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Against English: an interview with Harry Giles

Will Barrett:  Hi Harry. Tell us about your upcoming course with the Poetry School, ‘Against English: Dialects, Distortions and New Vocabularies’.

Harry Giles:  Hi! ‘Against English’ grew out of a one-off session I did with the Poetry School a few years ago, exploring the overlaps between writing in regional dialects, in experimental constraints, and in sound and visual poetry — all the kinds of poetry that don’t take a stable English language as their foundation. I got interested in how these different approaches, whether they were creating a new language or destroying an old one, opened up a much bigger possibility space for poetry. That session was fully subscribed and we had really exciting conversations as part of it, so we decided to expand it into a full course.

The idea is that we’ll start by bending and transforming English through weird constraint, move through working in alternative forms of English and sister languages, before transcending language entirely into image and noise. The poets will get an introduction to a wide and inspiring range of experimental techniques, discover how many languages they speak, and think about how poetry begins with what language you choose to make.

WB:  If you’re writing ‘against’ English, what are you writing towards?

HG:  That’s funny — when I first suggested the title of the course to someone, that was their first criticism. Often, people working in languages adjacent to or beyond English don’t like to be defined in terms of English, just like political movements don’t always like to be defined wholly by what they’re in opposition to. But if you don’t acknowledge that interaction with English, you risk being completely illegible to a majority English audience. Scots is a really good example of this: it wants to be its own autonomous language, but it’s so close to English that it’s always inevitably in conversation with English. So I decided to start from that point of opposition and then see if we can work towards somewhere bigger.

Different folk will be writing towards different things, but new languages always enable you to create new worlds. I’m an unabashed utopian, and I write against English to destroy the old world and try to make a better new one, but other people might be writing towards embodied localism, or transcendent self-understanding, or a good joke.

The point is that our assumptions about the world are structured by our received language, so questioning that language helps to open up those assumptions.

WB:  I read somewhere that you’ve spent 4 months in Orkney to learn the Orkney language. How was that?

HG:  More like “relearn”, I think. Orcadian was the language I grew up with, and it’s always sat at the back of my head, but I think it took leaving home and staying away for a decade to want to come back to it.

Studying Orcadian meant digging into the back of my head, the foundation of my language, and finding its roots. I realised that there are certain innocuous phrases I use all the time — saying “Come through by” for “Come in [to my house]”, or saying “How?” for “Why?” — that are pure Orcadian, even if they’re not spoken with an accent.

It meant listening really closely to the people around me and hearing how the ways they speak structure the world around them.

It also meant realising that *everyone* is a bit anxious about the way they speak these days, at least if they are in any way marginalised from the mainstream of society. Many if not most of us in the English-speaking world grow up with regional, class- and identity-based variations of English, but we also learn how to speak “proper” English, fluently or otherwise, and that leads to a lot of identity anxiety. Do you shed the language of home, and then realise you’re a stranger when you return? Do you reject the language of power, and go always ignored or patronised by it? Or do you move uneasily between the two? Studying any variant language — and look, here’s me saying “variant” again, as if there’s a central proper English from which everything varies, rather than a host of competing Englishes — leads you into all of these questions about power and belonging.

WB:  Speaking as a southerner from Middlesex who has mostly spoken standard English, I’ve tried to read Scots and dialect poetry before but always found myself lost, and I know others who selfishly disregard any of it as ‘just for the Scottish’, etc. What would you say to them?

HG:  Poetry is always about reading to understand another person’s life, or to understand your own life through someone else’s: it always involves an encounter with radically different thinking and speaking (or else it’s boring). And we’re used to working quite hard to understand some pretty weird poetry: it doesn’t always offer itself up easily. So dialect or sister language poetry is just the same as all that, though it might require a different sort of practice. Basically, sound it out aloud until you figure out the orthography, and then it’ll flow much more easily!

That said, folk writing against English are often deliberately evading immediate comprehension: there’s something softly aggressive in the gesture. (The same sort of gesture that’s found in various experimental poetics, or even in just intricately metaphorical lyric poetry.) So it’s OK to feel a little alienated at first, because that’s part of the experience. But then again, I suppose all poets are looking for you to meet them somewhere.

WB:  You write a lot of very politically-minded poetry, that is often engaging with systems of power and governance that we all are implicated in. In ‘Drone’ and other pieces, there’s a very deep engagement with political speech as a form of weaponized rhetoric. How powerful can language be?

HG:  When two people meet, language is the first way that power is exchanged. It structures our every conversation, our every interaction (especially when you take gestural language into account, which we should). So I think playing with language has to be a primary way of playing with power, and that remaking language remakes power.

