The Ugliness Studio with Adam Crothers is a three-week intensive online course beginning on June 5th 2017. Here Adam talks to Rebecca Watts about the literary uses and abuses of bad language, bad form and bad taste.
Before we talk about the course you’re running for the Poetry School in June, I must congratulate you on recently winning the 2017 Shine/Strong Award for best first collection by an Irish poet. As someone who grew up in Belfast but has lived mostly in England since you were 18, how relevant or helpful has the concept of ‘Irish’ been to your poetic development?
Adam: Thank you! The annals of Irish literary history are not a bad place in which one might aspire to be part of a long parenthetical list in a particularly small-print footnote, and, while I obviously don’t expect to accomplish even that, it’s good to know that it’s not a categorical impossibility. Northern Ireland has achieved such literary wonders in its short and controversial existence that one feels encouraged by being, technically, part of the continuum. But I didn’t feel this until I was in my twenties and already writing some of the poems that would end up in Several Deer: in my teens I was hardly atypical in finding home embarrassing and stifling, and I remember quite disliking the idea of becoming ‘a Northern Irish writer’ rather than just ‘a writer’. Would I have to write about the Troubles and the Giant’s Causeway and literally nothing else? Having grown up a bit I now know that there were rather more options available than slavish provincialism or the life of an impotently defiant, or defiantly impotent, émigré; but it’s not necessarily a bad thing that a positive and nuanced sense of Irishness was something I needed to figure out in my alleged maturity.
Reading in Belfast last year suggested that the book is more specifically Northern Irish in its tone of voice than I’d realised: people laughed at lines that I’d forgotten were meant to be funny. That was lovely, especially since my accent’s such a mess that I’m accustomed to feeling quite out of place whenever I go home! But as I wasn’t aware of this facet of the book until that event, I wouldn’t expect anybody else to register it. And I didn’t call the book Running from the Hound of Ulster or suchlike, so I don’t think I can claim to have tackled the being-Northern-Irish-in-Cambridge thing head-on on this occasion. Still, the poems’ speakers can hardly be said to have a sense of geographical or emotional rootedness, and maybe that’s relevant. I don’t believe there’s an equivalent of Heaney’s omphalos or Muldoon’s Moy landscape anywhere in the book; the poem I think of as the most Northern Irish one is about cuckoos, and as such about accusation and displacement. And lapsed-Protestant guilt, from which all cuckoos suffer.
Speaking of Muldoon: I know you derive particular inspiration from his work, as well as from the likes of Frederick Seidel and Michael Robbins, but beyond these contemporary poetic influences your poems are underpinned by a seemingly inexhaustible archive of literary and pop-culture quotations (from Herrick to Grease via Dire Straits and too many contemporary singer-songwriters to mention). Does it matter if readers don’t pick up on these references?
Adam: Only if they think it’s because I’ve tried to hide the references: that is, if they suspect I’m plagiarising rather than, say, acknowledging a debt, registering an association, or trying to put a spin on a cluster of language that’s already in the culture. Around publication time I compiled a YouTube playlist to account for most of the songs referenced in the poems: this was largely for my amusement, but it was also intended to signal that I’ve no interest in claiming credit for other people’s work. I imagine that some of the lines do seem marginally smarter if the reader knows that I’m playing around with existing phrases. But my hope is that this doesn’t matter in terms of the core experience of the poems, and that registering the allusions can simply be a little bonus for readers who enjoy such things. I wrote about some of this in a piece for the Carcanet blog; it has fewer delusions of grandeur than the clickbaity title suggests.
Your course at The Poetry School is about ugliness, which for this purpose you define as ‘bad language, bad form and bad taste’. Given that Philip Larkin’s ‘fuck’ has been charming anthology readers for decades, do you think it’s still possible for bad language to shock?
Adam: I think it is, in part because bad language cuts through both irony and sincerity (not that the distinction between the two is always clear, but let’s pretend): a big noisy f-bomb would throw off the centre of gravity of both a smugly reflexive, tongue-in-cheek line and an emotionally authentic, socially conscious one. Irony can’t quite sustain the impact of a swear word’s emotional bluntness; sincerity can’t be untarnished by the sense of performance, of showiness, that comes with attempting to integrate the sore-thumb profanity. A lot of swearing relates to bodily functions, if often at tangents, and it’s quite hard to remain in love with your awesome postmodern detachment or your touching straight-talking authenticity when being reminded of the extent to which you consist of leaky meat.
