Poet Leo Mercer is currently President of the Oxford University Poetry Society. He regularly blogs and tweets both about poetry, and his own poems. I spoke to him about the relationship between creativity and technology, developing language, and poetry’s place in society.
Who are Oxford University Poetry Society, and what do they do?
The society’s been around since the 1950s and has been running consistently since then. At the moment my conception of it is that it does a number of things. We try and cover all bases, so various aspects are represented by the society. There are reading groups, writing workshops, and open mics where you can read your work, and if you like listening you can come to both the open mics and to readings by established poets. If you’re interested in reciting poetry then we’re trying to start a group where people walk down Broad Street and recite classic poetry in public, Dead Poets’ Society style.
Another big thing we’re doing this year is moving into collaboration with other university societies, to try and draw links between poetry and everything else that exists! We’ve just run a filmpoem competition, a film poem being the equivalent of a music video for a poem. People sent in recordings of themselves reading their poems, and films were made from a selection, creating a set of images that are appropriate to the poem and characterise it in some way. I think that any two art forms have multiple collaborative potentials, but film and poems work together particularly well. A series of poetic images can almost seem stuck together abstractly, and you need something to bring them together and unify them. Poetry fulfils this demand. Equally, one limitation of poetry is that it’s black and white shapes on a page, and the amount of energy that it takes to get into that and make that world real is immense. Having a visual impetus sucks you in and makes the images distinct for you.
You run a termly magazine called Ash. What do you look for when you’re selecting poetry for publications?
Our idea this term is to go for more political poetry. I think there’s a tendency, particularly among undergraduates, to write about their very immediate experience and present a poem saying ‘Here’s something about undergraduate life’. The goal with the magazine this term is to think bigger, in political and social terms. As part of the collaborations I mentioned above, the editors of the magazine are in touch with various societies with particular social or political affiliations, so we can try to get a broad representation from different voices. We want to hear from people who don’t necessarily conceive of themselves as poets but know how to use language and have got things to say, as well as more conventional poetry.
Do you think, then, that poetry has a certain function in society?
I think that like art in general, it does have a function, and that is that for many people it’s what makes life worth living. It has a function in a sense that it allows more people to live the life that they want to be able to live. There are some types of poetry that particularly lend themselves to politics – spoken word is particularly good at getting out there and finding the words that will stir you up inside. I’m not sure I see page poetry as having an explicitly politically active function as I don’t think you can expect it to do that, but it’s a way for people to express their political sensibilities in a nuanced way. Poetry doesn’t change the world, but it changes people, and people change the world.
Is there a distinction to be made between political and ideological art?
Yes. This is something I think about a lot, because often when people say that ‘all art is x’, they then make a jump and say ‘all art is x therefore my art has to flag that up explicitly.’ But if all art is x, then it doesn’t need to be explicitly flagged up because it’s there already.
How do you feel that technology impacts upon poetry? Poet and editor Michael Schmidt has said that ‘Technology is a part of imagination’, but do you feel that there is a slight reluctance to acknowledge the role of technology in the creative process?
I think part of the problem here is with education. Because education is very historically based it tends to impart a particular idea of what poetry is, so by the time you reach university it’s then very difficult to conceive of how this huge range of linguistic raw materials made accessible via the internet can be used to create poetry. I write poetweets, and to some extent I’ve experienced pockets of reluctance when people can’t work out the language – it’s seen as ‘internet language’, and you can’t use that in a poem!
This attitude is definitely something that needs to be changed. My sense is that at any one time there are interesting things going on and there will be poets, artists, who will think that this is the point where things have to change. Of course people will be sceptical, but it’s the responsibility of the poet to show that their idea works. In return, it’s the community’s responsibility to be always open to new ideas and concepts.
How would you describe a poetweet?
In one sense it’s a poem that takes the space of a tweet – that’s the minimal level. There are a lot of good poets who come up with lines of poetry and put them on Twitter. But there is a more exciting level, which is to create poetry which is at home on Twitter. This isn’t a 19th-century poem put on Twitter, but a poem that tries to use creative language that you find on Twitter and then push it forward into an artistic medium.
