Edward Sugden is a doctoral student at the University of Oxford working on nineteenth century American literature. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of the Oxonian Review, co-founder and an editor of the online webzine Wave Composition, and his reviews have appeared widely in publications such as The Times Literary Supplement, Lana Turner Online and the Oxonian Review.
Barbara Claire Freeman is a literary critic and professor of literature who has recently turned her full attention to writing poetry. Formerly an Associate Professor of English at Harvard, she teaches creative writing in the Rhetoric Department at U.C. Berkeley. Incivilities, her first collection of poems, was published by Counterpath Press in November, 2009; a chapbook, St. Ursula’s Silence, was published by Instance Press in 2010. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in A Public Space, Agriculture Reader, Boston Review, Colorado Review, Crazyhorse, Forklift, Ohio, Jacket, Seattle Review, and Volt, among others.
A poem by Edward Sugden follows the interview.
Barbara Claire Freeman: You are one of three editors of Wave Composition, an extraordinary new magazine based in the U.K. In just three issues you’ve published work by Armantrout, Ashbery, Davis, Corey, Gizzi, and O’Brien, among others. And you’ve have done stunning, in-depth interviews with Bök, Lerner, and Silliman, not to mention the commentary and fiction you also publish. Given that this line-up would be remarkable for any magazine here in the U.S., I’m keen to know how three doctoral candidates at Oxford University became so attuned to and conversant with what is arguably some of the most dynamic American poetry being written today? How did Wave Composition begin and what are your goals for it?
Edward Sugden: Our first issue was in June 2011. Co-editors Stephen Ross, Alexandra Manglis, and I had been discussing the idea of an online magazine for a while previous to that. This was mainly based on possessing uncannily similar bookshelves containing oddities from across the last 400 hundred years plus of literary history (more American Renaissance on mine and Alexandra’s, more modernism and classics on Stephen’s). Our initial aim was to be as unprogrammatic as possible, and to use Wave Composition as a means for discovering the most exciting and challenging contemporary writing. We wanted writers to reflect in depth on their work and aesthetics in our interviews, and for critics to have a forum for a more creative type of analysis, based less on aggregation of qualities and more on speculative accounts of artistic futures. I don’t think that we attempt to articulate any particular aesthetic (aside from a nebulous movement away from realism) but rather offer a location for thinking about what constitutes art: a place for the publication of a series of “state of the nation” addresses from the Republic of Dreams.
It’s difficult to say exactly where our interest in experimental work comes from. In Stephen’s case it’s a logical extension of his work on John Ashbery and his poetic descendants. In Alexandra’s it builds on her work on Thoreau’s legacies in postmodern poetry and her interest in science fiction. In my own, it reflects a desire to think beyond my work on nineteenth century American literature, engage with the present moment, and free up my idiom from some of the strictures of academic analysis. Weirdly, I think being based in the U.K. (even though we’re an American, a Cypriot, and a Brit) catalysed Wave Composition, albeit antithetically. We’re conscious of the fact that over here, far more so than in the U.S., anything that is either non-satirical or non-realist tends to be passed over, so the webzine in itself was an experiment in seeing what might grow in unpropitious soil! That being said, part of the reason we love the online format is that it allows Wave Composition to be a global phenomenon—we’ve had readers in China and Iran, for instance.
The next step for us is to incorporate a blog into the site, which, we hope, will allow for more voices, more interaction, and an even greater sense of what the experimental scene at the moment is. Beyond that, who knows? We’d love to do something in print at some point, and we’d also love to try and arrange a festival of experimental literature. But we’ve always taken small steps, and gone on our nerve.
BCF: I’m intrigued by the title “Wave Composition.” Juxtaposing these two words implies a fascinating series of connections between “waves” and nature, “compositions” and culture—and vice versa. A “wave” is at once a social gesture, a pattern caused by tidal movements, and a sound that is produced technologically. And a “composition” is not only an aesthetic work (be it musical, visual, or verbal), but a pattern found in nature, in, for example, the refrains of birds or the colors and shapes on a butterflies’ wings. How did the magazine acquire its name and what do you intend it to signify?
ES: We intend the title to signify all of the above, and more. One meaning that was constantly in our minds was “wave” in the sense that it is used in physics, which is to say a potentially infinite disturbance rippling across space-time. It was important to us that we used a name that oscillated between a variety of different meanings simultaneously, as it would gesture towards a conceptual fluidity that we sought to attain. Initially we had “ring composition” which is the technical term for how Homeric verses were composed: statement, reformulation, repetition, but that didn’t quite work for us. I can’t remember the exact point we came up with Wave Composition but it obviously stuck. Stephen works on Ashbery, who has a poem called “A Wave” in the collection A Wave, and who wrote the famous line “Like a wave breaking on a rock, giving up / Its shape in a gesture which expresses that shape.” Similarly, I work on Melville, and needless to say there are plenty of waves there. Personally, when I wonder what a “wave composition” might be, I tend to think of it in terms of minimalist music, by the likes of William Basinski, Terry Riley, or Steve Reich. They take a movement, repeat it indefinitely with small modifications, and so move outside of easily definable structures for describing and making music. As their work unfolds it creates the very language by which it is to be understood. In other words, a “wave composition” is a recursive, self-regenerating structure, that’s always on the edge of the expressible.
BCF: How has working on the magazine affected your own work as a critic and poet?
