Poetry is a natural diplomat: Richard Price

The digital and lyrical worlds must adapt to be friendly with each other, says Richard Price

June 10, 2017 04:25 pm | Updated June 11, 2017 12:36 pm IST

A tall, lanky man walks around in what at first seems like a nervous movement, but I later realise is a well-crafted, simple engagement with his audience. He is Richard Price, one of the most recognised, contemporary British poets, who is at the University of Kent in Canterbury, for a reading. He has taken the day train from London where he works as Head of Contemporary British Collections, The British Library.

Price was a significant part of the Informationist poetry movement, a term he coined to indicate poetry which, in a sense, “lyricizes information”. In his wide-ranging and award-winning career, he has collaborated with sculptors, digital artists and musicians and was also part of Mirabeau, a band.

“There should be a price on every word,” goes one of his lines from ‘The Price’—a clever take on his name. I agree. Why give away words for free?

Later, over dinner, we talk about poetry in the U.K., India, and elsewhere, the British Library, George Michael, and more. Edited excerpts from an e-mail interview that followed:

At a recent reading, you mentioned, “I’m not interested in where things come from... I’m interested in where they’re going.” Is this a preoccupation in your work?

Yes, it is. I mean this in a general sense—I am very interested in the future of poetry in the same way that I am interested in the future of society, and for me they are closely linked. And I mean this in a very specific sense, in that I offer my poems not as distillations or commentaries on a particular experience but as sonic, even musical, works whose content is mysterious enough to beg questions for the future but lucid enough to jangle nerves and apply balm to recognisable emotional states.

What is the relevance of poetry in today’s digital world?

The first thing I’d say is that the digital world is still very new and as one of the ancient arts, poetry has a lot of adapting to do to try and meet with digital. Digital has a lot of adapting to do to be friendly with poetry.

But let’s not get too pessimistic. The first thing digital is already doing is getting the sound of poets’ voices down for the record. This is at scale. I’ve recorded several sessions for the left-field Archive of the Now and just finished working with the Poetry Archive for a retrospective of my work… When you think of the historical treasures in a resource like Ubuweb, and in the research collections in sound archives at such places as my own institution, a lot of it digitally recorded or preserved, then you can see what benefits the digital world have for poetry. It’s quite something to know that you can hear, from a free digital render taken for a wax cylinder recording, the voice of Robert Browning!

I guess the web and apps are doing things, which most (though not all) poetry doesn’t emphasise: the aural and the visual. These elements are of course quietly there in a lot of poetry but nothing like the saturation of visuality and of sound that you get in digital content... I am inclined to both keep writing traditional poetry while probing further and further into what in a way is a glorious throwback to pictures, talking and song.

Finally, there is the space away from digital that poetry can give collectively—poets making work together (at any age) with the phone switched off, the computer unplugged—talking, meeting, sharing. Poetry is very, very good at that: it is a natural diplomat and convener. In the same way, but in the opposite direction, poetry can be for solitude.

How and why did Informationist poetry—a genre you coined—come about, in response to what?

Informationism was a movement in the early to mid-1990s, which tried to bring the ideas of the information revolution into, usually, lyric poetry itself. It also tried to set up the communicating infrastructure needed to achieve that (some of it already existed)—so publishing via magazines like Verse , Gairfish and Southfields , and through the small press Vennel Press, which I co-ran with American poet Leona Medlin. As all the poets concerned were either doing literary Ph.Ds or had just finished them, you can imagine they had an intellectual interest, a theoretical interest, as well as the emotional resource of their, generally speaking, lyric sensibilities. Could the romanticism of the lyric not only survive but be positively transformed by other kinds of self-conscious information-making? That was the kind of question being asked, and of course the time was absolutely on the cusp of the hard-copy/ digital divide.

Informationism combines lyric and unusual sources of information. Does this communicate better?

I think I know what you mean, but Informationism doesn’t fix itself to hierarchies so quickly. One of its aims is to surface the cultural biases in apparently unbiased information: collaging and even synthesising different registers in the same work is there to problematise authority and to insist that different types of communication, from lyric to academic, from song to scientific, have very particular templates and ‘understandings’ beneath them, which means they cannot be simple transactors of information. In this way, Informationism is a kind of citizenship project: trying to re-sensitise readers to the political implications of different kinds of information. That is one of the most important things that poets can do: re-enliven the reading process itself.

How do your roles as Head of Contemporary Collections at British Library, and as musician, intersect your approach to poetry?

As Head of Contemporary British Collections, I feel almost the same kind of luck I do as being a poet and lyricist: that there is the range of life, ‘inscribed’ in the book and manuscript and sound archives in the Library’s Contemporary British Collections, that I have a responsibility to and a love of. One example of this: as a young father years ago, I used to go to the WOMAD music festivals with my young family and love the range of music from across the world being performed there. It is quite some thought that the British Library has been recording those festivals since their inception and is now a custodian for that sonic history. And I do wonder if my daughter Katie and I are on the soundtrack here and there, as delirious euphoric audience members!

Can you share some of your favourite moments from Mirabeau?

For me, Mirabeau was the steepest learning curve I have ever had, two learning curves because it was about making music in the studio and playing music live, all with a band. Before then, I had no experience of either and, despite what it may seem, there is only a small overlap between poetry and music, so my poetry experience did not count for a lot. I regret not being more involved in music as a musician when I was young… So the excitement of being in the studio with musicians and songwriters like Caroline Trettine, Roberto Sainz de la Maza and Ian Kearey was like rocket fuel… The live highlight was just one gig, our first gig upstairs at the Roxy in Brixton, when, in the chancy world of live performance, the band just melted into one and we knew we were at the top of our game. Everything went well and the audience knew it as well. I will always remember Mirabeau fondly.

The Price

Remember when a poem could be banned

For beginning with the word ‘Remember’?—

For mentioning it was a poem,

For bearing the weight of twenty-three syllables

on the long oak bough of any given line?

I loved those years.

I am a Trading Standards Officer.

There should be a price on every word.

(‘The Price’, Moon for Sale, Richard Price, Carcanet)

A writer and literary journalist, the author’s first book of poems, Nine , was published in 2015.

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