Larkin’s ‘fuck’ in ‘This Be the Verse’ is funny and startling for coming in the first line while the memory of the title’s high-register archaism is still strong; funnier, I think, is how the second stanza repeats the construction matter-of-factly, without going for the same short of shock value (‘But they were fucked up in their turn’). This is different from ‘High Windows’, where the first profanity (‘he’s fucking her and she’s | Taking pills’) is as casually conversational as the milder ‘free bloody birds’; but the angry non-canonical manuscript addition to the end of the poem, ‘and fucking piss’, is gloriously, terrifyingly inappropriate, and demands that the poem’s shiny transcendent qualities be understood as the parlour tricks that they, on one level, are. Larkin is playing, throughout, with the reader’s perception of context and of intention, and with the extent to which profanity does or does not, to quote Kurt Vonnegut, ‘entitle people who don’t want unpleasant information to close their eyes and ears to you.’
And it might entitle them to ignore you, but sometimes it makes it difficult, and all but forces them to pay attention; forces the poet to pay attention, as well, because it places something additional at stake in terms of audience reactions. ‘City Middle’ by The National contains the line ‘I have weird memories of you, pissing in a sink, I think’, and I’m confident I’ve read or heard an interview with Matt Berninger in which he seemed pretty uncomfortable with having written that line: it’s so bluntly biological as well as, I think, biographical, and throws in that jingly little rhyming qualifier at the end to give a dry (as it were) acknowledgement that this is a song and we’re meant to be having fun. (The joy of editing: here’s the interview, wherein ‘the awkward, ugly little moments are more compelling than sounding cool’.) Ana Božičević’s stunning poem ‘Children’s Lit’ features a line that gives me a jolt every time I think about it: ‘I love big cars. I fucking love to stuff them up my cunt.’ It’s excess describing excess, without being cute about the mimesis; it’s the sort of thing Melissa Lee-Houghton also does very well. And the Božičević line is in iambic heptameter, so could be sung to a ballad melody! I’m sent back to Frederick Seidel being interviewed by Jonathan Galassi for The Paris Review and talking about offending people: ‘One way to do it is to write beautifully what people don’t want to hear. […] The wrong thing to say, a harsh way to say it, but done beautifully, done perfectly.’ If the ugliness isn’t handled beautifully (whatever that might turn out, as the Ugliness Studio develops, to involve!), the only ‘shocking’ thing will be how boringly the poem has failed.
The speakers of the poems in Several Deer self-consciously delight in linguistic slipperiness as a means of expressing and simultaneously undermining their provocative utterances and unfashionable opinions. You mentioned irony and sincerity; do you think writers depend on irony and wordplay to distance themselves from bad-taste conventions?
Adam: I’m suspicious of irony as a defence, which one encounters especially but not exclusively in the context of humour: if you can’t actually demonstrate how, for instance, your racist or misogynistic or transphobic joke was deployed ironically, it might be that you were just saying something you knew you shouldn’t, merely stepping over, rather than testing, a boundary. If you feel you have to distance yourself from what you’re saying, then it’s probably a good idea not to say it. There are bits in my poems that make me feel uncomfortable: but that’s why they’re there, and the point is that I can’t distance myself from such behaviour, and that the poet and the speaker and the reader all have to be held up to scrutiny in terms of their intimacy with, and complicity in, the cultural problems that the poems are modestly investigating.
Certainly bad taste, if it’s marketed as harmlessly outrageous or indeed as anti-P.C. common sense, sells just fine in the non-poetry world. Not least in TV and politics, and intersections of the two. There should be an anthology.
You’re right! Humans are flawed and shallow creatures. Evidence: we give lots more money to charities for the protection of cute animals than for the protection of conventionally ugly ones (such as the aye-aye, depicted alongside the blurb for your course). Doesn’t this mean art that aims at ugliness is more likely to be ignored, or – worse – mistaken for ‘bad’ (i.e. poorly executed) art than art that aims at beauty (even when the latter fails to realise its aim)?
Adam: I reckon so, yeah, although I’d argue that it’s far worse for a piece of art to be ignored than for it to be thought bad, as not even the artist can learn much from art that’s ignored. (The endangered-species analogy doesn’t map onto this, of course: an animal’s probably far better off ignored by humans than hated!)
I don’t especially want to come across as a snob or a grouch, but I doubt it’s controversial to suggest that originality in the arts can have a hard time getting through. It’s totally okay – not tremendous, but okay – that this is the case: given political strife, and jobs, and heartbreaks, and bereavements, and so on, why shouldn’t people look to art for comfort? And by comfort I don’t mean explicitly consolatory content: I mean the comfort that comes from familiarity, from recognisable forms, and this could be found as much in a black metal track as in a Friends repeat, as much in a John Everett Millais painting as in an MMA fight. (The A stands for Arts so I think the latter counts.) These are all things I find palatable depending on my mood, incidentally. And I write rhyming sonnets and I like horror films, and I return obsessively to stand-up routines or radio comedy sketches that I can quote verbatim. One adjusts the details according to taste; but I understand very well that not everybody wants or needs constantly to be shocked out of complacency in their experience of the arts. And this means that art that’s apparently aiming at ugliness, or more broadly at an exploratory performance of badness, is likely to be a harder sell, particularly if, unlike in a couple of the examples I’ve given, violent dislocation isn’t an expected characteristic of the form.
