Shuddhashar: What is it that you strive to explore and convey through your poetry?
So Mayer: For me, poetry is made of and in language, and what I explore in poetry is that material – or, I mean perhaps, the material nature of language: that it is not some transcendent element that is hard to grasp. It is made, it has histories (often hidden, to maintain national language’s official status), and they are always political.
That brings me up against the limits of verbal language as a concept, and of the languages I speak, read and write, especially imperial English, which is so circumscribed by heteropatriarchy (the English word man derives from a word meaning weapon or sword) and capitalism (even rest can mean ‘the sum of money remaining to be paid’, which is not restful), and often so abstracted from bodies. So then poetry becomes about striving (exactly: from strife, meaning to quarrel, contend – but of disputed origing) against those limits, breaking down words and grammar to re-feel or re-member how language lives in my body, even when my body is living in a hostile language.
If poetry can make language messier, or make the reader’s relationship to language messier – squishier, more malleable – then it is striving, I hope, to touch, respectfully, their bodies, to form connections where then that responsiveness flows back, through a changed language, to me.
Shuddhashar: How do you interpret the present world, and how have current events spurred you to write?
So Mayer: Present events have spurred me to listen, and I have been thinking a lot about how to write from the position of listening. Writing is often associated, in British imperial culture, with power: it’s an act of taking up space, of insisting, of laying down the law. It’s often seen as very individualistic, intensified by the echo chambers of privatised media, whether legacy or social: the emphasis is on a singular writer with a position, a style, a take. This was very much my training, including to write fast; to write first, even, and listen after.
What does it look like instead to write listening? I think about this in relation to having been shielding for fourteen months, with the world transmitted to me via a screen or voices, when I cannot touch or be present face-to-face with people. I think about this in relation to Black Lives Matter and Palestinian liberation, in relation to repression and resistance in Colombia and Myanmar, in relation to First Nations water and land protectors: urgent voices collectively calling to be heard, for hearing as the first form of action. Real hearing. Deep listening, in Pauline Oliveros’s term, to how things resonate together. I feel ashamed that it has taken me so long, and in some sense a global crisis, to come to this practice, and that it means my writing is so slow. Am I responsive enough? Can I respond by holding space? And what does that space look like when (slowly) it might emerge – from many conversations and silences, from readings and sitting with reading – as a poem?
Shuddhashar: What literary pieces – poetry, fiction or non-fiction – and writers have informed and inspired your own writing? How have they done so?
So Mayer: I’m a bookseller as well as a writer, and I feel like every word I read influences me, so that’s a lot of words! If I think of language as an atmosphere, I am constantly breathing in molecules of other people’s language from reading and listening, and it interacts with my own language molecules and leaves a trace. The fact that I’m thinking about molecules is probably because I’ve been reading Chanda Prescod-Weinstein’s The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey Into Dark Matter, Spacetime and Dreams Deferred, which has been blowing my mind at an atomic level. Along with Katrina Karkazis’s Testosterone: An Unauthorized Biography, it’s one of the two works of science writing that have really shaped my thinking over the last year: not only about how atoms and molecules might interact, but about the language we use for them and how it’s shaped by the language we use of ourselves. I remember my first bookstore manager saying that as she got older, she read a lot more non-fiction, and I find that’s happening for me too, a certain hunger to hear about worlding and its complexity.
There are some constant companions who I return to in conversation: Cecilia Vicuña’s poetry seems more vital and alive every time I re-read it, especially having had the privilege of seeing some of her visual art works more recently, and hearing her in performance. Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s poems, essays and films have a similar combinatory and revivifying effect for me, a touchstone of how language is possible; and in the last half-decade, Claudia Rankine’s poems, essays and video works have extended that frame of possibility in ways I’m still grappling with. Caroline Bergvall and Anne Carson are the wayfinders whose words and methods I come back to, finding them astringent, rigorous, tingly, always saying ‘Yes, and…’. More recent readings that stick in and circle around my mind would include David Shook, Billy Ray Belcourt, Canisia Lubrin, Don Mee Choi, Lucas de Lima, Bhanu Kapil, Volha Hapeyeva (translated into English by Annie Rutherford), Layli LongSoldier, and Ribka Sibhatu (translated into English by André Naffis-Sahely). And I’m in awe of & hugely lucky to be in conversation with peers here in the UK such as Sarah Crewe, Helen Charman, Jay Bernard, Nisha Ramayya, Keith Jarrett, Joelle Taylor, Alycia Pirmohamed, Kayo Chingonyi, Sam Walton, Dorothy Lehane, Will Harris… It’s a hugely generative moment here/hear right now, with politically-engaged small poetry presses like Hajar, 87 Press, Sad Press, magazines, events and mutual aid networks flourishing.
