The Power of Having Fun
an interview with Steve Spence

RML: Pirates! Why the fascination with these nautical miscreants?

SP: What an interesting question! To which there is more than one answer, I guess. There are two poems in A Curious Shipwreck
which were written more than ten years before the rest. One of these, 'Pirates', is probably the starting point for the collection and came about as a result of a dream I had which related, somewhat obliquely I recall, to a primary school reading book about pirates. I think there were four pirate captains and each had a colour - red, blue, yellow and green. This gave me the structure for my poem, which featured six pirates, each having a colour and a stanza to himself. It's a prose poem and was written very quickly, using word/idea association and anything that came into my head as I was writing, very different from the construction of the bulk of the work in Shipwreck. There are around half a dozen pieces in the book which were written, more or less, in this manner, the rest being constructed - to a large extent - by montage techniques, utilising a wide range of 'found' materials (including a couple of short pieces of fiction of 'my own' which I consequently cut-up) as well as material I invented along the way.
I'm wandering from the point though. I guess that I had it in mind to write a series of poems on the theme of pirates based on that original piece but it never really came to anything until, that is, I started doing the M.A. in Creative Writing in 2006. The opportunity to do this course at the University of Plymouth turned out to be really important for me as I had to focus intensely over a relatively short period and became much more productive as a result. I had to put a book of poems together 'from scratch' in a four month period through the summer of 2007. I decided to have a go at resuscitating the pirate theme - necessity is
the mother of invention! - and my early attempts of around half a dozen more-or-less mainstream narrative poems were pretty dull. I needed a method or I obviously I wasn't going to see the project through. I'd written a few pieces which were partly collaged material but having Tony Lopez as my tutor for the dissertation turned into a godsend as his working methods meant that he was very supportive to the approach. You could even say that he encouraged the project into being. Once I'd got going I found the whole process great fun: gathering materials in the mornings usually and spending the afternoons trying to piece things together so that they worked, either as texture or as non-sequitur or as forming some kind of coherent sense amid the 'nonsense'. I produced around two thirds of the material that now exists as A Curious Shipwreck during that period.

I wouldn't say that I had a fascination
with pirates, other than the usual childhood interest but it's become increasingly obvious to me that The Pirate is a very useful metaphor for a lot of the stuff that's been going on in the world recently. What did fascinate me as I read more deeply into the subject, is the way in which the contradiction at the heart of piracy - between collective action and individualist 'free-market' economics, allied to its lawless, outsider designation (although never forget that Drake's privateers were 'legalised pirates') -  provides an intriguing base for an exploration of contemporary issues, distanced through an already thoroughly romanticised popular history. Great material for poetry and that's before you even begin thinking about vocabulary and playing with the clichˇs.

Apart from having fun, what are you doing with these poems? What would you expect readers to come away with?

Well, I wouldn't underestimate the power of having fun, for a start. The enjoyment I got from the process of producing those poems was an important part of their meaning and surely this filters through to the reader in some form. I hope so, anyway because the last thing I want to be doing is labouring over material which turns out to be dull and dusty, bored and boring! That said there is clearly a satirical impulse behind these poems. The theme of Piracy creates a kind of framework in which to operate and I've already suggested that it seems to be quite an appropriate theme for the times we live in. Now I don't want to get all political about this but I guess a big part of my problem with writer's block (does it exist!) over the past few years has been my inability to find a way of producing poetry which is in some sense political - or at least engaging with 'issues'- in a manner which avoids being didactic and boring or ranty and angry. Okay, I write the odd rant and I guess the ones that actually work are quite funny but it seems quite difficult, these days, to produce poetry which has a political dimension without either seeming incredibly angry all the time, or seeming politically correct in a po-faced manner or, more usually, simply seeming redundant and 'un-cool'. I don't mind being un-cool, in fact I quite relish the thought, but boring...! that's another thing altogether. There are writers or 'models' I admire and have been influenced by - from Barry MacSweeney and Ken Smith (in Fox Running
), through Bill Herbert, Gordon Wardman, Tom Leonard, John Hartley Williams, Peter Finch and Kelvin Corcoran, for example - as well as Robert Sheppard and Tony Lopez, whose work with montage and sampling news reportage has been influential - but I guess that I'm still learning and trying to forge my own way through and we'll have to see where that takes me next. As far as readers are concerned I can only hope, above all, that the work is entertaining in some sense as well as providing provocation and perhaps, at times bewilderment. I've learnt a lot from work that I've initially been bewildered by but I guess you've got to find enough interest and curiosity in the material to want to delve beneath your first impressions.