There’s a super 30 Rock gag in which Jack Donaghy, as played by Alec Baldwin, impatiently protests: ‘We KNOW what art is! It’s PAINTINGS of HORSES!’ This parodies a position, but not much, and imagining versions referring to literary forms isn’t a challenge. Novels tell stories; memoirs are honest; poems speak with beauty and decency about love or death or trees, and they should rhyme or they shouldn’t but definitely only one of the two. It’s a truism that people who don’t, say, subscribe to PN Review or attend events in the basement of the Cambridge English Faculty nonetheless turn to poetry at emotional milestones; hackneyed as that sounds, I can see why, in such a scenario, a piece of writing that didn’t uncomplicatedly speak to the emotion in question would seem an irritant, a betrayal. You very probably don’t want to walk down the aisle to twelve-tone Schoenberg having spent your hen night at a Stewart Lee gig.
But, while my belief is that poetry should be written with readers in mind and should as such have a degree of warmth and generosity – because it’s nice to be nice to people who just might be struggling through life as much as you are – this doesn’t mean difficulty and experiment and weirdness should be avoided. They’re of value, and there’s room for them: aye-ayes aren’t robbing space from pandas, to the best of my knowledge. And it’s not as if being even the cutest panda in the poetry world is going to bring untold riches. Yes, as a species we’re flawed and shallow, but at times we’re good enough and deep enough to acknowledge these failings; and, while it’s not for everybody, poetry that addresses and incorporates such self-awareness will, for some, provide the comfort of recognition, and isn’t as hostile as it might initially appear.
I like this idea of comfort in recognition – that ugly truths can inspire and console as much as beautiful ones can, so long as (as readers and writers) we’re honest and unflinching enough to give them their due. To expand on this a little, are notions of truth and lies, beauty and ugliness relevant to the forms as well as the subject matter of poetry? And if so, what does ‘bad form’ look like in this context?
Adam: Form can tell lies to readers, and to poets. It can say: ‘Look at how well turned-out I am, how neat, how correct. The things I’m saying must be of profound import.’ Or it can say: ‘Look at how individual I am, how disinclined to play by anybody else’s rules. The things I’m saying must be of profound import.’ One has to be careful not to fall entirely for either of these attractive fictions.
I like poems that unsettle their formal certainties in order to keep their poets and readers from being unquestioningly seduced. This behaviour, however, can be seductive too! Any time an approach to form declines into mere style, its claims to be doing genuine intellectual or emotional or aesthetic work are to be considered suspect. You stay on your toes, and try to remember that really bad forms, the type to avoid, are like bad people: they’re ugly on the inside, and might have arranged their surfaces in such a way as to distract from this.
Of course forms can also be superficially unattractive in all sorts of familiar ways: not trying hard enough; trying too hard; wearing something that is, or speaking in terms that are, ill-fitting or tonally inappropriate… And none of this tends to be good when it happens accidentally. But notions of attractiveness can change because of people consciously finding benefits in elements of supposed ugliness and turning those to their advantage. And this is what we’ll be trying out as part of the Ugliness Studio. Looking ‘wrong’, sounding ‘wrong’; but doing so in the name of getting something right – getting at something right that might not be accessible via a more obviously pretty piece of verse.
Adam Crothers was born in Belfast in 1984, and lives in Cambridge, working with special collections in an academic library and as a literary critic. A contributor to New Poetries VI (Carcanet, 2015), he was selected in 2016 as one of Poetry Ireland Review’s ‘Rising Generation’ poets; his first collection, Several Deer (Carcanet, 2016), won the 2017 Shine/Strong Poetry Award.
Rebecca Watts’s debut collection The Met Office Advises Caution (Carcanet, 2016) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and a Poetry School ‘Book of the Year’, and featured in the Guardian and Financial Times ‘Best Books of 2016’ lists. Rebecca lives in Cambridge, where she works in a library and as a freelance editor.
The Ugliness Studio with Adam Crothers is a three-week intensive online course beginning on June 5th 2017 and will focus on how bad language, form and taste can find a place in your writing and teach you to consider the ways in which a poem can be an aesthetic triumph without consisting solely of beautiful sentiments beautifully expressed. Book today!