Though as a political artist, I think it’s good to be sceptical about the political power of art. Art (and language) can inspire, it can provoke powerful ideas, it can abide as a touchstone across the centuries, but not if it happens in a vacuum: it’s all very well writing a political poem, but the politics is also in how it’s distributed, who it’s performed for, when and where it’s written and why it appears.

But then again, and again, particular forms of language-as-language are politically explosive. If I were to say, “I think we should blow up the Palace of Holyroodhouse”. I’m breaking the law through the Terrorism Act which forbids promotion of terrorism. (But if I were to put those words in the mouth of a character, or in a hypothetical quotation, I might get away with it on the “art” justification.) My friend James Varney is doing a project about breaking the laws against Treason, which can happen just in a conversation. More mundanely, UK poetry keeps being rocked by plagiarism declarations, making us question who owns language, what forms of language count as theft or dishonesty — sometimes the speech act is all it takes!

WB:  Your debut collection is called Tonguit, which brings to my mind a sort of portmanteau of tongue and conduit. It’s a very pleasing invention. What does it mean to you?

HG:  Well, it’s firstly just a Scots form of “Tongued” — Scots verbs tend to take the voiced “it” or “id” where English verbs tend to slide into an unvoiced “ed”. (i.e., it rhymes with “Flung It”). But I chose to spell it that way to gesture at conduit, like you said — the tongue as the conduit of power and pleasure. And also so that it sounds like “Tongue It”, which is what the collection does — tongues things, licks them and speaks them and mocks them. It’s also meant to sound filthy. There’s quite a lot of sex in the book. Sex, power, language: that’s my bag!

WB:  How important is a sense of play in your work?

HG:  It’s important to the point that I barely notice it any more: it’s the ground I start from. I don’t have any hifalutin theories to explain why, except to say that I like having fun and I like my audiences to have fun! I design games and perform theatre as well as write poetry, and those are both things you play. I play a lot: it gives me pleasure. I’d like as much of my life as possible to be play.

OK, but here’s a thing, maybe: games are both a safety valve and a wedge. On the one hand, games are a safe place to try out dangerous forms of behaviour (be manipulative and vindictive to your friends!) and dangerous forms of speech (let’s blow up the Palace!), but on the other hand the rules we make and break in games have a fun habit of seeping out into the extra-game world. Games aren’t necessarily subversive in themselves, but they can leak revolution.

WB:  Who have been some of your greatest influences as a writer and performer?

HG:  I never know how to answer this question! It depends on the day, doesn’t it? I’ve listened to David Bowie a lot since he died, to grieve, and a lot of teenage dressing up memories have come back: unapologetic chameleon flamboyance is at the heart of me. Edwin Morgan looms large over my work: I like how he combined avant-garde experimentation and formal lyricism, intellectual power and populist flair, local understanding and international outlook. I want to emulate that, especially his methods of sneaking in subversion and formal innovation through being highly popular and approachable. My friend Sandra Alland first introduced me to the radical poetics of transformation and constraint, and I’m deeply grateful for that; Sandra’s work and thinking around accessibility in the arts, building multiple forms of deep and intersectional accessibility into the creation and curation of art, is really important and increasingly influences my work. I idolised Judith Malina and Julian Beck’s The Living Theatre for a long time, for their consistently magical, ritualistic, utopian approach to performance: everything they do is an invocation for something better.

Ursula Le Guin is my favourite novelist, for her thought-through utopian imagination, gentle anger and generosity of spirit. I’ve spent weeks with Angel Haze’s flow on repeat. Voina are my guiding light for performance art, though I don’t yet have their courage. (Seriously, hit up their Wikipedia (, the Russians do it better.)

WB:  What do you like in a poem? What don’t you like?

HG:  Poems need more jokes in them. More poets should have the guts to tell jokes.

I like generosity and accessibility, but I also respect the righteous resistance of a blank stare.

I think all poets should practice rhyming well, and then almost never use it.

I don’t like apologies at the microphone. I like it when poets recognise that the audience’s attention is a gift, and that it’s good manners to give a gift in return, and that everyone’s there to support you. I don’t like introductions that go on too long, unless they’re also art. I like it when poets take the time to find out whether everyone can hear them, and listen to the answer.

I like the internet, but I think we have to work harder to get people’s attention now, but I think that might not be a bad thing.

I dislike authority.

Give your poetry a rocket blast of new ideas and tools, from dialect to Elvish, creating new languages, destroying old ones, and exploring the outer reaches of English with Harry Giles on their new online course, Against English: Dialects, Distortions and New Vocabularies. Book online or ring us on 0207 582 1679.

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