The Arm Strikes Back
Dom Jaeckle, founder of Faithless Arm & Co., discusses his new project with David Briggs.
Briggs: So, Faithless Arm & Co. has just published its first anthology Entomologies, a book that embodies the editorial policies of the collective both in its content and production values. Why don't we start with those editorial policies? More specifically, why have you chosen to present the poems without their titles or, indeed, any author identification?
Jaeckle: Our decision to exclude the attachment of the author, and any titular direction for each individual work interred in this anthology, proves to be the book's defining precept. As an editorial motion, it is largely indebted to two particular avenues of thought: firstly, how a poem is organized and directed by any initial indication of context; and, secondly, the question of ownership in relation to a work of art. The aim is, in part, to encourage a questioning, on behalf of both the reader and the writer, as to the imposed distance that sits between the thought, the act of writing itself, and the reception this writing then receives. In this regard, the notion of interpretation is then centralized, as opposed to an underlining of the singular artist's vision. It is a notion of égalité that we seek to encourage within this journal - to allow the work enough room for a freedom of interpretation, and denote a public ownership of the poem.
The first sort of questioning I experienced was trying to match each poem to the list of authors at the back of the book: which one's by Billy Childish? Can I spot the Michael Rosen? etc. But, once I got beyond that, I do think I began to read the poems more attentively. And I found that rewarding. But titles can function as first lines for a poem; and, if they're any good, function as a key to help the reader unlock the piece. So, I'm with you (to a degree) on removing the lens of authorship; but, titles as well? Isn't that like cutting the first line from each poem?
I agree entirely in terms of the severity of our attitude to titles, but we felt that through this arguably violent measure we could that ensure that this lens would remain unfocused. The work is then left entirely naked upon the page, and the significance of the interpretational role of the reader is inescapable.
A poem is not a door, and therefore shouldn't need a key. No art, whatever its form, should be interpreted with such a sense of fixity that it may only be merely 'opened' or 'closed'. In the absence of a title, I agree that an expected elemental feature of a work is omitted, but it leaves the poem completely open to a reading, immediately allowing for a multiplicity of meaning.
You allude to the presence of well-reputed writers such as Childish and Rosen in the anthology, and their inclusion was to stand as an effort to corroborate this point more clearly. The work of the 'unknown writer', the 'non-writer' and the 'established writer' now sit side-by-side, and the aforementioned nudity of the work then means that each piece can be adjudicated on the merits of the way that it corresponds with each individual reader. It is not a question of esteem, or of reputation; it is a question of evocation that we intended to highlight through this act of severance. This titular removal, though drastic, provided us with an opportunity to present the anthology's approach toward notions of authorship in a more direct manner. The distance is then set between the reader and the writer, and although the work belongs inextricably to the two, the sense of intellectual ownership is set to question; the playing field leveled.
The metaphor's in danger of breaking, but a poem isn't just a door, it's a doorway into something: a room, a landscape, a state of mind, a hubbub of language. So by throwing away the title, you're asking us to find another way in, perhaps to break in through the window. You seem firmly wedded to the notion of Mallarmean chance, weighting the dice of interpretation in favour of the reader.
I find it interesting, then, that you've chosen a traditional means of publication. The book is lovely, but it's a book, not a website or blog. The limited edition print-run, combined with serifed font and woodblock colophon, attractive as they are, seem to look backwards in time. Perhaps the disenfranchisement of the author is similarly nostalgic, in our age of celebrity obsession? The poet as personality? Can you tell me about your decision to publish a beautiful book, rather than set up online. What's the relationship between the editorial policy we've begun to discuss and the production values of Entomologies?
The place of the 'book' represents another wholly important feature of Faithless Arm. We are interested, largely, in the book as an object, and would not consider the pursuit of this format to be completely regressive. Granted, in the twenty-first century, there is a multiplicity of technologies available to facilitate publication. However, our feeling was, and remains, that the tactile nature of a book was wholly agreeable with our thinking. We feel that the book stands as more of an invitation to the reader. A beautiful book encourages you to involve yourself in it; to acknowledge layout, how amenable its design to the eye, peruse page after page, etc. Our feeling was that in an employment of these, as well you put it, 'traditional' means of communication, we would again reiterate the aforementioned prevalence of the reader.
