William Kherbek: An aspect of your poems in Common Rest that immediately caught my attention was your approach to lineation and the syllable. In works like “Physical Capabilities” and “movingaroundandusingsteps”, syllabic boundaries are presented in ways that have a narrative dimension of their own. In the case of the latter poem, syllables literally move the reader through the poem in an overt way. In that we experience the stream of phonemes in which language is conveyed as continuous, rather than discrete (constructions like “tellus” convey the auditory experience of verbal language more truly than the graphically represented “tell us”), are these works expressions of an interest in the different ways in which language is experienced?
Holly Pester: Thank you for that close reading of what could be taken, and maybe are more often, as silly nonsense poems. I am always thinking about the ways language is experienced and what it does to me physically as well as extending my physicality into other materials and orders. Those poems are both scored to create, or tap into, or describe language as being always prior to and beyond our bodies: Bodies produced by language through social identity frameworks, but also as both matter and information through systems of control.
You can score language – like with sound poetry – to make the performance of it be a description of one’s body in terms of utility and function, and also fallibility and instability. By mistreating text and smashing words together into sound objects, I want to make poems that are populations of phonemes and traffics of speech that are fleshy and descriptive. Both of the poems you’ve picked out were written with found text appropriated from incapacity benefit claimant forms I took from gov.uk. These forms and how they instruct benefit claimants are structural state violence. Within them, there’s the assault of forced description anyway, but, added to that, the language imposed on the claimant forces articulating one’s body movements and gestures as capacity to perform discrete tasks (lifting a cup of water or a pen, going up steps) that supposedly accumulate into labour. These contingent abilities are then quantifiable against employability or capacity to work. If you’ve never filled in one of these forms go and read them. Measuring a body along lines of work tasks is terrifying anyway, let alone then using that measure as a means to limit access benefits.
So those poems are an attempt recast the body as an unwieldy assemblage that’s erroneous to description/inscription. Reforming the phrases is a corruption of the found text, a way of speaking back to it, but it’s also a method to disturb reading patterns, making reading them awkward and recreating speech as micro-efforts – to restage the body that often disappears from fluency. They’re also both a bit clumsy and silly, those poems. I don’t do that to be trite, but I am drawn to the comedy of communications and public language, and all its sicknesses.
WK: In “Notes on Flying Dreams” the line “I write war poetry” appears. Two questions struck me reading this line. The first was that, in a sense, the struggles depicted in your writing – either quotidian, surrealistic or grandiose – means that the poems are, indeed, “war poems”, but poems about a different kind of war that’s taking place on our bodies and in our social relations. Is that at all an accurate sense of your conception of your work?
HP: That’s the gesture, yes. That the battleground from which the poem is speaking, but resisting speaking “for” or “as” a stable voice is the lyric I and You going at it in the nucleus of the poem. Every poem’s got conflict in it, and the reader comes into it.
I remember when I was a teen living at home the phone rang and my step-dad (drunkenly) answered it in a joke angry voice,
“Hello War Office, do you want a fight?”
I thought it was the most hilarious thing ever. It was a typical prank for him, but I’ve thought about it a lot since and what it set up: The War Office is where we make fights; whoever is calling might want a fight. Patriarchal capitalism is farming out violence all the time and that’s institutionalised in all our speech acts and communication. What’s my point? I’m not sure. It’s something about encounter. The lyric address marks the contact between the personal and political, and their mutual configurations. What’s more is, a line of poetry is a line of communication, but it’s also a barricade. Anna Mendelssohn’s poetry shows me this–with all those lines of interruption from state institutions into the poem that emerges as a psychological field, and a little prosthetic body on the page (sometimes wounded, sometimes kicking and screaming, sometimes very, very sexy).
WK: The second question relates to the idea of “war poetry” in an age characterised by incessant, warfare, particularly “low-intensity conflicts”–in the terminology of national security apparatuses–where conflict is localised and (ostensibly) poses little global risk. Given that the earliest poems in the western canon centre on the role of war and its consequences, do you have any thoughts on the response of literature in Western nations—often aggressor nations in recent conflicts—to the geopolitical situation. Are all poets in the West writing “war poetry” but only a few are able to perceive or acknowledge that fact?
HP: That’s huge. Basically, yes, and I’m not really going to be able to do justice to any of the thoughts I’m having about this. But that’s the intertext of the points earlier, that as citizens, shoppers, lovers, workers, speakers we are in continuous relation to bombings, drone strikes and massacre. Poetry, is the utterance of that relation, whatever it’s saying, whether it’s complicit or implicit with protest, or just apathetic, or maybe terrified, or maybe busy making out with someone: It’s part of the economy of war. Not to say that poetry is just this ambient whistle within socio-political logics and events; poetry is action and it is revolutionary.