What new relationships between form and content does this create? You only have 140 characters to write your tweet, but you can also use links to other media.
There are so many exciting new raw materials that the internet has made available for a poet. People say that Shakespeare would think in the form of a sonnet, and that this is the form that his head was moulded into. I think the same can happen with the tweet – once you tweet a lot it becomes a natural form, and you see opportunities and content through that form.
Where a written poem is black and white words fixed onto a page, on Twitter the visual and temporal experience of reading the poem is very different. How does that impact upon the form and content of a poem?
One of the things that it will do – or rather, will continue to do, as this is always happening – is blur the boundaries between media. There’s a really interesting movement in America, called Alt Lit. They’re particularly good at taking things like memes, a particular combination of image and text, and creating poetry and art from it. I think the tension (and reticence from the academic community about moving poetry online more) comes from the difficulty of creating something that is not a gimmick whilst also being timely. You want to create something that captures the moment without relying on the moment.
It’s almost impossible to say how these changes will alter how we will think about poetry in the future. You don’t want to emphasise the change too much as a lot stays constant, but you also don’t want to ignore what is new. For example, with my poetweets, I will try and rearrange them into sequences after I’ve tweeted them, and print them out so they become like narratives. It’s still unclear to me whether they belong more on Twitter and the page is just a way of dissemination, or if Twitter is just a workshop before I eventually arrange them for the page? But the impact of new forms is almost impossible to intuit, and I think there’s a point where action has to come first, just doing and then working out what you’ve done afterwards.
How has your idea of what poetry is changed over the last few years, from both writing your own and reading others’ poems?
My intuitive sense of what a poem should be is that it is constantly breaking down boundaries, so I think ‘what poetry is’ is constantly expanding. Using new technology creates new artistic forms to create new means of expression to express the feelings we’re feeling. To try and capture our current way of life in a way that it’s not been captured before. Writing in the form of Facebook chat or gchats could be a new means of dramatic form. That’s another way of trying to capture experience of the current moment, because the forms we use limit what we can say; using old forms pushes us to the sorts of thoughts our minds have been taught how to think. Developing new thoughts is a way of opening up the mind to unexpected, new ways of thinking…
This is where the idea of free spelling comes in. This works on two levels, the first being that the way that we spell online shows us that we can spell pretty freely and still be understood. We can spell almost how we want and it will be entirely decipherable, so you can adopt typos and colloquialisms in poetry. On the second level, rather than mimicking the language evolution that happens naturally online, you can adopt artistic version of spellings. You can decide to respell things based on the reaction you think it will evoke. For example, I think the word ‘happy’ always looks much happier when it is spelled ‘happie’, it’s slightly more infectious, and the word ‘brughtal’ is more aggressive than ‘brutal’.
How do you personally go about beginning a poem?
My mind knows that if it gives me a phrase, I will write it down on my phone, so it’s started to be quite generous in giving me words. I’ll either write the poetweet in the moment of inspiration – so the tweets are often quite spontaneous – or else I’ll flick through my notebook app on my phone for a phrase and see where it takes me.
Looking at your phone app, it’s in an incredibly different visual format to a notebook. Do you think that changes how you go about writing a poem?
Definitely. You read Virginia Woolf’s notebooks and she has sprawling handwriting and incredibly long sentences that stretch out across the page. Her mind is made to fit the space of a notebook. For me, a big change happened when I got an iPod touch and started using apps. Your mind starts to fill in a different kind of space. So it certainly changes how I think of syntax and construction.
Who are your favourite poets working at the moment?
There’s the aforementioned Alt Lit community in America which I find really interesting insofar as they’re trying to up the value of the internet. People like Steve Roggenbuck, who does sometimes cheesy but sincerely emotional blog videos which is an intriguing use of a new medium, a new form. In London there’s a bunch of poets like Sam Riviere using other internet mediums and internet-inspired forms like blogs. I think the most interesting things come from people mixing internet sensibilities with the tradition of lyric poetry.
Leo’s poetweets can be found @the_poetweet, and recordings of his poems on his Soundcloud. He has also written an essay on free spelling, accessible here. More information about Oxford University Poetry Society can be found on their website.