SJ Fowler, The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner, (Eyewear, 2014), 108pp., £12.99, ISBN 978-1-908998-20-0; Auld Enemies, Rich Mix, Shoreditch, Saturday 26th July, Free
Reviewed by Paul McMenemy [Originally published in LP2, September 2014]
SJ Fowler appears to lead a peculiar peripatetic life, shedding bits and pieces of language and picking up stray poets as he goes. Curator of the Enemies project, he does what might seem to be a very odd thing – he encourages those solitary creatures to leave off making patterns out of coffee rings and playing with the bags beneath their eyes to emerge into the outer air, talk to one another, and even work together.
We have a very odd, Romantic idea that the poet must be an island, whatever John Donne says, and that poetry must be the distillation of some intense, hyperpersonal experience. This is nonsense – even the founding text of English Romanticism, Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, is the result of a collaboration of sorts, and collaborative poetry has a pedigree stretching back at least to the legion we call Homer.
Fowler’s most recent Enemies are Scottish: Auld Enemies toured Scotland through July, finishing up in London, where I caught it. Six poets – Fowler, Ross Sutherland, nick-e melville, Colin Herd, Ryan van Winkle and William Letford (not at the London gig) – went on the tour, promiscuously pairing off to produce poems, and at each stop along the way they met local poets, also partnered up.
I won’t spend too long describing individual performances, as they can be seen, along with Sutherland’s documentary on the tour, on Fowler’s YouTube page – and I will tell you right now that you absolutely should watch these. The night began with the first 15 minutes of the aforementioned documentary, which includes various of the participants’ thoughts on the collaborative process, and performance footage. Film at a live event can often feel a bit like the teacher has wheeled the telly into class in the hope that half an hour of Words and Pictures in the dark might shut the kids up, or send them to sleep, but here it set the night up pretty well, providing context and a taster of what was to come.
The night’s live poetry kicked off with Kirsten Irving and Harry Man performing two cut-up poems, the second of which, ‘We’re Off to de Botton Moon’ (guess what the elements of that one were), was not only extremely funny, but also represents the closest Alain de Botton is ever likely to come to profundity.
Irving and Man bounced lines back and forth in ones, twos and threes – one of the interesting things about the poets not only writing but performing in pairs was the various approaches taken to this. Nick Murray and Eley Williams, who followed them, seemed to have written a number of different, subtly changing versions of the same poems on the theme of changelings, starting by reading whole poems, or large parts thereof, each, before reading alternate lines of different versions – this led to a certain amount of faffing and riffling, but that in turn illustrated the interleaved, palimpsest-like texture of the piece.
Tim Atkins and Jeff Hilson chose something similar in construction – each responding to the other’s previous poem by adjusting it until it became something new and unrecognisable (e.g. “Here I am at 4am” in one poem became “Here I am at TVam” in the next), the whole beginning as some woozy stumble through Edinburgh (appropriate enough for this time of year), tripping over various Scottish notables including Rod Stewart and Ivor Cutler along the way (“When will I cowpunch the cowpuncher?”), before stumbling off to weirder climes.
Vahni Capildeo & Jeremy Noel-Tod chose to respond in a different way, their poem, ‘Stone Notes’, consisting of a part written by each, the first, by Capildeo, on the Antonine Wall, the last in the voices of different building materials, linked by a collaborative piece – a dialogue between two stone lions. The final London pairing, John Clegg and Emily Berry, fixed on the inanimate on a more domestic scale, writing poems for each of the components of the full English breakfast (“I pretend to love the egg”).
After this the five touring poets began an uninterrupted relay in various combinations as the show gathered momentum. Highlights included Sutherland and van Winkle’s awkward sports banter (“Did you catch the sports / Are you a fan of the games that were on, will be on? / The games series?”); Herd and van Winkle’s thoughtful letters to one another, based on James VI’s erotic poetry; Fowler and Sutherland’s clever wordgame, in which a suggestion from the audience was inserted into a prepared funding application scenario (“I will man the Twitter account and we will fashion memes about nepotism and post them relentlessly. We will update our moods and statuses with phrases like, ‘Is it just me, or does anyone else feel like nepotism right now?’”); all culminating in melville and Sutherland’s piece in which they repeated every single phrase from the SNP’s White Paper on Scotland which contained the root “free”, leading to repeated Gibsonesque cries of “FREEDOM!”
If all this sounds determinedly wacky and surreally insubstantial, then I haven’t described it very well. The pieces just mentioned all raised interesting questions or illustrated interesting themes, e.g., respectively, the nature of male relationships; love, intimacy, gender, communication; the formulaic nature of most of our usual methods of communication, and how this can be shown up with the insertion of just one spanner-like word; the relentless repetition endemic in political discourse, and, through repetition, an examination of what abstract concepts actually signify.
