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Meet the Digital Poet in Residence: interview with Jay Bernard

Hi Jay. Your residency is centred around an interactive poem – ‘An Untitled Text Adventure’ – that you’re going to build and document over a period of 5 weeks. Tell us more about the project.

Jay: I had this idea last year and wanted to make something really ambitious in time for the WWI centenary. That didn’t happen. So I put that really big idea on the back burner and went to South America. There I visited Monte Albion, which put things into perspective. When I got back I realised that there is no point talking about a specific period in history, since I had the same feeling in Mexico as I’d had two years before in Indonesia. Why not make something that applies to the way we remember things and the impact that has on the present? Something that gets at the rings of memory we develop whenever we have an experience. How memory’s form and mode is the present moment.

The technical side of this project stems from a course I took last year. I trained as a junior programmer in Ruby, and let’s just say that I wasn’t the greenest of guacamoles. I realised that what I really wanted to do was play with a visual language like Processing, and create things that weren’t just about credit card transactions – testament to my perverse aversion to anything profitable. So the first incarnation of this project is going to use Processing, and I’ll build a kind of conceptual framework and prototype. There are other things I’d like to try too, like Twine which was built for this kind of thing and Zeega, Kara Oehler’s interactive documentary platform, which I find very seductive.

You have a number of different guises – poet, writer, graphic artist, performer, web developer. Do you identify with one more than the others?

Jay: No. Recently I’ve been thinking about that. First, I wouldn’t really call myself a web developer. The implications are misleading, and also I dislike a lot of the latest trends in web design; flashy CSS, circles for profile pictures, pull quotes, full width images. When I’m doing a lot of writing I wish I was doing more drawing; when I’m drawing I wish I was making a film etc. It’s a curse. The only label on that list I absolutely disagree with is performer. That is the only one I am resisting at the moment. If someone said here’s a million quid, but you can only ever do n thing forever more, I’d do it. But only if they paid me, because that would be hell. I suppose that’s what a regular job is.

What have been some of the most important moments in your career as a writer?

Jay: I thought going to Buckingham Palace last year was very interesting. In the photographs I look particularly deferential. I always am. The discussion about it afterwards seemed to create two camps: attendees as cliquey darlings of the establishment (to be envied), or attendees as deluded sell-outs (to be scorned). As far as I was concerned, there were poets, champagne and warm, salty canapes. And I was extremely curious. Nothing about attending changed my opinion on the monarchy – it is unnecessary, has a terrible history and needs to go – but it made me think long and hard about what it means to accept or refuse these kinds of invitations. It did not occur to me that anyone would give a toss about whether I shook hands with the queen until after that night because a) no-one did before and b) it was such an empty gesture; it was nice to be remembered and to be invited, but I believe they have these kinds of events for all sorts of fields and when you go, you literally stand in a line and the queen wafts past you, asking a few standard questions if you’re lucky. If I died the next morning nobody in the Palace would care, so why is it their acts can be meaningless, but not mine? Yet the question hangs over me: Why are you doing meaningless things? I ask this question about money, about the websites I browse, the electronics I buy, the clothes I wear, the food I eat, the bars I end up in, the organisations I work for. It’s a much harder question than it seems, not because of the answer (The Rent), but what the answer implies: I have been successfully atomised and I have not put my energy into a serious, credible movement in which to invest any hope.

I was very struck by a poem of yours – ‘Song of the Strike’ – which comes from a longer sequence called the Backswallow Stories. What are the Backswallow Stories?

Jay: I was working at the London metropolitan Archives, and I started reading about Claes Visscher, who did that very famous London panorama that featured the little heads on spikes above London Bridge. I instantly saw that as the structure for a series of poems. I called them the Backswallow Stories. They’re narratives told by the heads, while they’re all up there shooting the breeze. They’re still a work in progress. Like everything I do, the idea was very tantalising but the execution proved tricky. I produced these five concertinas, each with a different story, but I think only ‘Song of the Strike’ stands up at the moment. It’s the one that really plays about with the idea of remembering something, but also dismemberment and what that means. So many people refuse to donate their organs because they have this weird feeling about being separated out. It’s long been an anxiety for people, and indeed the eschatological implications of cutting someone up was the spite behind drawing, hanging and quartering. The poem also features a labour strike in which the demons who are meant to spend all eternity tormenting people get together and say ‘screw this.’ What can God do? Nothing.

