Interview with Jane Marsh
Neon Highway On-line 2006
Edited by Alice Lenkiewicz
Hi A. C.
I would imagine you would appreciate this room. On the wall there are paintings by Klimt and Duchamp. My gramophone over there plays music by Liszt and Wagner.
The CD player plays music such as The Stones and The Velvet underground.
The weather is just wonderful. We are now in Mid winter so it is cold and icy outside. The trees are bare and there is some frost and ice on the ground.
On the bookshelf you may find some collections by Plath, Byron, Baudelaire and Swinburne. There are also two recent reviews of yours on Lee Harwood’s Chanson Dada. Selected Poems by Tristan Tzara and Symbolism by Rodolphe Rapetti. Now if you just seat yourself down I would like to ask you a few questions to someone whose writing style it seems has been described as ‘macabre, hermetic minimalism’.
Your work has been around for a long time and first published in the British alternative press in 1977. However it has been said that your work was more driven towards " modern occultism" rather than the conventional ‘literary’ small press. Could you explain what it was that pulled you in this direction?
Gosh, Jane! You are looking very vampish this afternoon…. And you have gone to so much trouble. It is very much appreciated and very nice to talk… But, to answer your questions: My first ‘publication’ was, in fact, 1968 when I was lucky to land a tiny contract for greetings cards. A few designs were distributed through high street shops at the height of the ‘Beardsley craze’ during the Art Nouveau Revival… Also, under the umbrella of the Convulsionists, I managed to issue some mass-produced prints and get things into the school magazine. This was all in the late nineteen sixties. After a break I started submitting material to little magazines in the mid nineteen seventies, hence the reference to ‘alternative press….’. The first magazine to take some pictures was called Sothis. I soon found acceptance with other editors in the ‘occult’ scene. There were mags with titles like The Daath Papers, Illuminatus Monthly and Nox: A Magazine of The Abyss. I was instinctively drawn to this kind of subculture: it seemed more attuned to the disruptive, paraxial fantasy I was trying to achieve than the rather staid literary scene. In any case – despite my Aestheticism – I didn’t really see my work as a narrowly ‘artistic’ enterprise – like the Surrealists I was aiming at some kind of transformational paradigm outside mainstream definitions of art/poetry. There were clear affinities between Surrealism and ‘occultism’ (a vague, dodgy term I should say) and, at the time, one felt ‘occultists’ to be more ‘alternative’ than most exponents of the counter-culture who played at being hippies at weekends. The Surrealist ‘angle’ on the occult was, of course, non-mystical – unlike the Crowleyites, or the Alexandrians, for instance, I did not view the occult as an alternative religion. It was more to do with ‘reclaiming the imagination for anarchy and nihilism,’ formulating tactics to disconnect creativity from the hegemony of ‘the establishment’. Gothic Romanticism, Baudelaire’s ‘Satanism’ and Rimbaud’s use of alchemy provided historical parallels, while Jung’s psychology pointed to an ‘interior model’ for the ‘occult image’.
Could you tell me a little about your work?
The work develops on two fronts: the written and the visual. Within these two spheres I operate on a narrow spectrum of formats. The written works fall into non-fiction and ‘literary’, the visual works are black and white line drawings in either pen or pencil, collages (mainly photomontages) and, more recently digital-photo images of various kinds. Regarding the literary work I would subdivide it into poetry/experimental prose, fiction (short stories) and poetry translations from the French. In both literary and visual work I often rely on automatism and chance elements. Automatism means a kind of immersion in the unconscious process, guided intuitively. I have often regarded ‘automatic’ line work as rather like calligraphy, hovering on the borderline between pictorial representation and writing. All artistic activity is supported by the non-fiction work ranging from short review notices to extensive feature-length articles/essays like Angels Of Rancid Glamour (1998). Baudelaire said artists should also be critics – it is vital to maintain a sense of focus and context, and to engage with the history of ideas.
Who were the first presses to support you?
Well, apart from the occult ‘zines mentioned the first art-poetry press to support my work was Stride edited by Rupert Loydell. Throughout the nineteen eighties Stride maintained a policy of openness to diverse approaches that was – and still is – exemplary. Stride published my first small collection Exosphere in 1984 and I contributed reviews, artwork and poetry to the magazine. Today Stride is one of the best independent presses on the UK scene. I should also mention Phlebas and Tabor who published the mini collections Chimaera Obscura and Dream Vortex.4.