How did Alice get into the mix?

One of the source materials for A Curious Shipwreck
, believe it or not was Alice in Wonderland. I nicked a line or two for the poems but the figure of Alice began to appear intermittently throughout the text and particularly in some of the poems I wrote later which appear, perhaps confusingly, earlier in the book. Two people have said to me since the publication of the book that I should have used Alice more, as a predominant motif, throughout the collection, and I think they may have a point. Certainly there is a liveliness in that group of poems, they appear less abstract, perhaps, and there is a convivial yet argumentative aspect which I could have developed more. I still have masses of material left over from that project but I'm not sure the world could handle another book of 'Pirate Poems' from Spence. How egotistical is that!

Your collages are apparently left quite raw. Is knowing how these poems are made an important part of the reading experience? Are you ever tempted to smooth out the syntax, tense and grammar?  

That's a tricky question to answer. I guess it's partly true that the rawness you  allude to is at least partly down to the fact that producing this collection has been part of a learning process. I wouldn't want to deny that and some of the current material I've been working on (another project) has perhaps ironed out some of the more abrupt juxtapositions and made the work seem smoother and more seamless. Then again, I quite like abrupt juxtapositions too and some of the funnier 'episodes' in Shipwreck
come about (I think) when the non-sequiturs are both ludicrously inappropriate (mad) and obscurely weird. I'll give you a short example to try and justify that point:

     "Are you a book detective or a pirate?" Next to
     join the frenzy are the clerks. On the other hand,
     you could spend a lifetime researching the
     physiology of walking, or just take to the high seas.
         (from 'Romeo  & Ethel - the pirate's daughter')
That still makes me laugh. I could try and explain it away by giving you the sources (I can't just now recall the origin of the last sentence though I suspect it has two areas of reference) but I think that would miss the point. Andre Breton said somewhere - and this will be a rough paraphrase because (huh) I can't recall where - that when you appropriate material and reintegrate it into a different context you always get something more interesting than you'd come up with 'on your own'. Now, I don't necessarily
agree with that but a big part of the process of composition is to do with making choices and when you have a vast well from which to draw your material the question of choosing becomes an even more crucial part of the process. I guess there are (still) people out there who consider this way of working to be 'false' in some way, or cheating, or 'not real', or 'inauthentic', to which I can only respond by saying look at the history of the visual arts over the last century, particularly film. Collage and montage are taken for granted as a means of working within the cinema, it's a central part of the grammar of film, and is commonly accepted by most people because it appears to be as natural as breathing. Deconstruction can be a cruel business but revealing the methods is a very necessary part of a self-reflective process, even if you then learn to perform your art in the manner of riding a bicycle - not by thinking about it but by doing it! I guess that I would hope that anyone reading these poems would have some idea of how they were put together but perhaps I shouldn't assume that. Nathan Thompson pointed out in his very generous review on the Stride site (thanks, Nathan) that:

     the syntax makes sense, and your brain is deceived into believing
     all is well, then you stop to think and realise you've no idea what
     is going on. It's a poetry deliberately designed to wrong-foot you,
     to trick you out of trusting language...  .

I like that. It is
a destabilising mode of writing and I take on board the implications of that, in the sense that there is an underlying 'critical' or 'political' aim but I don't think that has to mean the writing has to be either po-faced or hopelessly difficult. Surely re-making the world is a necessary part of artistic endeavour and you can question things without being forever puritanical about it. How's that for an A Level philosophy question! I would certainly agree that there are points in Shipwreck where the joins show and where it might be better if they didn't. I'm sure the process will improve but I wouldn't want to iron out all the rough edges ....  !.

