Ahead of his new course in Bristol, Letting Your Avant-Garde Down, we spoke to this year’s National Poetry Competition second prize winner Caleb Parkin.
Ali Lewis: Hi Caleb! You’re running a new five-week course with us called Letting Your Avant-Garde Down. Can you tell us a bit about it?
Caleb Parkin: The term ‘avant-garde’ is a bit elusive and problematic – which is part of the reason I included it in the title. It’s also a deliberate play on the phrase ‘letting your guard down’ – because taking creative risks through new and peculiar approaches is, for me, a means to uncovering new themes, subjects and forms. In my experience, the points when I start to experiment more freely and frequently (and with the guidance and wisdom of experimentalists before me) are often those I feel most liberated, expressive and truly creative.
The course is a chance for us to try out new(-to-some-of-us!) and experimental ways of making poems – I’m anticipating incongruity, absurdity, laughter and, among these, moments of unexpected clarity. My hope is that it will be a space to try out some of the practices of different ‘avant-garde’ movements of the past: Surrealists, Situationists, Oulipo. I guess some are used quite regularly now, but many can still seem quite ‘out there’ when presented in a poetry workshop.
I’d also like us to explore together what today’s avant-garde might be, the role of technologies, bricolage, other ways of writing/making/finding/ ‘curating’ (oh that word!). While I’m interested in this, I’m by no means an Expert, so I’d like to tap into everyone in the room’s knowledge. Adding some of these practices to one’s repertoire of writing can, I believe, be the difference between writing a good poem and one which hurtles from the page, or screen, or from a space, a body, or…
AL: Is the avant-garde better understood as a period of artistic history (like, say, ‘modernism’) or as a name for what’s happening now? I’m also interested in that (supposed – I can’t find the reference!) Valéry quotation, ‘Everything changes except the avant-garde’…
CP: There was a great Archive Hour called ‘En Garde’ on Radio 4 back in August, on this very topic, presented by Grayson Perry. The whole idea of ‘the avant-garde’ becomes a bit limp in its meaning ‘the advanced party’ when so much of what’s deemed ‘edgy’ becomes co-opted by mainstream culture and sold back to us (which capitalism is very good at, of course). Resources like UBU Web (referenced in Perry’s programme) are useful to take stock of the Ghosts of Avant-Garde Past, Present and – perhaps – Future. Its curated (!) or gathered by Kenneth Goldsmith, who wrote ‘Uncreative Writing’ – which for me was a really useful way in to experimental writing practices.
Recently, I’ve started going to Anathema – the experimental poetry night at Arnolfini in Bristol – and felt I’d found a natural home there. And I realised that, for me, it’s because the ‘avant-garde’ is also about an openness to new approaches, a sense that we can embrace the full constellation of possibilities in poetry and related practices; that to break from, subvert, reframe and tinker with tradition and convention is, paradoxically, what keeps the long tradition of poetic inventiveness alive. So for me it’s most useful to think of ‘avant-garde’ as a kaleidoscope, more than a telescope, or magnifying glass; or maybe a bit of all three, a telemagnikaleidoscope. (Please save me from myself.)
AL: I want to ask about your poetry manifesto, which contains 12 ‘beliefs’ ranging from “if puns are good enough for Shakespeare, then they are good enough for us” to “the way we speak about the world can change the world”. Has it helped focus and shape your writing to have your values articulated and written down?
CP: Oh yes, I must revisit that as I’m sure it’s due an overhaul – so it is with Manifestos! They’re a really useful tool, though. When I run groups with young people, it’s so much more interesting to create a Group Manifesto than ‘ground rules’ (blah!): what do we believe in, want freedom to, and freedom from? What are our hopes and fears for these sessions? (We’ll likely make a manifesto at the start of this course, too.)
I genuinely do believe the way we speak about the world changes the world, if only in little, hamster-sized, incremental steps. And I do love a pun – who doesn’t? I’d encourage anyone to write their own manifesto: make up some bold claims for your writing, your beliefs about its place in the world. Maybe we can’t live up to them all, but that’s not the point of any artistic manifesto: it’s about an ideal and a set of guiding principles – projecting yourself an illusory North Star. (Which we can jettison, tear up and reimagine (to spectacularly mix my metaphors) at any time, of course).
AL: Until recently, you were membership secretary for Lapidus: The Writing for Wellbeing Organisation. What is writing for wellbeing? And how can it help people?
CP: Lapidus has rebranded recently as Lapidus International: The Words for Wellbeing Association. (The new website at www.lapidus.org.uk is very whizzy too.) The change reflects the myriad ways we can work with words – written, spoken, performed, cross-artform etc. So I guess a bit like the ‘avant-garde’: there’s not one single approach or definition in the field – but there’s a huge number of practitioners who run groups or sessions which reflect their own approach, backgrounds and creativity. Sometimes there’s talk of ‘reflective writing’ too. For me, it’s about sessions which make explicit or sometimes more direct – as in all therapeutic practices (and lots of ‘non-therapeutic’ writing) – the ways in which writing, especially in a group, can help us bring about beneficial change in our lives and how we make our way through the world.
AL: You’ve had a lot of success in competitions recently, winning the Winchester Poetry Prize and coming second in the National Poetry Competition (congratulations!): what’s the secret to catching a judge’s eye?
CP: Both of these were something of a surprise (as with all competition wins) – but do bear out my sense that taking creative risks does pay off (sometimes!). The poem which won the Winchester prize was described by the judge Sarah Howe as a ‘slant take on ekphrasis’ (a poem about an artwork) and a ‘Kafkaesque metamorphosis’. This one crept up on me, and the bones of it were written on a window seat in the Tate Modern. Similarly, ‘The Desktop Metaphor’ was written in the company of a friend, and seemed to find its own glitchy way into the world – and then require some buffing. Both were experiments – formally and thematically. When we don’t fully understand a poem which we’ve made, but are reading and writing regularly, and have a felt sense it’s trying to communicate – I’m increasingly finding that these are the ones to send out. And sometimes that will carry through to the judge’s attention, too. (Sorry that’s not very specific or a Recipe for Competition-Winning Poems: if I had that…)
AL: Finally, what are you working on at the moment?
CP: At the moment, I’m working on my MSc dissertation in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes, looking at writing in museum and gallery settings. More Kafkaesque ekphrasis to follow!
My competitions and submissions spreadsheet has become rather festively red right now – but I keep it going, ever in the hope some more holly/ivy green will appear. I’ve also been seeking a publisher for my pamphlet (an iteration of which was shortlisted in the last The Rialto pamphlet competition) and hopefully this will transpire in 2018.
Recently, I’ve joined the board of Liberated Words – with whom I’m brewing an exciting project working with St Mungo’s in Bristol for spring 2018. We’ll be working with a group of LGBTQ+ people experiencing homelessness on a series of writing for wellbeing sessions, followed by some poetry filmmaking sessions, working with filmmaker Helen Dewbery.
For me, this time of year also means reminding myself to write regularly – and plenty of winter self-care. (Today I went ice-skating, which I really enjoy & find both meditative and invigorating.)
Hopefully Letting Down Your Avant-Garde will be a rejuvenating space for us all to start the new year with an intrepid, inventive, wild energy in our writing and, in Sol LeWitt’s words: DO.
Caleb Parkin’s Poetry School course in Bristol, Letting Your Avant-Garde Down, starts on the 23rd January. Book here!
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