In this regard, we intend to pursue this 'disenfranchisement of the author' even further.
Admittedly, there are features that do push on nostalgia, but in an age of the supposed 'death of print', a book feels now like a more valid document than ever. In addition, it is this notion of the 'age of celebrity' that we are aiming to distance ourselves from. This is a pivotal point, and permeates a great deal of our thinking in the construction of this anthology, and the formation of Faithless Arm as a collective.
Our intention was to remove the air of security that is so often associated with the literary. Any reader could walk into any bookshop in any town and pick up a copy Seamus Heaney's most recent publication. Before we have wandered any further than the frontispiece, we are assured of the work's authority; the representative foreknowledge we have of Heaney as a poet, the Faber & Faber brand etched across the spine. There is so much that already informs this initial approach to the text before the first line of verse is even encountered. We wanted to subvert this idea of the book as a didactic article, and present, essentially, a blank canvas to emphasise our central theme of interpretation. This is the rationale, then, for the book's presented minimalism (the lack of a blurb, no information presented on the collection's spine, etc.). The woodcut is intended, however, to represent the air of retrospection that you refer to in the question. It is only once you have traced your way through the entire body of the text that you will find this single image: the cicada crawling out of its shell. As a pictorial colophon, we aimed to visualize a portrayal of any creative motion - the insect leaving its husk, its tradition, behind. Its shape cannot help but be defined by this previous skin, but it has become something different entirely.
We do not shy away from the internet entirely - we do run a blog, and the book is chiefly available through this avenue while we investigate different avenues of distribution. It is the book, and the manipulation of an idea of the book as object, that remains central to our activity.
Turning to the content of the book, I enjoyed (among others) the poems that begin 'Rhapsody in Blue...', 'Old Men in their nineties...' and 'I cracked a smile on sight of her...'. But there's a wide variety of styles. It would be difficult to pinpoint a presiding aesthetic, in the sense that you're not particularly wedded either to traditional lyric or more experimental writing. When it came to selection of the poems, what were you looking for in the work?
Following the editorial movements we have elucidated here, we tried to maintain minimal input as 'editors' when it came to the appropriation of work. We had stipulated a concept to guide the nature of submission, and then simply proceeded to collate the material until we felt we had a broad enough collection of work to compile Entomologies. The submissions were then prioritized only on a 'first-come, first-served' basis. This was important, as I felt it would undermine the theoretical notions of the anthology as a whole to become an overbearing editor. It would've been brash to marry my own opinions to a project of this nature, one that attempts to centralize a sense of subjectivity.
I can understand why, in the light of what you've said before, you'd adopt a first-come, first-served policy; you see the conscious selection of work as the imposition of a critical judgement, something you're trying to eschew in favour of placing the poem firmly back in the hands of the reader. But how do you circulate the call for submissions? If it's reliant upon your contacts, Facebook friends, or whatever, then the range of work likely to be submitted, and therefore included, has already been defined. You sidestep judgements about quality, only to introduce the less desirable element of publishing only those who are part of the Faithless Arm club, those who will receive the call. Have you considered how you circulate the call for submissions? In order to throw the net wider, shouldn't you be hiring a bi-plane to write it on the sky above London, or Sheffield? Or flyposting the lampposts and car-parks of Croydon. Alternatively, perhaps it's the selection process that requires a randomising element? Perhaps you might publish every seventh submission (in Oulipoean manner)? Or throw all the poems into the air and choose only those that land face-up? I can see problems for the integrity of your project here.
