Monday, June 17, 2013

Praxis and Poetry

I've always been interested in the idea of "praxis" - process and the reflection on process in relation to art. It seems to me that this is the one area that is often missing in creative writing education, which seems strange as understanding the philosophical underpinnings of art is, to me at least, a necessary component of the art - and one that is probably eminently teachable. A fine art education will give you this in spades of course, and its notable that poets from the more experimental end of the spectrum have often come through some such funnel - and may well end up back there.

As often happens when I'm thinking about a new blogpost, several things tend to come together at once; similar to when you first here of someone or something and then they seem to crop up time and again. Alot of the writers I now know are very engaged in process - whether its through initiating projects or collaboration. However, though there's a focus to being part of an anthology or a particular event, I'm more interested, inevitably, about how my own practice works. Though I create individual "units" of art; poems; stories, I've always felt my work is very connected within itself, especially with regard to its themes, and sometimes, its forms (which is not to say form and theme aren't in themselves very connected). Of course, we're not necessarily encouraged, outside of the academic or publicity context, to "talk" about our work. I was reminded of this reading Emily Berry's commentary on her work on the Peony Moon blog.I'll quote the first paragraph in full since it seems very applicable:

"Some people seem to have the language for speaking about their own work very fluently – I am still not sure I have learnt the language for talking about mine. It’s like trying to explain one mode of communication via another very different kind, like telling someone about a phone call through the medium of sculpture. Still, a sculpture about a phone call could be something interesting."

That last line struck a chord: in other words just because it might seem counter-intuitive to be using one medium to discuss another doesn't mean that in itself it isn't somewhat of interest. In contemporary art practice we are seeing a lot of blurring of roles between artist and curator, or artist and performer, or artist and audience. Some of this is about control: at what point of the art work does the originator want to control. This seems more intrigueing than the art-as-factory of a Koons or Hirst's spot paintings; it can be the artist as choirmaster or conductor (Spencer Tunick's use of people as material; Jeremy Dellar's "Procession" and "Battle of Orgreave"); but it can also lead to more participatory frameworks - for instance where a curated show tours, only to be added to at each venue or older practices, such as "mail art" where different artists collaborate in producing a limited edition run. Temporary art spaces, and even temporary art organisations, (such as the Lionel Dobie Project in Manchester, or the DIY Art School that is hosted there).

For the writer there is perhaps less obvious scope for creating a "sculpture about a phone call" or rather, the imperative for dabbling in different medium often comes from commercial rather than artistic imperatives. (Ben Elton writing the er..."libretto" to "We Will Rock You.") Yet, those of us steeped in modernism, see that this is a key part of practice - such as Edith Sitwell's collaboration with William Walton for "Facade". I guess that the energies involved in not just one art form, but the attendant expectations around it (the developing of a "career" as a poet or a novelist) have generally been detrimental to any overt thoughts of developed "praxis." Yes, we may read Eliot mostly for his poems, but certainly when I was at school, his plays were often studied, and then there's the "entertainment" that is "Cats." Inevitably with major figures, they can often seem to be doing more "minor" work when they dip away from what they are best known for. Both Henry James and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a play; Fitzgerald and Faulkner dabbled in Hollywood; artists such as Steve McQueen and Sam Taylor-Wood have directed successful films.

In the underground, it is artistic as much as financial imperative that sees one "switching codes" - for myself, its important that I have the opportunity to explore those themes which interest me most: its why I will occasionally collaborate on a project like Poems for Pussy Riot, as I do have things that I want to say about art, free speech, protest, and (probably as important to me) rock and roll. As an artist who writes politically, the balance here will be different than someone who is a "political artist." I'm defiantly not an activist, for a number of reasons, and many of them are entangled with my views on the role of (my) art - that I reserve the right to explored different political angles, that I might find more difficult if I was more obviously aligned to a cause or party.

As an artist, I guess my own equivalent statement to "a sculpture about a phone call" would be that I'm increasingly keen to defend the artist's right to be wrong. I'm not talking politics here so much as artistic practice. I guess if you're known for a certain type of work; its quite difficult to explore beyond that - whether its the formalist becoming more avant garde, or the controlled writer becoming looser. I'm interested in those past writers who've adopted (and adapted) within that context. (The sad death of Iain Banks, for instance, robbed us not just of a good man and writer, but a good example when it came to working across genres.) In this space a "bad work" by a writer can be as vital as a good one. Mistakes (and I don't really like the word) are enablers - "what if?" moments. And besides, the themes that I addressed in, say, my pseudonymous cartoon, Treeville, aren't that far removed from a poem like "A Colossal Machine" or a story like "The Ikea in Ashton Can Be Seen from Space"; all three are absurdist takes on modern life, and imaginative templates for our possible futures.

