Front cover Specs & ChangesIn my twenty-first interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Sam Smith about his poetry collection Speculations & Changes (Knives Forks And Spoons Press)…

“Not a soldier of Picasso
I know art is more a progress
                                              than a war”
(From ‘Not a Soldier’)

The first section of your collection is a series of ‘Speculations on Contemporary Art’ focusing on various aspects of modern artistic works and practice. Is there a sense in which this might be considered an ars poetica (art of poetry)? Or perhaps, even, an anti-ars poetica – given both the tone and the varied innovative use of form in this four-part series of poems?

Picasso believed that art should subvert. That once art becomes accepted it becomes the ‘new academicism.’ As has, if ironical proof were needed, Picasso. As further proof we only have to look at the present Turner shortlist – so tame, so of its type, that all it is capable of provoking is contempt. Poetry self-evidently is an art form, is not self-journalism, and it should provoke, not offer reassurance, is more than the self-therapy of “…we’ve all been there.” Poetry is not a club to be joined.

And not just poetry. Genuine new writing, if attempting to be seen as art, should disconcert, should upset, and should leave the reader changed in some way. If only with a slightly different perspective. If a poem is what we expect from a poem then that poem has failed. Michael Hamburger gave me a lot of help and encouragement when first I decided to take the writing of poetry seriously. One thing we could never agree on was my assertion that every poem should contain some dissonance, something to upset the reader’s preconceptions, make them pay attention.

I feel I’m stating the obvious here. But in any art craft is not enough. We have to move beyond accepted forms, to challenge the old, the accepted. It is how art progresses. The world is new every day and art has to change with it. The general public however is never comfortable with the new, prefers the familiar. Genuine art cannot therefore pander to the general public. In music, in the visual arts, in sculpture, and in poetry we have to defy expectations. We cannot please our teachers. We have to, as individuals, expect not to be popular.

Throughout ‘Speculations & Changes’, and particularly in the opening series of ‘Speculations…’, there is a fine and beautiful balance between sharpness, the beauty of some moments and at times perhaps an almost provocative playfulness/humour. Could you say a little about these aspects in your work and how you manage that fine line of balance?

I began this section highly critical of accepted art forms – as seen in galleries, in performance and on the page. Very few seemed to challenge preconceptions. Or if they seemed to be attempting to do so had made themselves impenetrable. So much of recent visual art is of an Art College type. So much of the ‘new’ poetry has been academised, fails to invite the uncommitted reader in and thereafter usurp their expectations. This type of poetry begins by erecting a barrier that says for the cognoscenci only, that says you must first have read this… Add a footnote, please the teacher.

Does art have a purpose? A singular purpose? That is what I was also trying to work out. And if it does, how has it failed? And if art has more than one purpose on which level has it failed/succeeded? So I played about with artistic tropes and if ‘…a fine balance was achieved’ it was mostly me enjoying myself.

As a fellow editor, Sarah, you must have received loads of submissions that begin by telling you that the submittee has just achieved an MA from some university or other. And the work, if competent (many of these courses like vanity presses exist solely to make money out of aspiring writers), is a slipping-by much-of-an-MA-muchness. In the next post comes a submission based on an untutored author’s obsession obsessively worked through that demands only to be read, puzzled over, and read again.

[Sarah: To respond, for readers’ information, on the MA front, I can’t honestly say whether we’ve had many cover letters to V. Press including MA details. Like you, we specifically don’t ask for biography details with submissions. Some writers send them anyway, but we don’t pay much attention. The poetry/flash fiction itself is what we’re interested in reading. I should probably add too that I do have a masters in creative writing myself; I’m a great believer though in learning what I can from wherever I can but that learning itself shouldn’t be rote, more an experiment in trying out what works, what can be borrowed then adapted, what should be ignored/left unused and following any new possibilities that come out of playing with existing frameworks, whether the result is subverted, converted, even obverted! 😉 Perhaps the important thing is not whether to masters (mistress!) or not, but what a writer feels that represents or means.]

“…Whole cities now are made of paper, are sustained
by paper. Watch a city explode. Paper, paper everywhere.
Writing about it is just a way of forgetting.”

(From ‘We Lived upon Milk and Were Enemies to War’)

While at one level ‘speculations’ focuses on observations on contemporary art and poetry, these poems seem to consider this not in isolation but very much as something that highlights our wider culture and society as a whole – the things we invest in, and the risks that go with that. How important is it to not just face up to reality instead of forgetting, but to look beyond the surface and separate the natural from the manufactured, the synthetic from the real, the art and the artifice – both in creative practice but also the way we live our lives? (And why?)

