‘It has to appear like a gift’: an interview with Ahren Warner

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In his review of The Salt Book of Younger Poets, Dai George noted that the present seems a particularly good time to be a young British poet. George cites, among other things, the active literary culture to which many twenty-something poets are contributing as evidence of this and, if the sheer number of publications dedicated to this generation is anything to go by, one is apt to believe him.

Though there is some overlap between these publications, what is most striking is the variety of poets they contain. Within this surfeit of names, though, a recurrent figure is Ahren Warner: soon to have a second collection published by Bloodaxe, recently appointed as the new Poetry London editor, winner of the Arts Foundation Fellowship and still a few years shy of 30.

So, what are the marks of Warner’s distinction? Well, there is a breathtaking sense of formal ingenuity, an unapologetic erudition, and an often blunt sense of humour, for a start. This added to the range of subjects about which Warner seems more than merely informed (art theory, music, continental philosophy…the list goes on) and you have a poetics that is as refreshingly distinct as it is allusive.

Ahren was kind enough to answer some questions I put to him by email during the writing of my MA thesis, a chapter of which considered the use of spacing in his work alongside comparable practices in the work of Douglas Kearney. The interview recorded here reflects that initial exchange as well as the responses to some follow-up questions.

KC: Your work first appeared in magazines such as Dreamcatcher when you were still at school. Was the writing of poems something that came naturally or had you been writing for some time prior to your first appearances in print?

AW: I began writing poetry at an early age, several years before the poems published in Dreamcatcher, which were published when I was around thirteen and which I regret having published, for obvious reasons to do with wanting to forget one’s juvenilia.

I do, actually, recall the first and second ‘poems’ I ever wrote, which were – I guess – about three years apart (one at the age of seven, another around the age of ten). There is a poem in Confer that mentions the latter (‘Engram’) and from then on I didn’t really stop writing poems, except for maybe a couple of years before I moved to university in London.

I should say that I don’t consider any of the poems I published before those collected in Confer to be worth reading, of course the jury is still out on the more recent poems.

KC: Was there a tension, in assembling the manuscript for Confer, between your earlier and more recent poems?

 AW: Yes, definitely. I think that my experience of writing from a very young age was something like a constant miss-match between a level of technical accomplishment and fairly rapid progress and something like emotional or aesthetic maturity, which tended or tends to lag behind. Most of the earlier poems in Confer are poems I’m now dubious about. That said, there are a couple of poems in Confer that are pretty bad and which were also written fairly late on, but it’s a patchy book, to say the least.

KC: Did the book’s critical reception, and winning the Arts Foundation Fellowship, allay your doubts about the book a little?

AW: Not really. I was obviously very pleased with the, mostly, favourable reaction of reviewers, and I was extremely pleased to win the Arts Foundation Fellowship, which has given me a significant amount of time in which I can concentrate pretty much solely on writing and, hopefully, on writing something better. But the reservations I have about Confer are, I suspect, the same reservations I might have about Pretty in a year’s time – mainly that I want to write something better, bigger perhaps.

It’s maybe a kind of conviction about the potential of the poem that leads me, after a while living with a certain poem, to end up only being able to see how far it falls short of that potential…

KC: In 2006 you were a winner in the Short Fuse Poetry Idol contest run by Nathan Penlington and later you ran the poetry night New Blood with Inua Ellams and Adam O’Riordan. How much has the live poetry scene in London influenced your work?

AW:  Very little, I think. I enjoyed the social side of the London poetry scene for a while, not so much anymore. There are one or two writers for whom performance is a major part of their work and whom I admire – Nathan Penlington and Tim Wells, to name two – but for me the proper medium of the poem is the page – for all sorts of reasons, the inherent need for a reader to be able to ruminate on or repeat a given line, the necessity for the reader to be active in their confrontation with the poem and, most importantly, for the poem to be voiced by the reader. When I do give a reading, I just try to do the best I can by the poems I’ve written, rather than constructing a variant experience.

KC: What about in the case of a recording, where a poem can be repeated as many times as the viewer/listener requires? Doesn’t this, if the poet does the poem on the page justice, open up a poem’s sounds in a way that a reader’s vocalisation of a poem cannot? Then again, perhaps you subscribe to Donaghy’s notion of the poem, and its form in particular, as a ‘pediscript’?

AW: I subscribe pretty much wholeheartedly to Donaghy’s ‘pediscript’, it’s probably one of the most accurate and profound formulations of the poem as singular, yet repeatable, event I’ve come across. In terms of the possibility of the recorded poem as enabling the kind of repetition that the poem requires, I completely agree that it’s a much more valuable medium than, say, the one-off encounter with a poem being performed live (though live performance has benefits that neither a recording nor, perhaps, the written poem has). But it seems to me that even the recorded poem comes across the fact that the poem as it is conceived and practiced at its best (and at least since the decline of the primacy of the oral tradition) relies on being the production of a writer whose craft is learnt through and directed at the page.