Tell us about your poetical journey towards becoming a textural plunderer?

Mmm. It's probably a 'natural' progression from picking out odd lines from existing texts (whether fiction, news items, history, science, economics, cookery, writing on music or even advertising materials) or snippets of overheard conversation, to a more systematic use of this method. It was certainly the necessity of producing a large amount of material in a relatively short time that made me investigate the process more seriously while I was doing the M.A. Prior to this, as I've already said, there were lengthy periods when I felt blocked but in any case my output rate was pretty low compared to where I am now and possibly had an air of 'preciousness' about it, though I don't think that's how I perceived it at the time. The poems I was writing before I started work on the book were mainly more 'compressed' than those I produce now and there's an aspect of that which I'd like to recapture and develop at some point. Having for once an overall theme for a group of poems and seeing the completion of a book as a project in itself tends to give you both a clear goal and a set of borders within which to work. I see the process of working with existing materials in a big way as an extension of how I'd sometimes worked before. Then it was simply a matter of deciding what materials to use and apart from the obvious trick of working with writing relating to seafaring and to piracy I was determined to bring in a wide range of stuff, partly to avoid the obvious clichˇs but also to make the writing as strange (and perhaps estranged
) as I possibly could. I wanted the book to be an entertainment but one which didn't necessarily come too easily - it needed to be surprising and to contain the unexpected and to be puzzling to boot. I took material from films and from the radio as well as from newspapers and journals but mainly from books in a wide range of topics and styles. Science, economics, history, fiction, fashion and theory were all areas of writing from which I plundered, sometimes as a direct steal (I assume that's what you mean when you talk about the 'raw') but often mucking around with the sentences/snippets in various ways, adding or changing words, bringing pirates into the mix quite overtly and by running different sentences together to create something strange and unexpected. Nathan Thompson, in his review of the book mentions the term flarf (I had to google that one) which refers to a ten-year-old American 'group' who use the internet to randomly bring together different texts, often with a scatological or shocking aim but also as an anti-aesthetic aesthetic, at least that's how I understand the term. Now, I think my work is perhaps (hopefully) more concerned with some notion of beauty or 'textural pleasure' than the term flarf implies but I also defend its critical or de-familiarising function and I think the two aims can run together. Tony Lopez's work, for example, certainly seems to feature both these aspects.

Is the book a sequence or just a number of poems working with the same idea or on the same theme?

Well, it's obviously the overall theme of  'piracy' which holds the collection together, both in the sense of piracy as subject and in terms of piracy or plunder as a method of construction. Within that structure I think there are several groups of poems which perhaps have a distinctive form or topic-within-a-topic - for example, the fourteen poems where Alice features as a major device/participant. I've had to cut out a lot of material along the way so the overall form of the book is an attempt to bring together the best of the material, which was written in bursts with occasional time-lapses between. The five poems which were essentially written in a more stream-of-consciousness mode - including the tribute to George Melly, 'Revolt into Style and On the Hoe'
(the first to be written and more or less adapted to fit the book) are included because I think they add variety and a more spontaneous energy to the whole. I think there may in fact be a series of sequences within the book, representing attempts to diverge and try out different things. The final poem in the book (not the final one to be written but the last I produced before completing the M.A. thesis) - 'The Empire of Fear', still stands for me as one of the most interesting and exploratory pieces to be included. I think by this point I'd developed a way of working with montaged material that became more spontaneous and 'creative'. This is difficult to describe as a process but it may be worth attempting, even if in a tentative and faltering manner. I was taking more risks with 'inventing on the spot' and merging the collected materials with more spontaneous thoughts and adaptations which seemed to make the piece flow more easily. It was certainly great fun to write - I was working at some speed and in a kind of heightened state which usually only happens to me when I'm producing an improvised rant (on the rare occasions it works effectively) and the experience of composition felt like pure pleasure. I had a break from those poems after completing 'Empire of Fear' but I sort of wish I'd just kept going because I think I'd got into a flow and had learned how to work that material more effectively, riffing more easily and with the confidence which comes with a degree of build-up and familiarity with the process. I still think it's the most interesting piece in the collection. As I've said earlier I think the overall organisation of the book is far from perfect and if I was starting again from scratch I'd probably do it very differently but that's all part of the learning curve.