I agree that there is, potentially, a leveled threat here in terms of integrity; but, as I explained earlier, we felt that the more we could do to reduce editorial movement the better. Through this pursuit of the first-come, first-served option, our aim is to provide a platform for the writers who chiefly want an involvement. Admittedly, as this is the first publication (of what will hopefully be a repeated model), we did begin by inviting writers to submit, both locally and from further afield. This did then barrel-roll, and we rapidly received a quantity of work large enough to begin compiling this edition. The 'Faithless Arm club' as you put it, is actually only a two-man operation, and the call for submissions was largely facilitated by our blog. The question of quality, we feel, is not one that we feel entirely ours to answer.
A feature of this edition which, in my consideration, stands as one of its strongest points, is the way in which the work hangs together to evoke longstanding themes; namely love, nostalgia, personal history, and memory. The stipulation, which we had provided for submission, was simply the 'no name, no author' dictum, and so we allowed the book to develop its own sense of thematic concern. This is indicative of the effect we had hoped this notion of the 'limited editor' would have upon the collation of an anthology. Allowing the breadth of work given to prescribe its own direction.
In terms of the on-going question of submission, we are currently trying different avenues. As a simultaneous feature of this anonymous publication, we intend to hand out untitled, un-authored poems in public places, leaving them in unexpected locations; slotting them into the daily rags on London trains, etc. These will have nothing but an e-mail address attached, and will hopefully precipitate a response of some description. We also maintain a more traditional route; by establishing a regular reading, and a working relationship with the South London group 'Clinic Presents…', we aim to apply a certain publicity for the Faithless Arm brand that will, in time, make way for new work and opportunity. As a Small Press, our aim is simply to provide a platform for new writing.
We are constantly open for submission, as we are beginning to publish pamphlets of original work by new writers (the first of which should emerge in the new year).
I agree that the submission process may indeed be a challenge to integrity, but we maintain that the response to our call for submission should stand as 'reciprocal noises', rather than the answers to direct questions.
I've enjoyed this. It seems to me that the project is, potentially, full of pitfalls, but that's an inevitable consequence of trying to do something different, something innovative. And Entomologies is a lovely book. So, all power to the Arm; it'll be interesting to see which direction it prescribes for itself next. But, just to end, I'm intrigued by the extent to which what you're doing derives from dissatisfaction with the mainstream of British poetry today. Is the Arm content simply to complement the broader poetic currents, or does it have a revolutionary gleam in its bicep?
I agree entirely that there are many potential pitfalls and traps strewn in the path at present, and before we confront any degree of innovation or subversion in the project, I think that this is more attributive to the relative youth of the Arm. This is our first publication, and the plans and ideas we have, I feel, outweigh the limitations of the singular attention of the book. We feel that the nature of this anthology does, most significantly, raise a question as to the direction of mainstream poetics in this cultural climate. We are not leveling the Arm to raise a gun, but rather attempting to apply a sense of curiosity, a sense of freedom, to the public demonstration of artistic practices. In conversation with a friend recently, we were discussing the nature of the poet now. The endpoint of that talk seemed to revolve around the idea of the poet as personality, as opposed to the poet as writer, as craftsman. The makeup of this anthology stands as an effort to centralize the writing itself. We have encountered an equal amount of criticism as praise for the manner in which we have communicated this idea, but the incongruous pattern of these responses does illustrate a key point of inception with Faithless Arm, the provocation of debate. We are, and shall gladly remain, a kitchen-sink industry, and this again provides an opportunity for another side of our coin. We call ourselves independent, and in this entitled 'age of austerity' this is a very important factor in our practice. The severity of the implemented cuts upon the arts sector highlights the importance of this sort of venture, the direction of which shall then remain in the hands of those who run and submit to the group. I recently encountered word from another poet on the London circuit who stated that in light of these financial measures, you can now stand for yourself, your own work. The establishment of small presses provides a chance to exhibit work that can remain separate from the economic obligations of the larger publishing houses, allowing the writing a chance to remain free of the constraints of popular taste. The independence of the Arm is wholly significant to us, and, we feel, allows us the scope to explore and evaluate the contemporary poetry scene. We do not wish merely to complement, but would rather move to try and circumnavigate these poetic currents.
© David Briggs & Dom Jaeckle 2010