The kind of art that a society produces, or in the case of a totalitarian culture is allowed to produce, is indivisible from that society, its mores and traditions, and where its art wants it to go. Art as warning or aspiration. For instance in this poem what I had in mind was the IRA bomb in Manchester that blew out Michael Schmidt’s office, the rest of it scene-setting.

In every poem I try to – at least I think I try to – create a touchstone, something recognisable on which the reader can build their own interpretation. Can be something natural, beyond the period depicted, something currently everyday, and then I try to widen it out even unto the absurd, as with a koan. But often on starting to write I have no idea where the poem is going to end up, what final shape it will be. More get thrown away than kept. Editor Alec threw out more of the kept here – felt that they stated the obvious. He was right.

“Within a crooked system, however,
often the only honest action
can be to lie.”

(From ‘Too Much Indulged’)

“if any love is to be sustained, there are some truths which cannot
be said. (Such truths are mind tumours.) Love/sex, therefore, cannot be
communication. Even before that — the long looks into the other’s eyes, the
hand lingering on the arm, tingle fingers touching shoulder, the belief that
you are in the company of a kindred spirit — can be shattered with the first
words. Between human beings, where love nor sex is part of the transaction,
language is the sole means of unequivocal communication. And then it, for
example this, is imperfect.”

(From ‘Not Communication’)

Having mentioned reality and artifice, can we talk now about truth? I’ve quoted from two very different poems above (one dealing more with society and the other with the personal). In ‘Going by Inside a Car You Cannot Hear the Lark Singing’ also: “Truth | will come | as mockery”. So, does any truth exist and, if yes, where? And, if truth can’t be found in poems (or the world, when using words at least), what should we be looking for in poetry instead? (I notice that shamanism is mentioned in some poems and “For scholars to look solely for meaning | in poetry for instance | is to overlook its shamanistic qualities” from ‘Dialogue 48’.)

Truth? There’s a biggie. In the collaboration between writer and reader, each collaboration dependant on the reader’s own knowledge and imagination, simple truths can easily slip between the cracks. So does the poem attempt to create a sense of…? Something alluded to, not present on the page? I’ve already mentioned koans, how their absurdity can trigger contemplative states. What I’d count as a success is a reader looking up from the page and staring into their mental mid-distance. Possibly going back to read the page again.

I attempted this with my Rooms series. Where after a free verse description of a place or event I had a footnote called ‘Notes for reading’. These told how physically the verse should be read, and were often at odds, bore no relation, to the contents of the verse. The effect of those ‘Notes for reading’ was to send the reader back up the page to re-read the verse. And to try themselves to reconcile the pairing. The series proved popular with art students.

Truth? I dunno. What I do know is that I seem often to be surrounded by delusion, self-administered or propagated, and aware that enlightenment when it comes often proves traumatic.

Sam Smith“And again, in this our age
of silent despair (the crying-out-loud,
the gulping sobs, belong to
a moment, require an audience),
night’s boneheaded insects will come
rattling against the lit black glass.”

(From ‘Adeona’)

This quote makes me think again about the artificial in contemporary society but also about the role of the watcher and the watched. Could you tell me about the part these two play in your poetry?

Voyeur and victim? Performer and audience? The voyeur can project knowledge of being watched onto the victim. Audience projects judgements onto the performer. Victim can imagine an audience while being unaware of the actual voyeur. Victim can self-consciously play to imaginary audience. Where the natural?

One of the things that I noted with a gasp of appreciation is the variety and innovation in ‘Speculations…’ Perhaps in part that is in the nature of these series of poems – looking at contemporary poetry, text and art practice. But it also seems to go beyond that. How would you describe your approach to innovation and the experimental in your own work?

I began as a novelist. I didn’t want to write what had been written before, seemed the very contradiction of novel. And when I later came to write poetry I was appalled to discover an ‘experimental school’. That a poem could be defined as belonging to ‘the experimental’. Surely all new work, being new, had to be experimental? As with my novels any idea I had for a poem therefore also had to find its own form, own shape. Sometimes it could fall into an existing form, only to then go beyond the form, require something other… Often what has begun happily as a series can quickly run out of steam, go nowhere. Does it work? Is the one question I ask of every piece.