Can you tell me a little about your poem Space Opera?
Space Opera was short sequence of prose-poems first published in Stride’s Serendipity Caper anthology. It was subsequently re-issued as an illustrated booklet with an intro by Steve Sneyd. Written in a kind of techno-reportage style the sequence evoked a universe where there is no distinction between inner and outer space and all communication is subject to widespread disruption from indeterminate forces. The general setting was onboard a clapped-out star-ship on a mission to investigate the mysterious planet NeoGaea, a kind of parallel Earth, but millions of light years from home. It was an attempt to fuse lowbrow and highbrow by taking a simple space adventure scenario and filtering through a mannered poetic style – the cognoscenti define this sort of thing as ‘speculative poetry’…
Your work has been described as ‘artistic’ meeting ‘magical’. What would you say is your driving influence?
That’s quite a ‘deep’ question, depending on what you mean by ‘influence’ – influences should be points of departure not destinations, I think. In the nineteenth century from the time of the French Revolution to the First World War one can see a progression of ‘movements’, often referred to as avant-garde – we learn from many figures and themes of those movements and define ‘influences’ that way. That’s a very big subject and the cultural history, from Baudelaire to Beauvoir, is very important. Formative influences (i.e. contemporary, not historical) included Dada/Surrealism, Op and Pop Art, Psychedelia and Nouveau Realisme (e.g. Tinguely) – that’s on the visual side. Contemporary literary influences included Burroughs, Borges, Nabokov, Pynchon, Angela Carter and J G Ballard. As I say this it is clear that none of these were poets in the strict sense, actually they are all prose writers. I had heard about the 1965 Albert Hall event but we didn’t really take much notice of the poetry scene – the era was defined by Mary Quant and Ossie Clark not the Children of Albion. My inspirational figures were Aubrey Beardsley, Antonin Artaud and Marcel Duchamp. I think we can return to this a bit later on when we talk about the Convulsionists because, amid this welter of references, I’m thinking about your phrase ‘driving influence’…. And Paul Meunier’s observation (quoted in Rapetti’s Symbolism) that ‘artistic concerns were originally alien to the production of art.’
What kind of poetry or movements in poetry do you particularly dislike and why?
I have always been against any kind of literary theory that downplays or ignores the visceral basis of creativity. The creative imagination is driven by non-verbal, obsessive compulsions that, in the final analysis, are rooted in biological/genetic phenomena. It is obvious that creativity is value-neutral and independent of any particular form of expression, visual, literary or musical. Therefore, I have no positive interest in the kind of fashionable Post Modernism that locates the main theoretical focus of poetry in the domain of ‘language’. I see this trend and similar academic fashions (Social Constructionism or Reader Response Theory) as part of the regrettable inheritance of Wittgenstein – it is clearly reactionary. For example, the current oxymoronic notion of ‘linguistically innovative’ poetry is based, according to its luminaries, on doctrines of Ethical Criticism, specifically the writings of Levinas and Bakhtin. To begin with this is contradictory in that a truly ‘language-centred’ poetry cannot be based on an ethical framework of any kind. In the second place it is intrinsically reactionary as the writings of Levinas, Bakhtin, and the other gurus, are mainly propaganda for orthodoxy dressed-up in the ‘technical’ Newspeak of academia: ‘defamiliarisation’, ‘plurivocity’, ‘dialogism’ ‘sociolect’. The doublethink is the objectionable aspect – projecting a ‘progressive’ and ‘advanced’ image but working to a regressive, conservative agenda. It’s a question of cultural politics, not literary standards, because any art that is neither entertainment nor therapy is spin and propaganda – welcome to IngSoc! The Language Poets of the 1970s de-valued, even denied, the individual voice in the name of anti-Romanticism and in so doing allied themselves, knowingly or not, with the worst kind of literary Puritanism. I don’t really care if a given example of Language Poetry conforms to someone’s idea of ‘good’ poetry, in the end its only radical chic. I would say the same about the British Poetry Revival in its earlier phases: it was an amateur way of latching on to worthless American trends – Black Mountain, Objectivism, Projective Verse and all that frightful stuff. Actually, it was a publicity stunt to promote a generational revolt against the Georgians and – wassisname? – Larkin. They want to write Modern Epics – they take themselves far too seriously – give me Fiona Pitt-Kethley any day!
To what extent has alchemy influenced your work?
The function of art is the transformation of substance into style.
Tell me a little about your creative process.
