Ken Edwards is the editor and publisher behind the feisty and long-running small press Reality Street, as well as a multi-published poet in his own right. Fellow Hastings resident Richard Evans met him for a chat.
Reality Street has been publishing linguistically innovative writing for almost twenty years. How have you seen the poetic landscape change in that time?
In 1993, when the press as presently constituted started publishing, we were at the tail-end of an explosion in innovative poetry in Britain that happened in the late 60s-70s-80s, but which had gone unnoticed or been deliberately ignored by the wider literary public (Morrison and Motion's infamous comment in the introduction to The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry, 1982, that "very little – in England at any rate – seemed to be happening" in the 60s and 70s). The British Poetry Revival, as some called it, was also overshadowed by such developments as Language Poetry in the USA, which by 1993 had already reached its peak. It seemed then that few younger poets were coming forward to carry on what I called the 'parallel tradition' of innovative writing. Today, however, the landscape, as you call it, has changed dramatically. While innovative poetry still struggles to reach mainstream attention, there seems to have been a second explosion of younger poets whose view of the possibilities of poetry have been shaped by my generation. And there is some grudging acceptance in parts of the mainstream that the dominant conservative modes of poetry are not all that there is or could be.
What would you say are the major contributing factors to the recent resurgence in more experimental writing?
I don't know. Some point to the increase in creative writing courses and to the growing influence of my generation of innovative poets as teachers within academic departments. But having experienced some live events in Brighton and London recently where there was a preponderance of younger people in the audience, I'm not sure this is the whole story. The atmosphere in a reading I participated in last year in Brighton was somewhat akin to what I'd expect at a slam or performance poetry event – except that the poetry on offer was more complex, more 'out' – the kind of stuff that seems to baffle or enrage the panjandrums of the mainstream literary press. I think maybe a generation has grown up accepting as normal experimentation in visual art, music and film, and has extended that expectation to writing.
There have been times when the kind of work you publish was deemed deeply unfashionable by the literary establishment. Did you ever become despondent about that state of affairs?
I have been despondent many times, and despite my earlier remarks, I continue to be disappointed when people don't 'get it' or when clearly wonderful writing gets rejected or ignored because it doesn't fit market conditions. But my response has always been the old punk attitude of 'do it yourself'. Eventually, breakthroughs will occur.
Were you surprised when Rae Armantrout, whose innovative work you published in the anthology Out of Everywhere, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize this year?
I was astonished and delighted. When I got an email about this, I first thought it was a spoof. But I'm delighted because not only is Rae a wonderful poet, she's such a nice person too. If we're being honest, why she was picked out has something to do with the fact that the book that won the prize dealt with the theme of her own cancer diagnosis and her mortality. That always plays well as a story, if we can be cynical for a moment. But if I'm being more optimistic, I like to think that it's also part of an increasing acceptance of non-normative poetry in the USA, as evidenced by other poets Reality Street has been associated with such as Fanny Howe winning major awards, and Charles Bernstein, the co-founder of L=A-N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, being published by a major press (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Social trends in the UK lag a few years behind America, so expect Tom Raworth to get the T S Eliot prize within the decade!
There are many who cite J.H. Prynne's work as the essential source of contemporary avant-garde poetry in Britain. Do you think that is a fair account of how things developed?
Part of this grudging acceptance of the existence of non-normative poetry that I mentioned earlier has been cast in the form of a narrative that goes: there is 'Poetry' with a capital P, and then there is 'experimental poetry' also known as 'Cambridge poetry', which is horrible but liked by a small number of university-educated young men, and the leader of this trend is the Cambridge don (usually described as 'reclusive') J H Prynne. This is a hilarious distortion of what is going on. Yes, I think Prynne is a major poet who has had a huge influence on many people's poetics, my own included, but the avant-garde scene is much more complex and wide-ranging than that. You can trace current developments back to the ferment in London in the early 70s, with such influential figures as Eric Mottram, who taught me at King's College London, the sound poet and publisher Bob Cobbing, and Allen Fisher, who was involved with the Fluxus art movement. Then there was the Cambridge scene, which included Andrew Crozier, Peter Riley, John James, Wendy Mulford and others as well as Prynne. And poets and poet-publishers elsewhere in the UK, often influenced by the US Black Mountain, New York and West Coast scenes: Tom Raworth, Lee Harwood, and the great Roy Fisher who has reached his eightieth year I believe.