One such form of connection was being invited to write the introduction for Ignota Books’ anthology Spells: 21stCentury Occult Poetry, which included a late poem by Ursula K. Le Guin. Probably no fiction writer has done more to shape the way I think about narrative, language and power than Le Guin (who of course wrote poetry and non-fiction as well, all of it making a deep impression). In Le Guin’s Earthsea, names in particular have power when said right; that’s how I feel about all language and why reading and/as writing is such an immersive and shaping activity for me.
Shuddhashar: In what way do your personal identity and experiences shape your poetry?
So Mayer: I’m a living organism, and everything I think and say, as much as everything I breathe, eat, and excrete, is based on a semi-permeable exchange with the ecology in which I am enmeshed. That can be more or less evident, conscious and controlled in the processes of making poetry and making the voice within a poem, and the meaning of ‘identity’ and ‘experience’ can shift from poem to poem and register to register.
I’m very interested in the relationship of the poem and the essay, in its sense of ‘to try’, and in the sense that, for example, PB Shelley and Anne Carson both use it in the title and form of their poems. At the more evident / conscious / controlled end, I may be using a poem specifically and scalpel-like to try, test something that appears to me to be personal identity and/or experience: to look closely at how and where I feel or know it; to examine where it is connected to collective experiences or shared knowledge; to see, even, if it is a way of detaching from responsibilities to history and community, or of finding a way to connect to them even when they feel overwhelming.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are unconscious flows and echoes, and part of the work with form is making space for them to have some fluidity and play. At best, both ends of the spectrum are operating in a single poem, or even a single stanza: there is something being carefully examined, and because it is careful and close, this space opens up where an unexpected shift or more profound association can rise up disruptively. And if it sounds like I’ve learned a lot about this process in therapy, then that’s perceptive: working with a Rogerian therapist who is committed to reflexive conversation has – perhaps counter-intuitively – helped me shift out of the way of my writing, even while being more outspoken and resolute in being a political accomplice. Or another way of saying: the personal and political meet in that interplay between the essayistic examination and the way that honest rigour can give permission.
Shuddhashar: How do you use structure, language and grammar to accentuate the message of your poetry? Do you subscribe to conventions or break them?
So Mayer: Structure, language (in the sense of vocabulary, but also in the sense of register – and indeed the sense of languages as bodies of associated words with a particular history) and grammar are political to me. They are presented as rules and laws, as boundaries and boundary-markers. They are policed – not just in the sense of traditional forms, but even in avant-garde writing where there may be unspoken rules about the ‘right’ way to break conventions, which become their own conventions; in Anglophone poetry in the second half of the 20th century, that was particularly racialised. So I suppose I’d say that I hope to use poetry to sense out structures and grammars and language boundaries or registers, and (there’s the essay again) test them – particularly by placing one structure or grammar against another; or by delving into what the rules and definitions really are. To get a laugh I said at a reading a few years ago that I was slowly writing a poem unpacking every word in the Oxford English Dictionary, which is obviously ridiculous and self-defeating, Borges’ “On Exactitude in Science” for etymology. But each word I look at, look into (not only using the OED, which is an imperial gatekeeper after all) spills so much: you see language constantly breaking its own rules (or the rules that philology set in the 19th century), like your parents swearing.
But I’m also interested in communication and collaboration, so the question becomes: can we generate shared guidelines that enable word-forms to pass between us? And then the question evidently becomes: who is ‘we’ and who agrees the guidelines? Or, better phrased, given that the ‘we’ has historically in English been very narrow and exclusionary, how to listen and keep listening to the vast and welcome change to the ‘we’ that is collectively generating more fluid, more productive guidelines?