For me the poet is kind of both recording a composition, as a composer does with the score, but he is also innovating the very notation he uses with every poem, and that notation – the whole artifice and craft of the poem – is something that is directed at the page, so that the recording of, for example, myself reading a poem can only ever contain a fraction of what has been put into the page as something that can be read and voiced by the reader. It is also, it seems to me, always already a more passive experience to hear a poem than it is to read it and, in a culture in which a kind of intellectual and aesthetic passivity is becoming ever more normative, I hold to the experience of the poem on the page as forcing an active reader. It becomes an ethical, as much as aesthetic, question.

To return to Donaghy’s pediscript, it’s one thing to see a ballet, but the poem exists as an invitation to dance and, I think, the best poems maintain the sensation of dancing as their condition of possibility, or as their ultimate potential.

KC: Allusion seems to be a central part of what you’re trying to do. Do you think of yourself as a bricoleur, of sorts? Your work makes me think of the way musicians use samples — altering the context of a sound to build a new whole from disparate sources. Is this, you think, what originality comes down to at this late stage?

AW: All writing is bricolage, which is the inherent problem with the application of the term ‘bricoleur’. It seems to me that perhaps the originality of a work of art comes from finding a new means to an age-old end. This said, the construction of a new whole from disparate allusions is obviously not new: ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruins’ and all that. Not that I’m particularly interested in fragmentation as an overriding texture, I prefer dramatic, well-chosen instances of disjunction. So yes, I think there is a way in which I prefer to work with what might seem extremely disparate sources – though, it goes without saying, they all seem pretty unified to me by the virtue of being drawn from my own field of experience – but to work them into something that is polished, to a certain degree.

KC: You’ve written that, when your poems do refer to extra textual sources (which is quite often in Confer), the allusion itself and the manner in which it places one thing in relation to another is ‘as much a part of the poems as the words they contain’. Is this why you tend to make your allusions more self conscious than they might otherwise be (providing notes and ‘clearing your samples’ by mentioning the names of those to whom you allude)?

AW: Eliot distinguished between two types of figure, writing that “the simile of Dante is merely to make you see more clearly how the people looked, and is explanatory, the figure of Shakespeare is expansive rather than intensive; its purpose is to add to what you see”. Although I think this is incredibly interesting for how one thinks of figurative structures, and allusion is always metonymical, I also think it is a false dichotomy. In a great poem, as in a great symphony or painting, the Kantian distinction between extensive and intensive or, in Eliot’s terms, expansive and intensive is blurred, to say the least.

Either way, it seems to me that the ideal use of the allusion is what Eliot calls the Shakespearean usage, by which I mean that the allusion adds something to the poem, not simply by improving or amplifying the poem but by expanding the affective field of the poem. There is a certain affect, for example, that one is confronted by when one reads Oedipus Tyrannus, but there is also a certain emotive possibility to Lacan’s account of the Oedipal complex and its relation to subjective finitude, Lacan can’t be read without an understanding of his Hegelian (or Kojèvean) inheritance and the concept of finitude and finitized or true infinity weighs on the notion of subjectivity in Lacan (not to mention the Heideggerian variation). So too, finite knowledge and finite human potential, the pathos of finitude, feeds back into the tragedy, the pity and fear (to cite Aristotle), of Sophocles. To read a poem that alludes to Oedipus is to read a poem that has all these and much more as extra scenes, potential scenes additional to and expanding the drama it literally gives you.

It is also worth saying that no matter how many names or theories one piles up, the affect of the work of art is not accountable for in those, or any, terms and allusions don’t make a poem ‘better’. But, something like what I’ve just argued is what I mean by the quote you reference.

In terms of ‘clearing my samples’, I think there’s a few things to say. Firstly, the proper names of writers, artists or thinkers to whom I allude are precisely that, the names of persons who people my imaginative field. I doubt many people would order a double distilled-potato and black carbonated caffeine drink when they could ask for a vodka and coke, nor would they write that a character ordered such a thing in a novel. ‘Vodka and coke’ has a connotative value just as much as ‘Plato’ or ‘Cobain’, one that is both idiosyncratic and disseminated with a certain reliability, they are metonyms themselves and, to some extent, communal ones.

Also, I tend towards self-conscious allusion because if you deploy such allusions with too much affected fluency, or too much of a pretense to your own ‘innate oneness’ with the canon, you sound like a prick.