The language in several of your poems (‘Convolus’, ‘Burial Clothes’) has a rich, folkloric quality to it. Wild hypothesis – perhaps mythic language interests you because it transcends what can often be quite unsettled and contentious social specificities, such as culture, ethnicity, gender? Or maybe the exact reverse?

Jay: I don’t know if mythic language transcends these things. If anything it embodies them, makes them culturally specific. Because of who I am, I have inherited a lot of subcultures that are deep and rich, but not comprehensive, so I have to go out and develop my own culture. A poem like ‘Yes, They Hate Each Other’ is trying to apply that register to something it is not normally applied to – witnessing the break up of your parents’ relationship. Repeating that fact deepens it. As each utterance moves away it forges a tunnel into something else. This kind of looping, repeating language actually provides some specificity, like when they remove a cylinder of ice from a plain in the antarctic to discover what once grew there.

Is memory an important theme for you? A number of your poems deal with quite personal memories from childhood and adolescence, in a very clear and vivid way – they’re almost like lucid dreams. Is memory the main ingredient of a poem? Is poetry like Auden suggested ‘memorable speech’? Or Octavio Paz – “poetry is memory become image, and image become voice?”

Jay: Well Paz is the go to man here. He talks about layering image upon image ‘to the point of incandescence.’ But not everything ‘personal’ in my poems is true. And sometimes the point of the poem is to investigate that memory, not honour it. Take Weldon Kees’s ‘For My Daughter’: memory within speculation. He imagines the future, the future being the end of the poem, and that ending stands for a much longer, mysterious period of time – a lifetime – within the poem. And he writes in the present tense. In the present moment, he imagines, remembers (coldest of winds have blown this hair), retracts. And best of all, he turns the tables on those who think that the power of ‘personal’ poems lies in autobiographical truth.

There’s been a resurgence of interest in the similarities between comic books and poetry, such as compression, spatial arrangements, aesthetic form; we even ran a workshop with Chrissy Williams on the subject last year. What interests you about comics?

Jay: I’m really interested in comix. The x indicates a lo-fi sensibility, underground, politically charged, aesthetically challenging, passed from hand to hand. When I first started with poetry I self-published in zines called Kids Who Die In Cupboards and Er, I Was Talking Just Then. I enjoyed swapping with people and the mysterious liberation of knowing that once my print run had gone, it was gone. But you’re asking about the formal comparisons, and of course there are many, most of which you’ve listed.

You recently studied programming at the Makers Academy. Did you discover any connections between code and poetry?

Jay: What I discovered was that the subculture that fostered many of the legendary coders was fuelled by the desire to be considered as highly as writers and poets. That was the real revelation. I felt less insecure about the path I had taken when I found out about that.

What advice would you give to a young poet writing today?

Jay: Whatever you do, do not identify as a “Young Poet”. Nothing will open doors as much as total inexperience, but the moment you start to value yourself based on your youth you are doomed.

Jay is the Poetry School’s 4th Digital Poet in Residence. You can follow ‘An Untitled Text Adventure’ here.

Jay Bernard is from London. She is author of two books, English Breakfast (2013) and Your Sign is Cuckoo, Girl (2008); her work has been featured in magazines such as Magma, Dazed & Confused, MsLexia, plus many zines such as Shape & Situate. Jay is currently the 2014 Helen Fraser fellow at Hamish Hamilton, part of Spread the Word’s The Complete Works II, winner of the Cafe Writers 2014 pamphlet competition, alumnus of the Royal Court young writers programme and joint artist in residence for TFL’s Year of the Bus campaign in association with Art on the Underground. In 2013 Jay was CityRead resident at the London Metropolitan Archives and in 2012 she completed a fellowship at the National University of Singapore where she curated a graphic arts and poetry exhibition I SEE YOU. After reading English at university, Jay studied programming at Makers Academy. She is a Foyle Young Poet, a London Respect Slam winner and was PBS pamphlet choice for Summer 2008. She is the Poetry School’s 4th Digital Poet in Residence. @brrnrrd /


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Image Credits:

Image: an engraving of London by Claes Visscher (c. 1616)