Do you write other sorts of poems? What are you working on at the moment?

I've just pretty much completed a new collection - shorter, 60 odd poems but with each poem fitting on a page, different format but using similar procedures of composition. There is no overall theme but there are a number of topics which recur or are reprised throughout the collection. Clouds feature quite heavily, for example. I'm probably going to call it Does Your English Let you Down?
the title of one of the poems you recently posted on the Stride site. I think I've got someone interested in publishing it but nothing has been finalised yet. I continued to work in this manner partly because I wanted to see if I could keep it going and develop the processes but also because of a fear that I might dry up. Yes, I do write other sorts of poem and now that the new project is more or less complete I want to get back to trying to produce some more 'spontaneous material'. I've got around 40 pages of poetry - the best of the stuff I've written over the past fifteen years or so - which I'd like to get published in book form at some point but I need to be producing new work to add to the mix. I'm also keen to explore the performance end of the process and perhaps simplify or expand on the more rhythmic aspect of my earlier work. I've been listening, in particular, to John Agard and Bill Herbert reading their work recently and both are fantastic live readers, using musical idioms in which to write and perform. I'd like to try something more along those lines but it remains to be seen whether I have the necessary skills for that sort of refinement, which looks and sounds much easier than I know it to be. I also did a couple of readings/performances with some Jazz musicians several years back, including the composer/improviser Sam Richards, which was great fun and confidence boosting, something I'd certainly like to try again.

I'd like to add something here about the importance of writing groups in relation to the fostering of creativity, particularly if you happen to hit on a really good one. When I got involved in The Plymouth Language Club, or the Poetry Exchange, as I think it was then called, in the early to mid-90s, it was mainly run along the lines of a very open-ended workshop event, where writers came to read their material and have it commented on. I'd been involved with groups before, in Swindon and Cambridge, mainly, but had never found them very useful although that may have had something to do with me not being 'hungry' enough at the time. By the time I turned up in Plymouth, I was very open to what was going on and through my involvement with Terrible Work
and the members of the Poetry Exchange and the Language Club I discovered that there were a lot of interesting things happening in the region and within the small presses more generally. It got me writing seriously at long last and also helping to promote readings again which is something I'd had a fair bit of experience of in the past. My initial period of late development as a writer was slow but I improved and was taking in a wide variety of influence both through the group and via a wider access to publishing through the small press. This was all before the internet kicked in big-time. That and the opportunities created by doing the M.A. have moved things on again and I now find myself in the position of thinking about the next book rather than the next poem (!) which is all very strange but exciting.

I'd like to finish by including one of my 'other' sorts of poem, one which includes very little plundered material, but heh! it's always 'plundered' from some source or other - none of us lives in a vacuum . I hope you like it:

     the bounty hunters

     Between a critic and a lost soul
     Between a dancer and a social nonentity
     Between black and white the shades of grey mutate
     Run suddenly, lift the fear, fleece the landlord, fly.

     Between a WW2 plane and Vaughan Williams
     Between why the hell and ne'er do well
     Between the bank and a hard place every day
     Do a bunk, become a skunk, shrink to proportionate heaven.

     Between how's your father's father's father?
     Between now and then and twice a week
     Between come on in and door in face
     Bowl a fast ball, return a serve, shrug nonchalantly, how they hate it.

     Between really
meaning it and a job well done
     Between eyeball to eyeball and erotic charm
     Between where there's a will and a year in bed
     Manage an economy for six months, then leave it in ruins.

     Between mending a fence and blowing a gasket
     Between Lord of the Rings and Hedwig's Angry Inch
     Between up and down and down and out
     Lacerate your own face and let it bleed.

     Between a likeable Lurcher and a mad Jack Russell
     Between a contract killer and a licence to kill
     Between bitter sweet and simply bitter
     Sack the cast, breathe your last, it's lush on the other side.

          Interview © Steve Spence & Rupert Loydell 2010
          'the bounty hunters' © Steve Spence 2010