Lunchtime Reader & ‘Building Brand Identity: A Panel on Small Presses’ Panellist
Interview conducted by Robyn Quick
Stephen Mooney is a poet and Senior Lecturer at the University of Surrey, often focusing on experimental forms of poetry. He co-founded the press Veer Books where he has published some of his books, including DCLP and Shuddered. As I read and watched his work, I was curious how much rehearsal was involved in his performance and how much was dependent on his surroundings at the time.
You tend to focus on experimental poetry. Was there any piece in particular that drew you to the medium?
It was more an encounter with a lecturer and a course at Birkbeck. I was doing a degree in English Literature at the university in the late nineties. I studied contemporary British poetry, led by Professor William Rowe. It was the first time I came across work I would describe as experimental. There was other traditional poetry as well, and we looked at that alongside this amazing new stuff that totally blew my mind. Well, it almost cranked my head open intellectually! In that course, I came across a British poet, Lee Harwood, whose work is wonderfully beautiful and deceptively simple. My favourite poem would have been As Your Eyes Are Blue. At the time, I said to William that it could not be considered contemporary as it was written in the 1970s. He tells it a different way, and says I said it is not poetry! But that thrust me into the world of experimental poetry. We looked at experimental poets alongside writers like Carol Ann Duffy and more traditional poets. It became pretty clear from the beginning who I was more interested in.
You’ve used a wide variety of materials and methods for your poetry. For example, you have used found objects like a car window and also performed blindfolded. Are there any other techniques you want to try or are working on?
I’ve started working on a series of poems based on the Judge Dredd graphic novel series. He’s a post-apocalyptic law enforcement officer from the future who is based in America, but the series was written in Britain. It’s a take on American consumerism. He’s a strict adherer to the law but is a very problematic character, an anti-hero. I’ve been working on how to transfer that to moving visuals. It’s a tricky thing to do. I’ve been using photocopies and running them past the screen very quickly to create a kind of primitive movie effect. I’m thinking about how to use technology in such a way to create something new. But there is the question of copyright and how to publish such a thing…
That leads neatly into my next question: Do you think in the future there will be a lot more of an overlap between gaming and poetry?
They already exist. Somebody like Jo Lindsay Walton has ventured into this field, as he has published games as well as poetry and prose. A lot of the work I do is engaged with that interface between poetry and prose — the most obvious example being The Cursory Epic, where I take the language and structure of a Final Fantasy game book and turn it into poetry. I take out the numbering technique of those books, so you have to navigate back and forth on the pages themselves. I think there is a lot of scope for more of that. In the entertainment industry globally, the gaming industry has earned more financially than all the other sectors combined. Given that it is such a mammoth industry, gaming is starting to intersect with more social uses for media and technology. It is inevitable that gaming mechanisms and features will increasingly become a part of the meta form of poetry.
Have there been any changes in the festival since the first time you attended? Do you feel your approach to writing has changed?
I was at the festival the first time it ran, and I had been working on a couple of books simultaneously, those being The Cursory Epic, 663 Reasons Why and a few others going on in the background. A little while after the festival, I started working on Ratzinger Solo, which incorporates found material. I suppose over the years, I have used more found material in different ways and written less composed poetry. I now tend to use a mix of the two, using words that I have chosen and written on the page and material I have used from other sources.
The theme for the festival this year is Deconstructing the Self: do you put a lot of yourself in your work?
Yes and no. Yes, in that we all do that as a matter of language being a very personal thing. I think to some degree it is hard to escape the subjective writerly-ness of putting the words together. Even when it is found materials, you are still the one choosing their placement, so there is a sensibility that comes with that. Some things sound right to me, and some do not sound so right. That would be my version of saying ‘This is my voice.’ But I would not say that I necessarily set out to write myself. My sense of that is that is how the language moves through you, as a writer. I do not mean to say that I am moved by the spirit of the muses, but more that we are a conduit for language. We are used to this idea that human beings and culture are a vehicle for our genes. To some degree, our consciousness is a side effect of the battle for survival between the different genes. Our lives are inconsequential in the passage of time. One could say our writings are also a side effect of the development of language itself in response to culture and society. In some ways, we are the ones who dictate the change, so there is a strange symbiosis there.
Do you have a method to map out or rehearse the rhythm of your poetry? Your piece Shuddered, for example, uses an audio track that you talk over.
For the recorded pieces, some of them are rehearsed quite a lot beforehand in order to get the hit at the right point. Others are just responding to the sounds of the space so there is no rehearsal at all. Part of the idea is an exchange between the place-ness of the place, but also the temporality of the space. My first book (District and Circle Line Project) focuses on temporality and is written with dance music built into its DNA. I was listening as I was writing it, and I was moving a lot. I tend to compose when I am moving. The interface between movement and sound was a really important part of that publication. A lot of my work, like Shuddered, has a similar methodology attached to it. So, in a sense, rhythm is connected to time. We can use different presents simultaneously whilst doing a poetry reading – poetry facilitates different forms of temporal scape. They intersect with each other and generate new nows. Rhythm is part of that, but responding to the surroundings. For example, I did a reading at Prague Microfestival a few years ago where there was an experimental saxophonist playing in the background. We had never met each other, but it was suggested a few hours before the performance that we perform together. Whilst my poems were written, I was responding to the sounds that he was making and vice versa. In some ways, that is a more interesting way of doing things. There is often a crossover between the experimental music and the experimental poetry scene, with improvisational jazz being played while a poet reads. I think embracing that is what liberates the poem from the place-ness of the page.
Is there a piece of literature or media you return to when you need inspiration for your writing?
That is an interesting question! Not specifically, although I have favoured texts. Currently, I am reading and re-reading a range of gaming texts, many of which are from my teenage years. So I am focusing more on a field rather than a particular example. I have a series of game book poems that I am writing, so to read gaming examples and make material out of those.
Why do you think it is important to teach/mentor other writers?
One of the misnomers out there is that we can teach people how to write, but that has never been my approach to creative writing at all. Everybody can write in one way or another; it is not as much of an exclusionary practise as people often think. But I do think there is value to be found in the study of writing. Whilst I was at Birkbeck University, we had what was called a creative reading workshop. It was useful, because we were reading work with an openness and open sense of practise. My sense of the value of creative writing is that we can show people various techniques and ideas and facilitate their own practices rather than giving them the skills to write. It is about giving them the tools to develop the techniques, more than anything. Once we teach them to write, it becomes an unnuanced and formulaic approach to students developing their own style. The students I teach are the future, and to some degree it is up to them to tell us what the writing of the future is going to be. They are the ones who are going to be creating, so we can only give them pointers and the tools. We are in a period where there are new horizons in terms of technology and different art forms – so how we write will have changed, as little as five years’ time. But that was the case for my colleagues and myself when we started writing – we are now passing what we have learnt to the next generation.
To learn more about Stephen’s role in the 2022 Festival, and to buy his most recent poetry collection, head to his section of SNWF’s Meet Our Guests.
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About the Author:
Hi, I’m Robyn (she/her) and I am a final year English Literature with Creative Writing student. This is my first time working with the festival, so it has been great to see so many new writers come together and celebrate each other! I love writing stories that incorporate supernatural elements, either in poetry or graphic novel form.