Ian Heames: Interview

Monday, February 27, 2012

In a sub-basement several floors beneath the New Bodleian Library at Oxford University, there lives an old yet functioning hand press. When Ian Heames first encountered it, he was a curious young poet. He quickly learned the art of typesetting and, from there, printed a small book of his own poems to explore the mystery of printing. Although that first project did not turn out perfectly, it solidified Heames’s interest in printing and book design, and ©_© Press was born.

Printed by his very own ©_© Press, Heames’s second chapbook of poetry, Out Of Villon, is now available. TriQuarterly Online sat down with Heames to talk about his new chapbook, his printing press, and all things poetry.

TriQuarterly Online: There are some specific questions I’d like to ask you regarding the chapbook, but to begin, can you tell me a bit about your background, how you became involved with poetry?

Ian Heames: I didn’t know much about English literature when I started university. I knew nothing at all about contemporary poetry. While my interest in the subject led me to study it, I probably wouldn’t have chosen English if my sense of what its study should entail had been then what it is now. I suppose my intuitions have mutated, partly from wider reading in general and partly from exposure to communities of writers and readers, initially in Cambridge and then also elsewhere, who gave me a better sense of what those activities can be. My own writing grew out of this kind of discovery, which at first, at least, took the form of an interdiction or refusal rather than an active practice of composition. I felt I had more command of what it wasn’t possible to say or wasn’t worth saying. This distrust is something I try to hold onto.

TQO: Your comment regarding the writing of poetry that “isn’t possible to say, or isn't worth saying,” deserves more exploration. Can you expand on this idea? Does Out Of Villon reflect this?

IH: I suppose this has to do with the politics of lyric: the total range of implications of what is said in or done by (or with) the poem. If the poem exists merely for the sake of affecting an ambience to which some subject matter is raised, just to make it “feel like a poem,” then in my opinion it isn’t worth saying. The poem should be a tool for intervening in, or at least for observing, whatever the concern of the work is, or for examining the idea of that kind of focus as such. But what isn’t possible is a complete appraisal or index of global conditions. Any conspicuous politics that comprehensive is bound to be reductive in the way that all laws are a simplification: the universal autotune of the schematic. That isn’t good for poetry unless the mode of address somehow targets the contradiction and makes up for it, working through the algebra of its seductions.

Simon Jarvis, in a recent poem, “Persephone,” considers how a tendency of the poem “assuages conditions I took it to show and inspect.” This is the kind of critical awareness that’s shaped my sense of poetic practice. But I don’t know how, or if, my own work reflects this. I can only read my own poems as mnemonics (more likely screen mnemonics) of the conditions that induced them.

One problem I try to think about is how registering an awareness of the complicities of lyric practice in the poem appears to introduce a sort of countervailing irony. This irony is problematic because it can appear to inoculate the poem against the implications most threatening to it merely by registering their existence, as if conflating awareness of a problem with its solution. You can see how this sort of dynamic will admit of various irreducible twists and turns. I’m interested in these sorts of corollaries and escalations.

TQO: Terrific. I’m very interested in your press. How and why did you start the press? The format and graphic sensibility are wonderful . . . is there a reason you chose an analog format for your press? How do you choose what to publish?

IH: I started ©_© Press in 2008 and the first books were published in 2009. I was living in Oxford at the time and attending a poetry-reading group at Balliol College. Some of the students there were taking a course in the history of the book at the New Bodleian Library as part of their master’s. They showed me the printing workshop where the course took place: the Bibliography Room in a sub-basement several floors beneath the library, a large white room with a green concrete floor, lime-green iron pillars and a large amount of hand-press printing equipment. Dr. Paul W. Nash, who taught the course, taught me how to typeset, and I started setting a small book of my own poems as an experiment in the mystery of printing. I’m endlessly grateful to Paul for the generosity with which he shared his time and expertise. Without his help it would never have been possible for the press to make books in this way.

After my experimental project turned out OK, it seemed like a good idea to carry on using this technology and doing different things with it. Mike Wallace-Hadrill’s book Nettle Range Bladefear, the second ©_© book, was an early highlight. The compositing of the text (setting the metal type) took place while the poem was still being written. Finished sections were locked into forms and printed before the final form of the poem was known. There was a real confidence in the trajectory of the whole project, both Mike’s serial composition and the compositing of it, which we worked on together. The book was designed by its author, who cut a resin block for the front cover (it’s a friar playing a flute). The colophon to the second edition describes how the computer on which the poem was written fried itself not long after the time of writing, marking a nice contrast with the resilience of the lead type and cast-iron Albion presses.

The most important aspect of book design for me is that the authors of a work have complete control over it, or as much input as they care to have. Their book will be a vehicle for their text, and its design is the most immediate feature of the text’s context. Some projects are printed digitally, for aesthetic economy as well as other kinds. Some are hybrids, like Tom Raworth’s Got On, which combines letterpress internal text with blind-stamped covers with a desktop inkjet label and endpapers printed by a commercial printer. The design of Got On recalls Raworth’s Four Door Guide in the use of a cover label. The label is set off-center away from the spine to suggest another interpretation of the title. The signed edition of the book also recalls Ace’s signed run in its alphabet-book-style inspiration. The endpapers were designed by the author.

