Ceaseless Curiosity



The Marvels of Lambeth: Interviews & Statements by Allen Fisher,

edited by Andrew Duncan (198pp, Shearsman)



Some books of literary interviews make perfect sense on their own. By coincidence on my desk I have Scott Thurston's quartet of interviews with four women poets, Talking Poetics, alongside this new book of statements and interviews by Allen Fisher, The Marvels of Lambeth. Thurston's volume uses interviews conducted knowingly for the purpose of the book, but he fastidiously footnotes everything necessary and there are useful bibliographies at the back. You could learn a lot about the work of these writers from the interviews and paratexts alone. The Marvels of Lambeth doesn't operate like that at all. I doubt whether a new reader should start here. (I'd advise waiting for The Portable Allen Fisher volume out later this year from Shearsman.) Part of this has to do with editing. Andrew Duncan, a fine poet and exhaustive commentator on innovative British poetry, is the editor and chief interviewer. Unlike Thurston, he is hands-off with footnotes, although he does pop up now and then with italicised parenthetical remarks, a little like Basil Fawlty arriving at your restaurant table just as you are about to taste the starter.


Actually, the starter to this volume is a playful cut-up text 'Preface by Sir Aylmer Firebrace to original 1909 Everyman Edition of Prosyncel'. This won't help much either. Fisher scholars like me know that Prosyncel was a teasing volume from the mid-70s which presented cross-sections of Fisher's 37 creative projects of the time. More usefully, at the end of this book are sections taken from Prosyncel about the by no means straightforward structure of the long loco-specific project Place that Fisher wrote in the 1970s. The earliest statements, talks and interviews date from the 1970s, with Eric Mottram, Peter Barry and Ken Edwards (heavyweights all three). There is only one from the 1980s, with Adrian Clarke, when Fisher had begun his other long project Gravity as a Consequence of Shape. (Place was published entire by Reality Street in 2005 and is 414 pages long; Gravity as a Consequence of Shape, whose title enacts its interest in morphology, its tendency to pattern-making and textual distortion, was written between 1982 and 2005 and its total 750 pages are now available as a trilogy: Gravity and Leans from Salt and Entanglement from The Gig. They are alternative places for the newcomer to start, though there are other projects to check out, including Fisher's visual art practice which is increasingly impacting upon his writing.) Many of the other interviews – with Scott Thurston, Victoria Sheppard, and those with Duncan – date from around the end of the period of work on Gravity. What you get is snapshots of forty years of development from the conceptual poetics of 1973 (Fisher was involved with a Fluxus offshoot, Fluxshoe) to his mature poetics of imperfect fit and confidence in lack (to which I shall return). Between, you perceive him wrestling with the question of procedural writing and responsibility: should one intervene in writing systems one has set up or not. The later poetics involves setting up systems (via multiple quotations and writing) and interventions (to sometimes sculpt the material and sometimes to disrupt it, or to do both), in order to constantly surprise himself and the reader, to activate the reader and make him or her productive with the text. Cutting, cut-up, and collage have always seemed slightly inadequate words for what Fisher now calls 'imperfect fit', which suggests that his 'collaging' is not a synonym for 'quilting', but you have to start with those terms to explain the workings of the work. (I came up with the term 'creative linkage' in my own poetics and critical work to show how texts like Fisher's are simultaneously disjoined and enjoined.) He speaks of an attitude he calls in a recent poetics piece 'confidence in lack', a kind of update of Keats' negative capability that allows the writer (and possibly the reader, if they absorb the poetics as readerly action) to admit disparity, dissonance, and noise to the poem. In the interview with Scott Thurston, Fisher describes this cautiously in a more homely metaphor borrowed from Charles Olson: 'I'd also say something like leave the dirt on…. That, of course, also means because we're all artificers, we don't leave all the dirt on. It's very selective about that, but you're putting signifiers in which indicate lapse or change.'


There is much to comment on in these exchanges, which I don't have room for here. Scientific ideas are entertained as contents or structural homologies for the work; poetic community and publishing become important, and important as extensions of one another. One interview is specifically about performance. Another is on creative process (you can almost hear the files being rustled open for the interviewer to peer inside). Duncan and Fisher in their exchanges range freely over most of this territory, but occasionally focus upon particular texts, so that his theory of 'riming' is demonstrated for the reader, for example.


For me, Fisher's early involvement with Fluxus is of some contemporary interest. There is much discussion these days about 'conceptual writing'; it is interesting to see the term being freely entertained (and finally discarded, or more accurately, absorbed into a growing poetics of processual advancement). Fisher discusses this in terms that I'm sure he would not disagree with now: 'The meaning of my art is the use it may have. Cage's sense of utility. A way of helping out, as well as the fact that all art, every act in life is a political act.' 'But that isn't conceptual,' the interviewer, the possibly pseudonymous R.A.C. Kiss, cuts in. 'I didn't say it was,' Fisher concludes the interview, decisively, but also humorously as he dodges questions and thinks out loud (as he continues to do throughout the years of interrogatory discourse documented here, still with this characteristic humour). In a later interview with Duncan, Fisher talks about his spanner in the works poetics of self-interruption and compares it to the sudden 'honking' of Albert Ayler's free jazz. 'I'm just wondering if I should footnote Albert Ayler,' muses Duncan. 'In what way?' Fisher asks, not following the editorial imperative. Duncan explains: 'There is a famous paradox, which is that if you set out to explain your poetry by explaining bits, you rapidly end up with 80 pages of prose to one page of poetry. And you realise, This was not the right way to go at all! A lot of people reading this have no idea who Albert Ayler was.' 'No I know,' Fisher replies, seeming to get it, but then with the typical excitement that Fisher shows for ideas and art manifestations, he's off on one: 'Except, you know there's a new box set coming out?... I think it's about 8 CDs, it's the whole of his work.' At its best, this book captures Fisher's infectious enthusiasm, ceaseless curiosity, for 'all art and every act in life'. In a funny sort of way, it's this that best 'explains' the multi-referentiality of his work (though more footnotes might still have been useful).


     © Robert Sheppard 2013