ES: Working on Wave Composition has certainly granted me more freedom as a critic. The essays that I have written, rather than relying on textual “evidence,” have sought to interrogate art in a conditional mode, seeing how it might provide a measure to our times and beyond. This has allowed me to expand and experiment with my idiom, as much of the analysis is necessary speculative, drawn from an imagined future instead of an empirical past. In terms of poetry, it has made me actually get round to writing some! One of my reasons for starting the site was that I felt in need of, if not a cogent aesthetic, at least a sense that I might one day find one. Interviews with Ben Lerner, Ron Silliman, and Christian Bök have made me think about the possibilities and valences of “form,” as well as what seems to be a troubled relationship between contemporary poetry and the ‘real.’
BCF: Given the extraordinary interviews you’ve done, I’m curious to know your thoughts about the interview as a genre. How do you compose them and what do you hope that the interview will accomplish? Do you think the interview serves a particularly important role for poetry and poetics?
ES: The interview serves a particularly important role in contemporary poetics as it is the form that most resembles the lyceum of the nineteenth century—a place explicitly for debates about cultural value. It allows writers to think broadly and coherently about their practice to a wide and often general audience. I’m certain John Ashbery’s or Marilynne Robinson’s interviews with the Paris Review will have as large a place in literary history as their letters or prose. In this sense, the interview is less a “genre” than it is an arena, a spatial domain where ideas can be articulated then challenged. In terms of Wave Composition specifically, we have a theoretical rather than biographical focus. We’re interested in how writers conceptualise their art and the processes of thinking that underline their work. We also genuinely want to provoke them to think self-reflexively about their aesthetic and perhaps to come to a previously unforeseen realisation about their art. The end aim is to try and create a corpus of interviews that documents the contemporary moment in all its wonderful and beguiling complexity, and which will, hopefully, inspire new writers
BCF: Can you tell us something about how “experimental poetry” manifests itself/selves in the U.K.? Where does poetry that isn’t strictly “mainstream” appear? Is innovative poetry clustered around different universities, and if so, which ones?
ES: The U.K. experimental scene has historically been less developed than that of the U.S. with many of its most interesting writers finding themselves marginalised. This is partly because the publishing industry is still very much centred around London (which in part explains the British predilection for metropolitan realism I think), rather than the regions. It’s no coincidence that the most well-known avant-garde presses, Carcanet, Bloodaxe, and the Dalkey Archive, are located in Manchester, Northumberland, and Dublin, respectively. Carcanet has a great roster of usually continental influenced experimentalism from now and the past, and Bloodaxe (who take their name from an old King of the region who Basil Bunting celebrates in Briggflatts) tends to publish more regionally-inflected modernism. Similarly, the Cambridge School demonstrably wear their location on their sleeves, even though the movement has since splintered into a variety of different places. This has been the dominant experimental poetic movement in the U.K. over the past 50 years. Led by J.H. Prynne, their work seeks to combine the political radicalism of early Wordsworth with Marxist and deconstructive theory, particularly Adorno. Other writers from this school include Peter Riley, and more recently Keston Sutherland. But we started Wave Composition precisely because we felt that there was a dearth of publications in the U.K. that published what we would want to read: well-thought out interviews about craft, the latest poetic innovations from around the world, and formally challenging yet informative essays. We sensed that there was a critical mass amongst our friends, both theoretically and creatively, that would get the publication moving, and we resolved to go from there. We hope that in the future the U.K. will prove less inhospitable to the avant-garde than it historically has been.
BCF: What would you like readers to know about “Echo Chamber,” the poem that follows this interview?
ES: The idea of an echo chamber is interesting to me in the way it multiplies and empties out voice. I’m sceptical of the idea of there being “poetic language”, in terms of music, or rigid formal or traditional harmonic structures. Unless the belatedness of these structures are embraced knowingly (as say Oulipian writers do), it feels to me as though they are formal mystifications, an outdated way of marking time. This is in part because of the failure of my own ear — I struggle to hear rhyme, and, just as with geometry, have never really understood rhythm (I think this lack of spatial awareness with lack of rhythmic awareness is doubtlessly linked). Similarly, my own speaking voice basically drifts around the monotone. It’s important to me that I’m honest about these aspects of my reading experience, these “flat perspectives”. Thinking in terms of the echo chamber allows me to take these failings and try and make something of them: sounds, words even, though only hollowed shells of meaning, can collide and spark; a flat neutrality of utterance can create a suggestively transparent poetic surface; a sliding order of meaning, what Hart Crane termed “the logic of metaphor,” can lead you into realms more real than reality itself. The end result is a realisation that “poetic language” does not exist; there is, instead, only language that takes place in poetry.
The cycle began by returning to that first moment
Where the gap we created between the painting
And the world it sought to attain
Was the measure of our collective refusal
To embody grace. Like medieval saints
We found ourselves lost in flat perspectives,
And leaving through the faded red archway
You repeated, yet again, another curtailed beginning.
But in falling short, the medium revealed to us
Secrets about the sudden unpredicted flowering
Of electric blue poppies across the darkening field.
We never wanted to play the old records
Preferring instead to depict momentary transparencies
That appeared on days wracked with rain.
Inside the tent we saw them
Looking at both sides of the mirror
Hoping to catch one final glimpse
On a sky of backward moving clouds —
The voices we heard were empty,
Yet in their emptiness they expressed
Figures sketched in outline across the turning screen.
We could never measure the distance
When the last of the reels began to fade
With those on the periphery of the scene
Becoming the expression of that world.