Of course, one thing you lack as an underground or unnoticed artist is a critical culture around your work - or even an explicit engagement with that work. Publication doesn't just provide legitimisation it also gives a historio-cultural framework to your work. Why, a future researcher might ask, did he abandon the experimental poems or the realist stories? Chances are that things aren't as linear as all that. I've always been struck that an autobiographical writer like William Burroughs appears to be most literally truthful at his most absurdist. The things we make up, in other words, are probably the things that appear most plausible. Part of what one does as a writer is truth, but part is also a construct. I like to think that a person can be more complex than a fictional character (or rather that our fictional characters should necessarily be complex if we want them to appear human) - and yet I'm well aware of the roles that people inevitably apply to us.

In talking about my writing, I'm not talking about my writing so much as what I'd like a conversation about my writing to be about. There's not so much of it out there that it tells a coherent or even truthful picture; the "unpublished" writings are often as real to me as the published ones. The new work as vital as the old etc. etc. If there is a reason to talk through what I'm doing then I think for me its more about what I'm trying to do with my work. Sometimes that's about the themes and content of the work but other times about the style and the form. There was a point around the millennium where, perhaps through my increased interest in poetry, or because of the amount of concentration I was putting into my writing, I think I fell for a certain type of fictional aestheticism that probably didn't do me too good (at least not in terms of getting published) - it came, I think from reading American writing but with my English accent - I certainly couldn't put on the voice of a Roth or a Bellow or a DeLillo, but I could extract some of their aesthetic juice and apply it to my own work. Same goes, I think, with poetry. I'll never be able to find much to attract me in the Celtic fringes, as I've a very different (very English?) voice in my head; so I've had to look elsewhere than much mainstream British poetry for models. Recently, that's included an unusual one, the formalism of Thom Gunn, but I've had time for Macniece, for Lowell, for Ashbery in the not so distant past. I'm well aware that sometimes these models won't work for me: but perhaps its about that conversation - that extracting of what juice I can from these vivid blooms.

I'm happier talking about art at this level - and this distance - than "what is this poem about" - though maybe that's because I rarely get asked (other than "is it true?" or "who is it about?") We each of us, I think, need to adopt or develop a language for understanding our own work or at least our own practice. I guess some writers would see this as counter-intuitive, as breaking the mystery: but the very fact that I think there is a mystery makes me want to understand it more. Like the onset of a storm, though we can not tell the future, its useful to know whether or not the wind is blowing in our direction, and from where.


Tim Love said...

"Still, a sculpture about a phone call could be something interesting" - I'd claim that poetry is often "being interesting" in this way - it has little choice. Except when replicating dialog or other poems it's always trying to be "about" something outside of itself. When being about a pretty face it doesn't have the fallback option of photo-realism, it just has to struggle on.

I look upon poetry as a mixed-media (or at least mixed-aesthetic) venture. When Hopkins wrote about the "dapple dawn-drawn falcon" he was letting the medium show through. Quotes are like stuck-on collage items. Puns and acrostics conceal extra trompe l'oeuil words. In a sonnet, representation can be warped for the sake of the form, not dissimilar to the way Cezanne's tables weren't always rectangular. And with writing, leaving "bare canvas" a la Schiele is the default. The sentence "A man is in a kitchen" leaves out almost everything that a picture would show you immediately - the age of the man, the era, the wealth, whether it's night or day, etc.

In poetry especially, language draws attention to itself so much that it sometimes "shows the working", and there's more "Poetry about poetry" than there is "Music about music", I suspect, and more poems than symphonies that query the purpose/value of the very medium they exploit.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Agree, though we've had 40 years of reductionism, from Larkin and Hughes, through to the last two Laureates where the poem has been most definitely about what it is in the poem. That's changing again. I used to wonder how music could be "about" something, but I'm more inclined than I was to think that non-verbal forms make it easier rather than harder to discuss an idea. (In other words, language's directness makes abstraction harder, not easier.)

Unknown said...

Aristotle theorized that all human knowledge can be divided into three activities: thinking (theoria); making (poiesis); doing (praxis). That the etymology of 'poetry' can be traced back to the Greek 'poie-' (root of poiesis, to make or create), straddled in between theory and practice, is wonderful to me in light of the entire discussion on poetry and praxis...! Using this device alone, we might gain philosophical insight to the tendentious yet critical relationships between the kinds of knowledge inherent in thinking, making, and doing; perhaps, for example, to imply indeed that poiesis, such as poetry, can only realistically be interrogated on the basis of "what it is about" rather than its "correctness" (theoria) or "usefulness" (praxis). Indeed, Aristotle's forms of knowledge may be seen as a trinity embodying a complex trialectic (three-way dialectic) relationship...e.g. the connections between philosophy, experience and creative production inherent in the praxis of poetry! ;) The little fragment I posted in another comment is an attempt to elucidate some of these ideas in a far simpler and more direct way. (I'd love any feedback you may have, on the verse and/or concepts)