The ‘creative process’ is a primitive, bio-psychic phenomenon characterised by the interaction of external stimuli, unconscious drives and the neural-endocrine levels of the biological system (physis). These interactions generate the ‘altered states’ intrinsic to creativity. Cultural factors determine how various features or facets of creativity are defined as ‘artistic’. The main impulse for any creative act takes the form of an obsessive compulsion or drive-demand, often referred to as ‘inspiration’: the production of a given work of art, and its dreamlike characteristics, can be explained from the psychoanalytic perspective. Composer Toru Takemitsu said his work 'Quotation of Dream' (1991) was ‘fragmental’ and episodic, reflecting the ‘shapes of dreams’. He observed that a work can be vivid in detail but may describe ‘an extremely ambiguous structure when viewed as a whole’. Following both Freud and Takemitsu, I would say that poetic form should resemble that of a dream where, for instance, details may be clearly defined while their disposition is determined by the ‘fortuities’ of a ‘self-propelling narrative’. For me the attraction of collage – and other modes of juxtaposition – derive from conformity with the Freudian ‘dream-work’ and the laws of the unconscious – the two main properties of dream-work being compression and displacement. The law of compression determines the fragmental and condensed format of all my work in any medium. The law of displacement encourages an allusive approach to ‘mood’ or ‘atmosphere’ akin to Mallarme’s adage ‘paint not the thing but the effect it produces’. Displacement of psychic intensities ensures that the least important features of the work are given more prominence than the most significant, leading (with luck) to a somewhat ‘hermetic’ or enigmatic effect…. I must add that chance plays a key role in everything…
If you could go anywhere in reality that somehow was created from your imagination where would it be and what would it be like?
It might be like a neglected pleasure pier on the North Sea coast. During the day there would be howling gales and isolated rainstorms, at night the sea would be like purple glass – the moon would look huge. From the shore would float the distant, scratchy sound of an old 1940s Benny Goodman/Peggy Lee recording of ‘Blues in The Night’.
You have said that Surrealism has been a strong influence in your work.
If you were to exhibit your work in a gallery these days what kind of show do you think you would focus on?
Dark Energy – Dark Energy comprises seventy percent of the universe and provides the repulsive force necessary to power the ever-accelerating expansion of the galaxies. Just as the existence of the unconscious can be inferred from Freudian Slips, so Dark Energy can be detected indirectly from the effects of virtual particles on the orbits of electrons. I like the idea that seventy percent of the universe is ‘dark’, just as seventy percent of the mind is ‘dark’ and seventy percent of human prehistory is ‘dark’. So my exhibition would be based around Three Zones Of Darkness. To the side there might be shrines dedicated to some modern goddesses: Veronica Lake, Caterina Valente, Julie London, Donyale Luna and P J Harvey. I think the décor would look rather like Martin Hibbert’s Burnt Out Hotel. Oh, I might exhibit some collages and drawings as well! At lunchtimes there would be tasteful piano recitals and in the evenings there would be poetry readings – in the dark, obviously…
You say you enjoy the work of Louise Nevelson. I do also. I read a book about her work a while back and I was fascinated by her assemblages made from found objects and painted gold. I just thought I would mention that to you.
Yes! The Tate Gallery has a couple of her things. There was one called 'Black Wall' (1959) and another called 'American Tribute To The British People' (1960-1964). I thought the 'Black Wall' as fantastically sinister… There are Sky Cathedrals, Royal Games, Rain Gardens and Night Scapes, all very intricate and painted uniformly in either white, black or gold… there are echoes of Nevelson in some of my drawings…
Can we build an assemblage together? I’ll collect a few objects and you put them together how you want. Here we are, some old boxes, feathers, a doll, picture frames, books, string, a glass case, medicine bottles, paper, broken mirror, pieces of rusty engine, glossy magazines, shoes, a mannequin, lots of old china plates and a few cans of spray paint. What do you reckon? I’ll come back in an hour and see what you produced.
OK, I have added an empty window frame and a battered wig-maker’s white polystyrene artificial head called ‘Ultima’ to this assemblage. ‘Ultima’ is an important totem. In the glass case will be several old sepia photos and the diary of a bibliomaniac. The broken mirror must be at the centre of the installation. You can just take a photo and add it here if you wish?
Now I just want to show you the chamber. This is the deepest room in the house way below the ground and the steps are a little creaky. Hope you’re not too tired, it’s quite a way down.
Hope you like my spiral staircase. Here we are at last.