Most of the poems performed were funny at least in parts, and most contained surreal or surprising elements, and exhibited a determination not to be bound by the stock subjects of poetry and their stock treatments, but nearly all were intellectually and/or emotionally affecting as well. These aspects may simply be symptomatic of the freeing nature of collaboration – in the documentary, Fowler suggests that the removal of individual responsibility grants the poets licence to be a little bit odder than they might otherwise be. However they may also be down to selection bias: Fowler commissioned these poets, so it is perhaps not surprising that the poems reflect his concerns. But Fowler’s own poetry, as evinced in The Rottweiler’s Guide to the Dog Owner, while exhibiting the uneasy juxtapositions of tone and language we saw in Auld Enemies, is another step or two removed from the joy of these collaborations. It is a drier, colder poetry; in short, it’s not fun.
And yet the majority of the poems in this collection are collaborations of one sort or another; even the stand-alone sequences that don’t quite bookend the collection, both titled ‘Epithalamia’, are concerned with the exercise in collaboration that is marriage. It is perhaps telling that these sections, along with another sequence, ‘Wildermenn’, written for an exhibition by David Kelly, were the ones that worked most immediately for me. I had seen images from the exhibition in a newspaper spread, and so had their recollection to accompany me through the poems.1
A piece like ‘Chriapa, Ruzomberok, Slovakia’,
I know huntsman
who just have to hunt
reproduced above in full, has a bloody force to it, but the knowledge that it responded to a photograph of a man dressed as one of the various folkloric creatures, of which that odd Mitteleuropean anti-Santa, the krampus, is probably the best-known (I do not remember which one the chriapa is, but most of the pictures showed various 7’ monstrosities in goat-hair onesies), wheeled out across central Europe every midwinter in various pagan-ish rituals adds a useful context to it, I think. But of course I don’t know: any reading is prejudiced, simply by the experience one happens to bring to it.
The point is, that in many other pieces, I felt like I was only getting half of the story. ‘Wortwedding’, with its dense blocks of 8pt print attempting to subside into the specially grey pages (as usual with Eyewear, the book is beautifully and meticulously produced), suggested that the whole was originally experienced as some kind of background hum while something else went on during the performance piece with Alessandra Eramo it was written for.
and we have all here visited the website which offers opinions
on whether I personally should invest in property in Neukolln or Wedding
yeayou laugh as if it were possible in this city that someone who is addressing
your journey as though it were the subject for poetry could have enough money
[from ‘Trepidation’ from ‘Wortwedding’}
This is not to say the poems don’t stand on their own, or that the context in which they were written is some kind of key, which the poet has thoughtlessly failed to provide. It does though act as a distraction – an intellectual excuse on the reader’s part, perhaps, which, when one is dealing with work this allusive, and, yes, fuck it, difficult, encourages the reader to look for answers everywhere except the poem. There is nothing that can be done about this – the poems deserve to be published; obviously their context cannot be, except circumstantially.
As to the poems themselves, distractions aside, formally they tend towards sequences of short fragments – even the poems not formally designated as such tend to work this way, ‘Wortwedding’ and ‘Leaves’, formerly published as an ebook, being the outliers. Tonally, these fragments vary from the gnomic to the gaspingly stark: ‘Ursinitis’, from the first set of ‘Epithalamia’, again in full, shows this well.
using a bear
as a child’s gravestone
the green balloon
just out of reach
of the symbolic
of the dead baby
I hope that doesn’t happen to us
Moments like this will grab you on the first go round, and bring you back to reread the less immediate pieces – and they repay rereading. This is a book with which you have to spend a lot of time. There is a note under the publisher’s information which reads “ALL ERRATA IS INTENTIONAL AND THIS WORK HAS BEEN THOROUGHLY PROOFED”. There are lots of odd little vandalisms to tense, number and so on in this book, and often I am at a loss to say what purpose a particular displaced apostrophe, etc. serves. One explanation is that it forces the reader to pay heed, catching on the attention like a hangnail on nylon, bringing it back, carefully, to go over the work again, more minutely.
my tea is
will it run the risk
of being misunderstood?
[from ‘meditations on Strong tea’]
That Fowler is willing to take the risk is admirable; the taster’s only risk is misunderstanding. It is a risk worth taking.
1 The exhibition for which ‘Wildermenn’ was written, was not, in fact, the exhibition I was thinking of, which was ‘Wilder Mann’ by Charles Fréger. This of course raises further questions about how far previous experience and expectations influence our reading of poetry.