory and lived experience than the poems which claim to be mine, but which partly obscure my life behind constructs of genre and identity and technique.

In speaking about influences, you described your persona in these poems as 'someone without good access to tradition'; how do you think that relates to the 'feeling that certain modes are barred to us' (with 'us' presumably being the 'insiders')? What do you think it means to be an insider or an outsider when it comes to literary culture? Isn't everyone really an outsider? Or, rather, which should every good artist strive to be?

'Us' is such a dangerous word, isn't it? It risks saying 'Things are like this for me, so they are like this for everyone'. It makes sure I'm an insider by putting me at the centre. Clearly different writers have different relationships with tradition (and with everything else); but I suppose I do think that there is such a thing as insiderdom. It isn't really to do with institutions or the (cultural) establishment, though it can look that way because the people and texts who occupy the institutional positions tend also to be highly competent insiders. It's to do, I suppose, with facility: the ability to 'get' what's going on and then to reproduce it more or less closely. I think that's what I mean by insiderdom, a kind of artistic literacy which allows you to speak, and be seen to speak, the cultural language of a particular artform or tradition. Lots of people perhaps have a surface version of this facility, so when they talk about artworks or produce them, it's banal (or bullshit, someone speaking the language to no purpose). I think outsiders give the impression of a kind of anti-facility: as if they see something happening and make something happen, but it isn't what other people see happening. It's a variant dialect.

This model I'm describing is shaky, but let me persist with it. Say an insider is someone who knows what a ballad is and can scan ballad metre and reel off the features a ballad has and put together a ballad that when you read it makes you think, 'Oh, that's rather a good ballad, and while I might not put it in the Oxford Book, I wouldn't feel embarrassed to publish it in a magazine if I edited one.' And then there are lots of people who we can count as insiders because they can get by in the language of ballads - they can talk about the tone and the rhythm and so on, even if they're a bit hazy on the metre, and they can put together a poem which might sounds a bit gauche and which you certainly wouldn't publish if you could help it but, you can tell it was meant to be a ballad and it's doing the right kind of things, just not very well. We're most of us insiders in this getting-away-with-it sense in most areas of life, I think. And that's perhaps exactly what insiderdom is - the ability to 'pass'. The outsider is someone who produces a poem which is a grotesque parody of a ballad; it fails to meet the generic conventions understood literally, but it may also quicken the heart.

In that sense, yes, we might be wary of too much facility, too much traditional expertise. That's what people get at by talking about a workshop culture, the idea that you might have facility in the artform's language but not be able to quicken the reader's heart. The best artists do break genres, and extend them. But really this way of understanding it seems to me flawed: it separates competence from genius, and says, 'If you're too competent, you can't be a genius,' whereas real competence, real facility, means being able to quicken the heart by speaking in the tradition's language. Auden, for example, was an insider in terms of his negotiation of culture and command of technique, and it was precisely this command (competence) which unlocked brilliance. (Some of the best Auden poems are games, flexings of the muscles.) And we can't choose outsiderdom, at least not if we want to avoid looking like pillocks. We can try to be original, surprising, different, but only in a purposeful insidery way, and as we achieve originality it moves within our sphere. I think the real outsiders are those who don't understand why others like what they do.

That's a terribly confused response. To address the last part of your question in what is I hope a more focused way, I think artists always face contrary imperatives - to command the tradition (pushing them inward), and to challenge it (pushing them out). In that sense outsiders represent one of two diametrically opposed ideals which should both be striven for - but not an ideal which we can realise consciously.

Two general questions for the end:

What writer, magazine/journal, event, or publisher are you finding interesting or exciting
I know this question is meant in the spirit of exploring the contemporary, but I'm going to start by talking about older stuff that I'm enjoying: John Cowper Powys's A Glastonbury Romance, Joseph Roth's letters, Lovecraft, Auden as usual . I've never read Ulysses, I'm ashamed to say; I thought I'd hate it, but I'm reading it now and of course it's brilliant. I'm wandering slowly through The Pickwick Papers, and that's also great. This week I'm reading Tom Paulin's strange and formally breathtaking Fivemiletown. It's commonplace at the moment for people to praise the small presses, and rightly so - there are lots of pamphlets and books and publishers around that I want to read more of. But the book I'm most looking forward to this year is Helen Farish's Nocturnes at Nohant (Bloodaxe) - a sequence about Chopin and Georges Sand which promises to be wonderful.

Finally, what are you working on currently, and what can we expect to see from you next?

I have a book of flash fiction coming out from Salt in the summer, called All the Bananas I've Never Eaten (yes, I know it's a bit weird to use the same construction in two consecutive book titlesÉ). And I'm polishing up the manuscript for another book of poems, untitled as yet, about a whole load of stuff but partly about the hill I grew up on. And I'm working on some longer prose stuff, partly relating to some research I'm doing on dog-walking and writing. I have an idea for another graphics-heavy project, but I can't talk about that yet in case I jinx it.

© Charles Whalley & Tony Williams 2012