Please step inside. Okay please do sit down. You can use that old gravestone if you wish?
Jane, this is such a friendly way to conduct an interview – thank you, this gravestone is quite comfortable – what does the inscription say? I can’t quite make it out as it is covered in yellow and black lichen. What a gloriously spooky wrought iron spiral staircase that was – I can almost taste the rust.
Could you tell me about the group you formed called The Neo-Surrealist Convulsionist Group?
It is tempting to say we were just a group of alienated teenagers…! We formed the thing around 1968 and it only lasted until around 1971 or 1972. There were about five or six participants based in Chelmsford, Essex. Other places included Colchester, Ipswich and Witham… people used to meet in coffee bars after school – we were all sixth formers doing art or literature, mainly as a way of avoiding sport. The associations continued after everyone left school and tried to get jobs. Some poetry was written and experimental prose cut-up; atonal electronic music was composed and lots of paintings and collages produced. There were occasional expeditions or ‘pilgrimages’ to ‘displaced destinations’ such as the old Hungerford Bridge, the Victoria Embankment Gardens (for the Sullivan Memorial – very ‘convulsive’), The Atlantis Bookshop, or the Dashwood Mausoleum and Hell Fire Caves at West Wycombe. But mainly there was a lot of loafing around, drinking coffee and snogging – or going to see Hammer Horror films and German Expressionist movies at the NFT. There was one exhibition at Hylands House – the exhibition was for all the school leavers but we managed to commandeer a room – as the Convulsionists were the general organisers of the show it was quite easy to get the space! We came up with the term ‘Convulsionism’ after the phrase ‘Beauty will be convulsive…’ (from Breton’s Amour Fou). I felt it implied the ‘visceral’ idea - my ideal work of art was to be a meaningless allegory generated by a kind of neurological spasm or frisson that could be transmitted to the viewer – well, if it gave me a frisson it might give you one as well. One old policy document from my archive says: "CONVULSION IS CONCERNED WITH THE BEAUTY OF PURE IMAGINATION AND FANTASY AND IS VIOLENTLY OPPOSED TO CONTRAPTON IN ANY FORM" (Convulsively Produced Notes On Convulsion, 1968). Earlier, I mentioned some key influences… I should add the Lost Generation to the list – the Francophile ‘Yellow Nineties’ Decadent poets and artists (Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson et al) and, also, the ultra-Symbolist absurdism (as we saw it) of Laforgue and Alfred Jarry – we were quite keen on ‘Pataphysics as I recall… There was some empathy with English Pop Art, so we rather revelled in the Mass Media – Pop Music (The Doors, Brian Auger), Jazz (Indo Jazz Fusions, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus), Science Fiction and ‘cult TV’. It was ironic that the real Surrealists disbanded in 1969 (Andre Breton died in 1966) so we settled for being Neo-Surrealists!
What are you working on at present?
I am continually revising my ‘personal aesthetic’ (which is not a literary ‘poetic’) and have found this has absorbed much of my time in recent months. In our present situation when, for various reasons, free artistic expression is coming under threat as never before, I have been driven to ‘sharpen up’ my thoughts on such issues… On a more practical level I am revising and digitizing some non-fiction from the back-catalogue – various reviews and articles that I feel I have neglected and must revisit. I have an ongoing programme of computerisation that is quite time-consuming – some examples appear on the Tangents website. Publication-wise there are various poems accepted by magazines including Fire. Recent appearances have included ‘Vespula Vanishes’ a poem for Tori Amos (Inclement), ‘Danger (Midnight Street)’ (Pulsar), ‘Beautiful Chaos’ and ‘Dadar Radar’ (Fragments), and another piece called ‘Not The Cloudy Sky’ (Harlequin). Forthcoming, among other items, is a short story ‘Vikki Verso’ from Atlantean Publications who have taken a number of texts and drawings over the last couple of years. A recent collage, called ‘In the Beginning’ is on the cover (designed by Neil Annat) of a new Stride publication – Peter Redgrove’s A Speaker For The Silver Goddess (2006).
Thank you for answering my questions A.C.
And, thank you, Jane, for a fascinating conversation…
I’ll go and get you a glass of wine from the cellar
Be careful how you go – mind all those cobwebs!
I wish you luck and fortune with your work, as Salomon Trismosin once said:
Study what thou art
Whereof thou art a part.
What thou knowest of this Art,
This is really what thou art,
All that is without thee,
Also is within
All best for now.