While it’s difficult to know how to proceed in these times, if you’re turning to creative pursuits, we think Steven’s interview might help you focus your energies.
Steven is a writer, poet, performer, playwright, artist, curator (yes, he sheds some light on how he manages to juggle all of those talents at once!), and has been a part of Rich Mix’s fabric for ten years. His enthusiasm for creativity in so many forms is a good reminder that we all start somewhere with our creative practices (if we have them), and that there’s no need to be put off from trying – especially now.
If you’re yet to come across his work, use his words below as your introduction, before taking his new book I Will Show You The Life Of The Mind (on prescription drugs) for a whirl, which recently launched at Rich Mix.
Rich Mix: How did you begin your practice as a poet? Did you set out to be one?
Steven Fowler: Chance. As with almost all things, fortune, depending on your opinion of my work, intervened. I was doing martial arts for a job, then was in an accident, couldn’t anymore, had to get a horrible office job, then fled travelling, accidentally took books with me that led me to poetry. I had never read a poem with any attention before my twenty-third birthday. This is the reasoning behind so much of what I do and how I do it. I choose to do all I do, I discovered it for myself and reading and writing poetry has vastly improved my life (though I wouldn’t assume it would do so for others, depends on each person’s circumstance.)
RM: What motivates you each day to continue to write? Do you find yourself turning to anything specific if you’re ever feeling demotivated?
SF: My work is remarkably unpopular and uncommercial because I have worked hard to have the conditions of complete creative freedom, within reasonable limits. In this reality I am profoundly aware of how pointless my work is in all ways but for myself. I enjoy doing it, I do it for me, it’s a way of exploring existence and doing a job which isn’t depressing or dangerous. If other people get something from it, amazing! That’s magic. But a bonus, one I wouldn’t expect. I wouldn’t assume to know what makes others happy or interested. So I’ve no need to get motivated, I’m always writing because I like to do it.
RM: What’s something very few people understand about poetry (or spoken word)?
SF: Maybe that these two things are really different in my opinion. To me, poetry is rooted in the fundamentally unbelievable fact of language itself. How is it we are able to communicate through grunts and marks? And how is it we are unable to capture the sensation of feeling and thought within us in language? Wonderous and mysterious. My work is then in the tradition, from Heraclitus on, of making things more strange in poems than reality itself. Not less than daily life, but more. Paradoxically this makes some people, who consider things in their actual complexity (because existence is complex whether we want it to be or not) feel more at home.
RM: Are there any artists or contemporaries whose vision has recently inspired you?
SF: So so many. The current world abounds in such remarkable access to such extensive idiosyncratic authentic artists and poets. This is the major reason I put on so many events. Very recently I’ve been wowed, and made jealous, by books or performances from from Barrie Tullett, David Spittle, Julia Rose Lewis, Martin Wakefield, Jacqueline Ennis Cole, James Knight, Tereza Stehlikova, Ross Sutherland, Anthony Etherin, Amy Cutler, Robert Sheppard, Tom Jenks, Chris McCabe, Kim Campanello, Joseph Turrent, Simon Tyrrell, Ryan Ormonde and many others.
RM: What about when you first started your practice? Who were you spurred on by?
SF: I’ve accrued guides I think, eclectic and often outside poetry. Chris Morris, Peter Greenaway, Harry Nilsson, Henri Michaux, Maya Deren, AL Lloyd, Arthur Schopenhauer, Jack London, Flannery O’Connor. Loads of folk. I’m just trying to find people along the way who show me how to gain a kind of self-knowledge through faithfully practising what interests me. And face to face, people like Alexander Frater, Tom Raworth, Allen Fisher, Maggie O’Sullivan, Anselm Hollo, Tomaz Salamun.
RM: If you were living a parallel life in another universe, what different talent would you have pursued?
SF: Martial arts or maybe a military career.
RM: May 2020 marks 10 years since you started events at Rich Mix. How has your approach to poetry and spoken word events changed over the years?
SF: Well I think either not at all, or daily. It’s hard to perceive one’s own changes. I have a time every year where I put aside a few weeks, it’s annual, where I think concentratedly whether I want to keep doing poetry and performance art events, and keep making things for a living in general. So far it’s been so wonderful, so full of good and interesting people, and mostly joy, it’s an easy choice. Rich Mix has rather literally been my home base for that. I genuinely owe it my career, and by extension, my current lifestyle, in so many ways.
RM: What is your favourite film?
SF: Sudden change of direction, I like that. I wrote a book of poems on films last year, and have another coming this year. So I’m big into films. So it’s hard to pick one. Maybe I stand alone by Gaspar Noe, but it is a bit much, so maybe Angel Heart.