What to publish is unfortunately a question of money and time (quite short on both at the moment) as well as engagement with the work. I’d like to publish a lot more of the really vital poetry that’s being written in the UK at present, but there’s already a backlog of half a dozen projects which will last a long way into the new year.

TQO: Can you expand a bit on this notion of the book being a vehicle for a given text, specifically how its design acts as the text’s most immediate context? How do you use Out Of Villon's graphic and compositional sensibilities to assist as a vehicle for the content of the poem?

IH: Even deliberate decisions about aspects of design will probably have only a fairly speculative relation to anyone’s reception of the object. But some choices do proceed from a rationale of sorts. With Out Of Villon I wanted to have two sections of the text per page to emphasize that it’s one poem and not a sequence, as one-text-per-page might have implied. The section numerals maybe suggest otherwise, but they’re a different color from the text so could offer a slightly different sense of its divisions. Section numbers are an odd conceit. They tend to suggest an idea of movement that is somehow unlikely to be matched in a text itself. I think of them as unvoiced here. Having just two leaves in the large format made it seem more ephemeral.

V for green (in French) seemed to fit with Villon. The green stripe on the cover is made by a roller that’s been over the metal printing block of a plant. All the covers are different. You can tell the direction of the stripe, up like the flowers, by the fact that the ink is thinner toward the top on the second turn of the roller. I just thought of that. You could project anything onto it really.

TQO: What, if any, connections are there between Out Of Villon and the poet François Villon? Why do he and his work interest you?

IH: My poem began with Villon, but “out of” also suggests the distance from the source text; perhaps there’s not much of it still in there.

My impression of the French poet was heavily influenced by Stephen Rodefer’s magisterial Villon (Pick Pocket, 1985). I wasn’t directly consulting these versions whilst writing, but I had a strong sense of Rodefer’s distinctive approach to translation. Rodefer channels the persona of Villon. Even though we accept that this is Rodefer’s own concoction, it still transcends that origin. It doesn’t feel presumptuous—or it does, but in the right way, as if the poet’s serious engagement necessitates creative appropriation. The spirit of Villon not only sanctions but demands the synthesis of his medieval Paris with Rodefer’s 1970s San Francisco.

My poem was a meditation on the idea of translation that I found in Rodefer rather than an attempt to inhabit that mode. I didn’t want to try to write his Villon from a different time and place.

It seems that throughout your chapbook there lies an interest in what you’re calling translation, in relation to Rodefer’s Villon. Perhaps this translation of a canonical figure cheapens or devalues one’s experience now by attempting to superimpose one poet’s work and experience upon another more modern one. Would you say this chapbook argues against this superimposition of one time and space upon another?

IH: Rodefer’s Villon is brilliant. More straightforwardly, literal translation exercises a different sort of care with respect to the original and results in a different sort of poem and a different sort of resource for imagining an original text. I certainly don’t want to discredit either approach. What it could mean to imagine Villon’s experience, or one’s own, or to think of either as being made commensurate with the other, is not really a question I would look to approach head on. My own poem is perhaps at a tangent to the idea of translation as appropriation. The automatic generation of affect that can attend the deployment of a canonical poet’s name, or the implicit claim that a new poem is connected to some famous pre-text, is a difficult expectation to meet rigorously. If my poem is skeptical of anything, it is how it carries its own presumption of that question.

TQO: Who are your literary influences? Who have you been reading lately?

IH: Presently I’m reading the novel Male, Black by Buttercup McGillicuddy. It’s online here: http://maleblack.blogspot.com. I don’t think I can really give a list of influences. It would just be arbitrary, leaving things out and giving the wrong sense of relative emphasis, which constantly changes anyway. At the moment I find I’m more influenced by things other than other writing.

TQO: What differences, if any, do you see between the European and American poetry being written right now?

IH: Tao Lin is one difference. I think it’s important to work out whether this is a good thing or a bad thing (and for what and whom). Of course, these are two huge territories, too huge to be of use in more than vague gestural terms. And by Tao Lin I mean only a category, a bit like how I meant Villon; not necessarily an actual person, or scene, or even an actual body of work. Just an imaginary vibe that suggests a kind of compressed argument, something I feel the need to take stock of. I’d like there to be more dialogue between British poetry and the poetry of the rest of Europe and America, and everywhere else too.

TQO: Where can readers find more of your work?

IH: Bad Flowers (©_© Press, 2009), http://cucpress.tumblr.com
Out Of Villon (©_© Press, 2011), http://cucpress.tumblr.com
Gloss to Carriers (Critical Documents, 2011), http://plantarchy.us/gloss.html

A couple of other short-run booklets too, and some magazine appearances—Axolotl, Cambridge Literary Review, Hi Zero, Holly White, Friends, etc.