KC: Do you ever worry that the kind of poetry you write alienates some of your potential readers?

AW: No. If only because I write the kind of poetry I can write, for better or worse, and a reader for whom a certain level of erudition is a problem is not a potential reader for my work. But there’s plenty of different kinds of poetry on offer, which is a good thing, and then there’s always the various shades of shit masquerading as poetry.

KC: ‘Flâneur’ is a term that has been used in a number of reviews of Confer. How comfortable are you with this image of a world-weary man of letters wandering around Paris and London?

AW: I’m not at all comfortable with it. I love Paris and I love aspects of London, my twenties have been spent almost exclusively in Paris and London. I don’t think a purely London-centric poet would be called a ‘flâneur’, nor particularly a Paris-centric poet writing in French. The city, and London and Paris in particular, have simply been the environment in which I’ve written the poems of Confer and also, slightly repetitively, Pretty.

I suspect if I’d spent the last five years in the sticks, the trappings of my poems would be rural, but they’d probably be essentially the same poems, just mediated through a different perceptual and imaginative faculty.

KC: Another common fixture of reviews concerning your work is your use of tabulations to mark pauses. Some think of these as pretentious, others hail them as part of what makes your work musical. To my mind, the musicality in your work comes through not just in your use of spacing but also in the diction and syntax, your frequent use of internal as well as terminal rhyme, and the sense of formal constraints as approximations. You’ve said that the tabulations are something you’re ‘moving away from’. How are you exploring musicality in your newer work? Is this exploration a primary concern for you in writing poems?

AW: The rhythm of a poem or, more widely, its musicality, is the single most important thing for me. I can’t write without a rhythm or cadence, and I can’t sit down to write, it has to appear like a gift.

Without getting too detailed or too technical, there’s a book by Trager and Smith called An Outline of English Structure. It’s a little book and it has a few pages on metrics. Those few pages are one of the first examples, I think, to discuss the possibility of what one might call ‘relative stress’: the fact that not all stressed syllables in a line have equal stress value. It’s something that poets have always known, I think, and that has had a bit more light shed on it by linguists in the past thirty or so years – though the concept of stress is still pretty airy in linguistics. Either way, it was a big deal for me when I came across that book towards the end of secondary school, it changed, or helped me develop, how I think about writing.

If any given syllable has a variable amount of stress, and not just a formulaic tendency towards a binary condition of stress or non-stress, then every single thing in a poem is a determinant on every single stress. The rhythm of a poem is the texture or tissue of its various stresses, but every assonance, cadence, rhyme, half-rhyme, alliteration, pause, line-break or, in the case of the tabbed poems, space can alter the rhythm of the poem – as can allusion, which by its connotative (or confusing) value alters how the reader receives a line, its tempo.  Of course, this relationship is also reciprocal, the rhythm of a line determines its intellectual and affective effects too.

So, I guess, the ‘tabulations’ were attempts to think a way to better control the rhythm of the line and the poem, to control the voice and breath of the reader of the poem and thus to ensure certain effects. I’m sure people have found them pretentious, I really have so little time for somebody whose critical vocabulary leads them to resort to that kind of description – form works or doesn’t – that such views haven’t impacted on my use of the tabulations.

That said, the book being published soon, Pretty, only has one poem in that style. It’s something I’ve moved away from for various reasons – ironically, it taught me how to return to a more traditional line, it became easy and, sometimes, a way of ironing out issues within a line in a way that wasn’t the most accomplished. Mostly, it’s involuntary though, I’m trying other ways to manipulate the reader at the moment, which doesn’t mean that I won’t return to that kind of spacing or to a better variety of it in the future.

KC: There is a politically subversive thread at work in some of the poems (I’m reminded, in reading poems like ‘Grimsby’ or ‘Hangin’ Round’ of one of your earlier poems ‘My Darling Chelsea’ and how it reflects an anger, albeit more forcefully, about class divisions that runs through Confer). Do you think of yourself as a politically engaged poet?

AW: No. I sometimes wish that I was, some of my favourite poems are political, Shelley’s ‘England in 1819’, poems by Reading and C.K. Williams. I used to be a politically engaged person, and though my politics haven’t changed – which is pretty far to the left – I’m fairly apathetic now with regards to any kind of systematic engagement, which is unfortunate.

KC: In a review of C.K. Williams’s Wait you called him ‘the great contemporary poet of the sublime’ as a result of his work being ‘conversant about terrible things’. Is this something you aim for in your own writing?

AW: C.K. Williams is, for me, probably the greatest living poet, full stop. So there are plenty of aspects of his work that I wish I could emulate in my own writing.