Shuddhashar: What is your opinion about the conflicts and solidarities between political poetry and the literary and artistic values of poetry?
So Mayer: All language is political; all human acts are political, in the sense of relating to civic or more broadly public life, life as it is lived connectedly and together. Breathing is political because we all need to do it, and how one of us does it might well affect how another does it, as the tragedies and braveries of COVID-19 have shown. I think the conflict arises from thinking of these modes or values as separate, which can lead to very dry, declarative poetry spoken from a paternalistic liberalism of speaking-for sentimentality; or, equally, to empty forms determined to cling to some sort of universalism or transparency. Either is a form of privilege, the privilege of feeling you belong in language and can use it how you wish.
Poetry, for me, is one of many forms of mutual aid or care work, one that is undertaken because I don’t feel I belong and I move with others who have versions or different extents of that feeling. What I’ve found from moving with these other writers and readers is that we need many poetic forms and registers, as long as they are rigorous and honest, at different moments for different needs: sometimes we need and respond to protest poems that speak directly in language that resonates with placards, rips up the headlines and gives them new, felt meaning; sometimes we need and respond to more reflective poems that use complex forms to weave together multiple, interconnected thoughts and modes of thinking; sometimes we need and respond to highly sensory poems that almost step us outside of language and into connection with the world.
Often what makes a long poem work is how it works with awareness of all of these and other modes (I’m thinking of, for example, Claudia Rankine’s work or Bhanu Kapil’s) and their interplay, questioning reflexively which registers meet which moments and which readers, so you catch/see yourself and think ‘why am I responding to this, and how?’ and that opens up a huge new reading experience, or at least one I find myself wanting at the moment, one that feels in a significant sense ‘political’ because it really intervenes not through statements (although it may make statements) but through the use of language/s into the whole question of who speaks, who listens, who is heard, and how, that ‘unacknowledged legislator’ thing operating on another level.
Shuddhashar: Does your poetry transcend national boundaries? Does it appeal to different nationalities or linguistic groups?
So Mayer: As someone who has worked supporting writing in translation with English PEN, I think that poetry not only transcends national border but can actively and usefully challenge them – thinking, for example, of samizdatwriting, which did include fiction as well, but shorter poems, oral forms, could be committed to memory, thus transcending the state. Now poetry circulates online in new forms and registers, moving swiftly in ways that I think do still create a shared language: I love the direct and creative language of protest placards, and think about the fact that lines from Inger Christensen’s 1969 book det (It, translated into English by Susannah Nied), a long, complex and almost forbidding poem to which I owe a lot of the thoughts here about grammar and language, were written on walls during protests in Denmark in the 1960s.
I also think about something Vasko Popa wrote in Belgrade in 1966, in the same era of foment as Christensen was writing, in his introduction (translated by Francis R Jones) to the collection of Serbo-Croatian folk poems The Golden Apple:
Today the voices of a new Generation are making themselves heard all over the globe, first faintly, then loud and clear – a Generation which, this time, seeks to build on the rediscovered foundations and pillars of popular art. In this we can only pride ourselves on the poetic wealth of our own people: now we do not need to roam the world, because this wealth makes us one with the whole world.
It’s an insight that strikes the balance of transnational collectivity with anti-globalisation. It is in (writing) the granular of local, personal, communitarian experience and history that we find the voice that speaks resonantly to and with others; not a privileged universalism or ventriloquy. While Popa’s remark is buoyed with the energies of the 1960s and every generation’s idea that it is ‘the Generation’, I think it speaks to transgenerational as well as transnational conversations, to the fact that poetry – perhaps more than fiction, at least the European novel deeply steeped in manners, customs, and zeitgeist – can speak across times and of different forms of time, and that might also be how it speaks across language and nation.