The politics of this is in the way we talk about poetry, too. The ‘avant-garde’ for example, obviously – the problematics of that have been worked out, but people use the word “innovative” to talk about experimental poetry as a mode of radical politics. “Linguistically innovative”, people say that. It’s sort of sick. You can’t really separate the word innovative from imperialism, I don’t think. And it’s such a white male professor way of thinking about political or militant poetics; to write from this moment into the future as an act of progress, to invent rather than tune into, cultivate and connect the radical political writings and resistance going on now–past and future–and all the time, outside most of our views. We should ferment the lyric and foment the streets, yeah?
WK: Related to these questions, I sense often a pervading air of menace or trauma just beyond the language of your poetry. Words like “spasm” “injury” or neologisms like “tirednesspain” appear throughout Common Rest. The performance of language is, invariably, also the performance of states of mind, so I wonder if you could speak about the ways in which you conceptualise the relationship between language, cognition and embodiment in your work. Speakers in poems frequently reference real world events and physical states, but the centering consciousness is often somewhat dispersed and permeable. Are these elements you’re conscious of while writing?
HP: What I haven’t mentioned is that all the poems in this pamphlet were written from research into lullabies, or composed from figurations of the lullaby as a kind of work song – or even an anti-work song. As I see it, the lullaby is a work song that contains a dynamic of rest and work–affective and physical labour. If you trace the content of lullabies from all over the world and from any time, you see that they often contain a great deal of threat and malice even. There’s a whole category of lullabies for unwanted and illegitimate children that dutifully cradle the baby whilst listing the reasons the singer wish the baby didn’t exist. Lullabies have a task, and a compositional mode that’s analogous to the task – rhythmic rocking – but they are also a space for venting frustrations over exhaustions, poverty, domestic labour, and the mode in which that body singing – mother, nanny, maid, wetnurse – has been colonised. So the song is the object of the task, and a medium for it, but also a counterpoint, or an exit. So… there’s a kind of praxis in all this that I’m interested in and want to draw out. On one hand, I was looking for, in the lullaby, a poetics that gives a Spinoza-ish conception of a body as a configuration of affects that emerges in causal relation to another body – human or nonhuman – durationally, composed by movement and non-movement or rest. So a body, a line of poetry, a bit of song, is a proportion of time which extends to another, and, is, in turn, touched by the rhythm of time unfolding through another body.
I looked to the lullaby as a potential for counter-community, the singer of the lullaby is singing in a dialectics of cruelty and care, of work and rest, of state objects and outsiderness; this is the scene and the space of politics I was fidgeting about in for Common Rest.
To actually address your question: I try to cut through the symbolic experience of language and draw it out of my mouth, or actually from the mouth in the mouth in the mouth of my mouth. Basically, a poem is a shoring up of affects, and an assemblage of mouths.
WK: Lastly, in “The somnambulist is asleep at work” the lines “Pay for daydreaming into screens” feature. Though the poem is not necessarily simply “about” working life, a number of aspects of it evoke the state of modern work. I wonder how you view the increasingly precarious economic situation faced by writers—and everyone else – as it relates to creativity. For example, the chances one takes or does not take, or perhaps how the expectations of neoliberalism are inscribed into every aspect of contemporary creative life. One “pays for daydreaming”, perhaps in multiple senses, and one’s bosses may well be “stroppy over erotic not doing anything”. In a sense, this last line recalls Keats’ notion of “diligent indolence” but it also addresses the pressures economics exerts as it takes up more and more of our political discourse. Could you speak about this dynamic between “creative activity”, “professional activity” and labour as you see it, perhaps also about the “affect economy” of performing emotional labour in jobs in addition to physical or intellectual labour?
HP: Yes Keats. That poem came from reading about professional hypnotist assistants from the early days of Henry Mesmer, when hypnotists used to do road shows by employing young women as a test subjects to demonstrate on and put them to sleep. The young women were usually taken from factory work. There was huge, hilarious controversy over them doing this kind of work , which was likened to prostitution, and also a lot of outrage over the sheer laziness of these girls being “paid to sleep”. I am like, “Laziness? I am diligently indolent!” I experiment and take huge interest in all the ways I can be idle within work time.
I was diagnosed not that long ago as a maladaptive daydreamer. I didn’t really need to be told this by a professional because I already knew I can sit in a room or on a train for up to 5 hours without doing anything other than existing in a paracosmic space or fantasy narrative. When this daydream space intersects with work time is interesting to me. Isn’t it great that no matter what your job is, you can just spend a while during work hours having a very pervy daydream and that’s part of your work that you’re being paid for? Maybe that’s not a particularly radical thing to say, or maybe it’s a little bit like Ranciere talking about factory workers writing poems in their lunch break and what’s radical is that the two can go together. I think about it more in terms of the potential to smuggle free time into work time via bodily behavior and deviance – daydreaming is definitely one of those acts, and we should all be daydreaming dangerously and graphically and disturbingly at work preferably. This (the fantasy) as a space for poetic composition is sacred, as a space for dissent.
Holly Pester is a poet living in London. "Common Rest" is an album of collaborative sound poetry and pamphlet of poems, figuring the lullaby as a radical work song. It was released with Test Centre in 2017. www.hollypester.com