RM: Can you tell us about an artist from a different medium to the ones you use, that you have been inspired by in the past 12 months?
SF: I’d love to mention many artists from many mediums. I’m in other spheres more than I’m in poetry, as cross pollination of interests, curiosity, makes originality, I think. To not waffle, I listen to lots of new music everyday, and don’t make music, so maybe musicians. Benedict Taylor, John Prine, maybe David Byrne actually. I’ve been systematically listening to the Talking Heads back catalogue. It’s really amazing work, so wonderful and layered and popular while being organically experimental. They even did a song using Hugo Ball’s dada poems, which I didn’t know til I heard it.
RM: You work across an impressive array of art forms – how do you decide which ones to focus your time on?
SF: Acknowledging I am being really reductive, I use a kind of simple matrix when teaching which might answer this. Method / Subject / Reason. The first is technique, which one to use, (sound, film, poem, fiction, book, live etc…) for the second one, what am I interested in, what is the thing I am making about? And third, exploring why I want to do either of those things? Somehow, instinctually, I try to find my way into the right forms for each thing I get to do. A lot of the time, happily, it’s due to the specific constraints, the context, of the publisher, venue, commission etc… Other times I feel like, say my interest in disappearing West London, is best done as a film rather than a non-fiction book.
RM: Do you see a thread that combines all of your work? An overriding purpose or mission? Or do you spend a few years immersed in a number of themes, before moving on to the next?
SF: I think about this a lot, thanks for the great question. I want to reserve the right to explore whatever I want to, whatever subject, even if its banal, alongside what others think is more ‘important’. But overall there is something underpinning everything I do. I never want to patronise people; I never want to tell them what to think and I want to embrace the actual complexity and difficulty of existing. I don’t want my work to be a shadow version of experience, a lessening of experience and ideas. I want it to know its less and then be free to be something new.
I think all art is supposed to be a place for the parts of us, of our lives and thoughts and being, which have to be suppressed in the required and sensible everyday interactions of work and relationships and friendships. It can please or challenge, that’s secondary, but for me, it should connect to that which isn’t easily knowable and maybe can’t be known. This sounds stupid I think but this is under everything I do.
This is more important than pleasing people and being popular, because that isn’t hard to do if one is cynical or if one is not thinking deeply about what it is we are all doing. Morality, for example, is very easy to peddle. It used to be the territory of religion, but seems to be in art and poetry much more now than even a few years ago.
RM: We’re celebrating our regulars and repeaters this season. What’s your favourite memory of performing at Rich Mix?
SF: I think it’s probably my European Poetry Festival, performing and curating to 100s of people, in a surging, generous, experimental, playful seizure of people, doing something no one else is really doing, being part of a cross continental community. My collaboration with Max Hofler maybe, where we staged a fake fight and then made up. This is especially the case now that this year’s festival has been postponed due to the c-word. I spent six months building a 100 poets, 11 event event programme and six days taking it apart. Yet, to be honest, I felt galvanised, as it had to be done, and a new kind of longing for it to happen was apparent, for both me and the others involved. So many of the poets were being locked down as the situation unfolded, it was terrible and immediate but also required action, and this is valuable. And in its absence, there is a resolve that we’ll make future moments and enjoy them all the more.
RM: Can you tell us about your favourite hidden gem in east London?
SF: St John on Bethnal Green. The church is an amazing avant garde music and performance venue! I’ve launched a book there. It’s so amazing inside. Or maybe York Hall, I go regularly to watch boxing there.
RM: You have worked with an amazingly broad range of themes – from neuroaesthetics, mortality and linguistics to collaboration, fight sports, prisons and bears. Tell us about a topic you’d like to bring into your work in the future – what fascinates you now?
SF: I’ve just released a book about the prescription drugs epidemic and the human mind. It’s a choose your own adventure poetry fiction collection. But this book is done! I’ve got other books on the go on other things, some coming out this year, some next, working on them as we speak. A book of long poems about Apes, The Great Apes. A poetry collection on surveillance, That Which Don’t Concern You. A book of prose poems on smells and scents, The Parts of the Body That Stink. A novella on museums, as I worked in the British Museum for seven loooong years, M U E U M. A new series of publications each exploring a different poetic method – Concrete Poems, Photo Poems, Maths Poems… And in July, my next book is called Crayon Poems with Penteract press, all poems made with crayons!
RM: Thank you Steven for these inspiring answers!
Find out more about the European Poetry Festival here.
Link through to Steven Fowler’s website here.
Out now: I will show you the life of the mind (on prescription drugs) from Dostoyevsky Wannabe
Coming soon: European Poetry Festival 2020 has been postponed until winter 2020.