to sit in
the inner ear
named for war
numbed no reson
ance at root of still
the radical notion
the -um in
drops down oh
who wins the most
depressed aspect of this
is termed the
the process pen
etrative when vibr
ations enter cochl
n to the core
es it travels
500 bill. cells per day
the act of language
moving through us
as infection as immune
see (2016, HD):
a magical sub
stance flows into
me jumana manna
films the rituals
of coffee after
coffee prelude to
(& history too
that rattles through
the grind of) musics
plural whose mandate
but the base
hand which cups
“desire and the
against the no
tion of imposs
ibility” (Negar Azimi)
sounds that shape
us shape us
as at cellular
sits at the centre
not for the 20 Hz-20 kHz
AF that elicits
auditory percept in
but the shock wave
of the sonic boom
the €3billion sound
cannon that loud
af draws tight whose
this border is
who speaks un
like & cannot
enter whose silenc
(in post-classical Latin
hard to understand)
as among the bowl of mountains rolling thunder
round that radical notion to sit in inner
ear & hold skin taut for
what it is: a Roman red technique
sometimes samian very thin liquid
slip settled to separate out only the finest
particles / applied to unfired & polished
with a soft brush from smooth silky
lustre >>> high gloss (will lose its shine
if high-fired) sealed earth as in a seal, sigil
sigillata bearing little images not sealed as in
she is not
she reads about the other, Lemnian kind sealed
with the head of Artemis medicinal earth
that could stop poison that could purify
even a stopped pot is right twice a day thinks Medusa
she does not let them dry out she will not
slip (riding) on it so much it’s for a competition
a commission Come in welcomed little fishes
Malice in Blunderland aka her working brain she sketches
the “ironic” garden gnomes with Faragist faces her
hipster downstairs neighbours are firing looks
at her hands fingers phalanges Falangist looks it up
from phalanx can never get away from playing soldiers
from trolls trolls trolls it rolls over her the atmos
fear smog of it Grenfell-grim and hanging her kiln
stilled for months too much she saw Jay Bernard’s Surge (Side A)
their show about the New Cross fire & thinks how little
she knows how little slipped between tapes
snaps of Khadija Sesay’s work to the bared walls & draws
the inside of a pot graphite-black & lustrous she falls
kneecaps are cups she writes on a scrap scrapes
supplication as an act from her vocabulary remembers
his beard ocean foam & curls deep blue waves drag her
seabed all pebble til her arm around shins mouth to
making shapes around the air that won’t translate won’t
say though she reads every #MeToo finds herself wishing
she could ask Athena How could you work with hims
Landesman Genocchio d’Offay the names a litany
like checking the London Dashboard for particulate levels
only the finest settled to separate out put a gloss on
her pleura her sclera her mucosa leaded as a pencil
can’t even uneven restless fingers lead her to Green & Black
Cross documenting protests watching the watchers
badge numbers shields up batons horses thinks about
kettles containers boiled water a pot to piss in
a chicken in every to be potted (like meat like a pool ball
a plant transplanted) to be held what she wants but not
not like this against one’s will indefinitely in
a headlock on a charter flight until one’s windpipe
collapses in a hostile environment anaerobic like
a low-fired kiln will carbonise a forced pot
cracks & bury the shards walk along faultlines
hairlines where she hears hissing get back where you
came from get out this is a female changing
room is she changing or the world around her
hardening at her reflection affecting shock in its
twisted knickers in case her- her- her- gaze offends them
meanwhile the she of her dis appearing
at all the wrong (right feeling) times
on government forms
X X X
each weighted they
claim it they clay of them writing / while assigned
female at birth and claiming that identity strategically
(I sound like T, Medusa thinks, Tiresias’ gift
of words / flicks through Spotify part of you pours
in the mud of me fine particulate like clay on clay
spills on this page) in recent years
my expanding education has brought me to the limits in
confrontation with the neo-conservative fascist turn
of the with the against the in exception to because of
the current discourse of binary gender, of “she” (for me)
and I know you won’t understand a word of this
but I don’t have the words only their words that do not
belong to you that are not for you but I am telling you
I will not ask
for X I am X
Click send they & start to dream in whales
ten-foot cocks extending pinkly to the sky
they wake up laughing from a dream of
hippoctopi river-flippered sleek beings with
(more than) eight legs human torsos & horses’ arses
there has to be a way for the knowing to get in
unmakeable although they play blowing clay like glass
like balloons it’s messy it’s slip-dipping inflated condoms
thinly coated with plaster casts making maybe not pots
but potencies unstoppered signs & lightning strikes
a tree & aleatory a swallow’s nest bakes whole