It seems to me that our relationship to the terrible, the phrase ‘conversant about terrible things’ is Burke’s not mine, our relationship to that which is both the most horrific and most human is a necessary part of art.

KC: I was recently reminded of a poem of yours, not published in Confer, in which the speaker describes a mother and her child in terms that could be considered ‘mean’ — to borrow Tony Hoagland’s usage of the word in the essay ‘How to Talk Mean and Influence People’ (in which he considers the value of putting controversial sentiments in poems). I’ve been interested in the way poets like Tony Hoagland, Frederick Seidel and C.K. Williams seem able to write about taboo subjects in a manner that poets in this country, at least in what has been called ‘the mainstream’, seem unwilling/able to do. Do you find British literary sensibilities to be especially reticent? Has this impacted your work?

AW: I think this is the poem you’re referring to:

Candygram

And, if we have to speak of memory, let’s not
make it of desire
as well.
But, perhaps, that spacker of a child – retarded

in the way all children are ­ tugging
at the legs
of his mother
tugging repetitively, repeating over and over,

repeating his desire: for chocolate,
or caramel.
She is ignoring him
or trying to, then barking no, then tendering

a note to cover twenty Richmonds, Special Brew,
then pocketing
the change:
dragging her idiot with her, whimpering.

In retrospect, I made the mistake of acquiescing to certain pressures to cut this from Confer – it’s a better poem than some in that book, but there was a consensus that it wasn’t wise to publish it, and a more nuanced argument that it wasn’t good enough for the level of offence it might cause.

As it turns out, the people who said this were probably correct in terms of the wisdom of publishing it – the level of reviewing in this country is pretty poor and I’ve read reviews of Confer, both favourable and less so, that insisted on such literal, autobiographical readings of certain poems, certain ‘reviewers’ seemingly unable to grasp the possibility of the poem attempting to move beyond the anecdotal towards the inhabitation of a purposefully ugly or uncomfortable register (uncomfortable for both the reader and myself), that I suspect that, had I included this in Confer, some idiot would have focused on ‘my’ deep-seated prejudice against the disabled. That said, it’s not like the poem is great, so it wasn’t much of a loss either way …

I have to say, I don’t get Seidel – not on the level of his controversial sentiment, I just don’t see anything in his poetics that’s worth reading. The opposite is true of Williams, who seems to me to produce poems that plumb a very human horror with aesthetic and ethical integrity, whilst also being astounding technical accomplishments. That possibility, of taking on the horrific with astonishing formal beauty and sensitivity is a Modernist inheritance but also one of the definitions of the sublime, which is why I’ve called him our great poet of the sublime, of course he’s also just a great poet.

KC: Given that you’ve been influenced or inspired by quite a long list of people, do you feel poetic influence obscures poetic style or reveals it?

AW: It depends on the poet. If one is any good, then influence is both the constant nuancing and the propulsion of an original trajectory.

KC: Part of the atmosphere of the poems in Confer is built around the cities of Paris and London and some of your newer work returns to London as a setting or theme. Do you think it’s accurate to call you a poet of place? What draws you to writing about these places?

AW: Yes, it is accurate. Also, I know that I write much, much more when I spend any decent amount of time in a new place. More than that, I guess I’m just predisposed to the understanding of things, or the working of things, through the figurative and imaginative field the city offers and the characters that people it.

KC: Though Confer might be seen as a cerebral book there are moments of tenderness in which the compulsion to ‘show how well-read’ you are gives way. In these moments your narrator seems rather weary of his continual recourse to intellect. Do you share his concerns?

AW: Yes, increasingly.

KC: I’m told that you’ve already completed your next manuscript. You also recently finished working on a PhD at QMUL. Have you found the writing of your doctoral thesis conducive to the composition of poems or have the poems been written in the downtime from scholarly work?

AW: I haven’t fully completed my next manuscript, it’s scheduled for publication in June but I won’t have finished it until whatever date Neil gives me as my final deadline, after which I’ll probably send him periodic emails begging to change it. The PhD has been conducive to writing to the extent that it has provided cash via a means that also allows me to sack everything off in order to write poems.

KC: Does your work as a poet inform your work as a scholar?

AW: As a writer, you look at literature differently. At times that’s a help, at other times it’s a hindrance because, quite frankly, the lack of sensitivity – intellectual, emotional, material – displayed by so many critics, academics and grad students is both astonishing and, from within the academy, depressing.

KC: What are you working on at the moment?

AW: The next book of poems, Pretty; a translation project, working from Antonin Artaud’s early works and his notebooks; a collection of interviews; an anthology, Best British Poetry 2013, which I’d quite like to be called Best British Poetry 2013! or Now That’s What I Call Poetry! 2013, and a few other things, mostly fine art and photography based.

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