“Intelligence is nothing without compassion;”

(From ‘Dialogue 48’)

I’m taking the quote above out of context, as it comes from the ‘Speculations…’ and I want to apply it to the second section of the collection ‘Changes’. (I’ll justify this by saying that, for me, the second section of poetry very much demonstrates this in practice.) The poems in ‘Changes’ are full of wisdom, insight and “the sudden squirrel chase of an idea” but also many of them are very moving and emotionally charged – hovering above death, and vividly evoking love and loss in a range of situations, narratives and moments. I’m struck by how finely intellect and emotion are balanced in these poems and also the careful crafting of words and images to create poems that sparkle without losing their ‘squirrel chase’ sense of real immediacy. Are there any particular techniques or practices that you use for achieving this? And, more generally, what’s the typical (if there is such a thing!) writing process for you from inspiration to crafting and polishing the finished poem?

When I was a psychiatric nurse I became fascinated by how insight and intellect had so little to do with emotion and spirit. Likewise how little politics has to do with ethics. How ends become means and how do I fit the event, the moment into those considerations? Demonstrate them without becoming didactic? Every piece of writing, including this, a new exercise. An exercise where I continually ask of myself, ‘Is that true?’ Language itself has the tendency to mislead one. So, if not true, how does one make it true? How does one make it seem authentic? And that is where an image might get inserted, itself leading one elsewhere….

Transience is something that struck me as a theme threading through this collection – be that celebrating a particular everyday moment, facing the prospect of death or the nature of art and its endurance. I’m wondering if this is a very deliberate choice or more of a subconscious personal zeitgeist? (It is just one of many themes woven through the poems, but one that particularly struck me.)

When I left school in Devon I went to sea and encountered for the first time the very real poverty of places then like Sudan and India. I ferried refugees during the 64/5 war between India and Pakistan and came home age 21 to old classmates fresh from college full of knowledge and who knew nowt of the world as was. That estrangement, already begun before I went to sea but exaggerated by what I had done and seen in my travels, was pretty much what led me to writing, if only to attempt to explain to myself all that was happening around me and to tell it in ways that were not untruthful, tell it in my language not theirs.

“Then we will know that we are not,

never have been, closed vessels,
that we do need others;

but as with lichens, mosses, orchids,
trust will be a plant of slow growth.”

(From ‘We Can Be Led to Believe’)

How does the sense of simultaneously feeling alone/disconnected and yet needing/craving connection, of being individual yet part of something bigger influence your poetry? And are there elements of writing choice that you feel are particularly important for a poet building trust with their reader?

The touchstone, something familiar, should always be there. Even if its very mention arouses a prejudice. One can work with that. Turn the prejudice on its head maybe.

Of course though many people will not be the least interested in what I have written. Especially poetry that doesn’t look/sound like the doggerel they have come to expect poetry to be. So if one’s only ambition is to acquire readers then one will write doggerel with layers of sexual innuendo and if novels give the public the stories they expect inside their colour-branded covers.

But if one persists with what one genuinely believes is what one is trying to say then, if the work does get published, then one does reach – sometimes around the globe and beyond one’s own generation – to individuals here and there who are grateful for finding ‘a like mind’.

Following on from my previous two questions, could you say something more generally about themes that particularly interest you and where you found inspiration for the poems in ‘Speculations & Changes’?

I think you have already divined, Sarah, most of what drives me to write – estrangement, disconnection, delusion on the part of others, and – more particularly with art – seeming conspiracies of delusion, the Emperor’s new clothes. The daily frustration of being surrounded by what Norman Mailer termed ‘factoids’ – misapprehensions accepted as fact. How we are ruled by the moneyed and the ignorant, how one uses the other, and the many wilful blindnesses. While at the same time not wanting myself to be a bore.

“yes, word is spread
not by the answer given
but by the question asked”

(From ‘Word’)

What other question haven’t I asked about ‘Speculations & Changes’ that ‘Word’ might have you answer? (And what is that answer?!)

I’ve had enough trouble answering these without inventing further torture for myself. [Sarah: This torture hopefully in the realm of that dissonance in poetry that you refer to earlier.]

Front cover Specs & ChangesWhere can readers get a copy of ‘Speculations & Changes’?

Thank you, Sam, for these interesting and thought-provoking responses on ‘Speculations & Changes’.

To read more In the Booklight interviews with authors, please click on this link.