If someone is curious about linguistically innovative poetry, but doesn't know where to start, what would you recommend?
Well, of course I would recommend the Reality Street website! But if you want a really thorough introduction to British linguistically innovative poetry, I'd suggest looking at http://www.modernpoetry.org.uk and follow up leads from there.
Of course, as well as publishing, you also write. Your recent prose work, 'Nostalgia for Unknown Cities', uses imaginative ways of producing narrative. Could you tell us a bit more about this?
I founded Reality Street, and its predecessor, Reality Studios magazine, out of frustration that the kind of writing I was trying to do had few outlets. I wanted to establish a community of writers and readers and that is still the aim. I started out as a prose writer, quite successful in placing short stories during the 1970s in such magazines as Transatlantic Review and Bananas, edited by Emma Tennant, as well as the Arts Council anthology New Stories. My stories were influenced by Kafka, Borges, Beckett and science-fiction. They were speculative and experimental. But I couldn't take it any further. An editor at Chatto & Windus asked to see a novel but I realised I couldn't or wouldn't produce what he was after. Which turned out to be the likes of Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, both a couple of years older than me. At the time I thought what the avant-garde poets were producing was far more interesting than most prose fiction being done, so I joined their ranks instead. Goodbye to a literary career! Now, interestingly, I have almost ceased to write verse and have reverted to narrative prose, experimenting with forms and modes: dialogues, dramatic monologues, mock-documentary, formalistic experiments with sentences. My continuing need to establish a context for my own writing has led me to start the Reality Street Narrative Series, which is dedicated to experimental fiction. It's all quite selfish, really!
Denise Riley, one of the most well known of the writers you publish, has often written about the difficulty of truthfully putting the self into words. Would you say you work under the weight of such 'unrealised ethics of authorship'? And if so, where do they end and where do they begin?
There has always been controversy in the kind of poetry I'm involved with about using the 'I'. Denise's poetry is the most sophisticated treatment of the self in writing that I know. Well, I have experimented with poetry in which the personal pronouns are eliminated, but my preference is for active play with them. A lot of my writing has to do with notions of 'inside' and 'outside' and the illusory nature of the relationship between the two. In one of my most recent works, 'Bardo', parts of which have been published, for instance in my pamphlet Red & Green (Oystercatcher Press), there are three characters, named as the first person, the second person and the third person, who constantly change places. This is also a running gag on the Trinity, perhaps a relic of my own long lapsed Catholicism.
Finally, it is little less than a decade until we will have a new Poet Laureate, perhaps enough time for Britain to catch up with the fresh wave in experimentation occuring in American literature. Who would be your ideal candidate to bring about a sparky new era in British poetry?
Good heavens, what a question! I saw an interview with Allen Fisher recently in which he was posed the same question, and pointed out that it depends on how you regard that absurd institution. To his credit, whatever you may think of his own poetry, Andrew Motion tried to develop it into a kind of ambassadorship for poetry, and if that's the role, then Allen Fisher suggested the late Douglas Oliver, an avant-garde poet who actively tried to reach out to a common culture, might have fitted the bill. Alas, Doug is no longer with us. My suggestion would be someone who already has the common touch but is also open to every kind of poetry there is. Ian McMillan, who appears regularly on the BBC, is known primarily for his comic verse, but I know he is very open-minded about poetry, and indeed has been an active supporter of Reality Street right from the start. Ian would have my vote!