I spent a couple of weeks in London in the fall, visiting my friend Cheryl Moskowitz, a novelist and poet I’d met at the Vermont Studio Center last year. One of the joys of spending time at an artists’ residency (other than the resulting creative work) is meeting people with whom you’re simpatico, people you’d not be likely to meet otherwise. Cheryl was an incredible hostess, setting up readings, getting tickets to Poetry International events, and introducing me to many good writers. One I’d been eager to meet was the American expat and poet Carrie Etter,who has been living and teaching in England since earning her PhD in mid-19th century British fiction and the emergence of criminology from the U. of California, Irvine. Carrie’s poetry is smart and moving, with roots in an American worldview and the brambly twists of an English hedgerow. Her second full length collection, Divining for Starters, is due from Shearsman (a press which has published extraordinary poetry by both British and American writers) next month.
During my tenure as Drunken Boat’s managing editor, I needed to fill the vacuum of my knowledge of experimental literature, particularly experimental poetry, which Drunken Boat has been famous for featuring. I read widely of American experimentalists, but had a harder time tracking down British experimental work. Then I got wind of Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK women, an anthology that Carrie recently edited.
I asked Carrie a few questions via email, and she kindly agreed to have the conversation printed here:
You've studied British literature and write poetry while living in England. Do you feel there's a difference in the general concerns of what's being written in the UK, poetry-wise versus in the U.S? (I noticed far more idyllic nature poems in the UK than I see here in the US, for instance.)
There is indeed much more poetry focused on the environment here, and while some of it is idyllic, some of it is sharply focused on the effects of climate change. See, for example, Peter Reading's outstanding book-length poem, -273.15 [absolute zero] (Bloodaxe Books, 2005), for a multi-pronged attack on the governments and culture that generated the situation we now face.
Another area of environmental poetry is exploratory and descriptive, often evincing an interest in an geographical area's history sociologically and geologically. I'm looking forward to Harriet Tarlo's anthology, The Ground Aslant: An Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry, due out next month from Shearsman Books.
Is there a healthy experimental poetry scene in the UK these days? Do British experimental poets read American experimentalists? Experimental work from other countries?
While there is a lively "experimental" poetry scene in the UK, it doesn't receive the funding and critical support mainstream poetry does. You'll never see a truly experimental title shortlisted for a prize, for example.
I've found British experimental poets especially outward-looking in their reading of poets from a range of languages and cultures. I think British experimental poets have an awareness of themselves as both European and Anglophone poets, and that combination fuels some interesting projects and connections, i.e. VLAK, which is published in Prague, Melbourne, Amsterdam, London, and New York.
Have you become aware of any differences in the way experimental poets in the UK use the language, in comparison to their American peers?
I think British experimental poets engage with humour far less often. I love how Jennifer Moxley, Cathy Wagner and Lee Ann Brown, for example, make me laugh while at the same time engaging me intellectually. I'd like to see more playfulness in serious poetry of all kinds.
Thanks to Carrie for her perspective and honesty. One of my projects this year will be to compile a folio of experimental poetry written in the UK (by both sexes) for Drunken Boat as a contributing editor. Poetry Magazine has broadened my reading of poets from the UK, most felicitously Roddy Lumsden (reading his dense music is akin to chewing a caramel topped with sea salt.) But there’s a lot more poetry being written in the UK, particularly experimental work, that can only enrich American readers’ understanding of what can be done—and be done beautifully, memorably, startlingly—with the English language.