“I enjoy language’s obscuration, disjointedness and ambiguity”: An Interview with Richard Capener of Hem Press — Tobias Ryan

Congratulations on starting your new press! For anyone unfamiliar with your previous projects, how would you describe Hem’s mission?

Thank you – I’m extremely grateful for the interest Hem’s already gotten.

As a reader/writer, I’ve always struggled with the availability of UK writing that has been bannered under the historical narratives labelled ‘avant-garde’. When I was younger, it seemed like America and Canada could not only narrate their contemporary writing but knew how to utilise the internet to document it. By contrast, in 2009, I was still buying CDs from the UK Poetry Archive!

While the UK has always had an avant-garde in literature, the dots haven’t always been joined in an accessible, public way. My hope is that Hem Press can join small presses such as Red Ceilings, Beir Bua, Penteract, Broken Sleep Books, Osmosis Press, Penned in the Margins, Guillemot, Shearsman, 87 Press, Veer 2 and Contraband, among many others. Not all of these presses specialise exclusively in the avant-garde, and some flat out denounce the term (I hold the label lightly myself), but what they have in common is an interest in maintaining a polyculture of writing. It is this diversity Hem Press will contribute to.  

You previously ran the Babel Tower Notice Board, an online poetry journal with the goal of feeling “like rough sex during an orgy”. What inspired you to start Babel?

Babel had two goals. Firstly, to react against negative experience I faced in British poetry.

I had been writing for twenty years by the time Babel began, but the last eight of those had been spent disengaged from any literary scene. It would be unfair to say British poetry was unwelcoming to, for lack of another term, avant-garde writing, since they were oblivious that anything outside of prize winning lyric poetry existed. As such, the writing this scene valued could only have variety within parameters defined by workshop culture: a strong opening line, followed by an internalised narrative without adjectives or vague language, concluding in epiphany. Even verse which played with this structure could still only exist in relation to it.

Subsequently I would see disheartening behaviour in British poetry, from poets expressing concern about such-and-such a poet’s sexual orientation to workshop hosts bragging about attendees who had left in tears.

Babel reacted against these experiences by presenting itself in a way that could be politely described as unprofessional. The journal was irreverent, sweary and hypersexualised. Myself and Assistant Editor Chloë Proctor used Babel to eviscerate ourselves and each other, a sort of power play with editorial positions. The website was a dull slate grey, entirely text based with the exception of two homepage images, in contrast to the prettification of poetry journals in print and online.    

The second goal originated from what was happening in the world. We launched during the UK’s first lockdown, with all the concerns around recession that it brought. In the years leading up to the pandemic, I had become increasingly aware of our culture’s obsession with dystopia, as exemplified by The Hunger Games through to Black Mirror and beyond. This, paired with the rise of juvenile toxicity on social media, had caused me to seek out generative politics – positions predicated on what one might desire in, instead of remove from, the world – if only to spare my mental wellbeing.

My hope is that Babel was an oasis amidst social unrest and economic collapse. A ritual for abundance. In practical terms, this meant publishing an absurd amount: two pieces on Wednesdays and another two on Fridays. Alongside this, Babel hosted quarterly poetry readings, put out a monthly podcast and published monthly newsletters.

These two goals, I hope, created a space for others who also felt excluded from a literary hegemony.

Did Babel achieve what you set to achieve? What prompted the move to physical publishing?

Babel uncovered a crowd of writers who would not have fit anywhere else. We were also lucky enough to network with other likeminded journals and presses and, in some cases, meet new friends. This was abundance, pleasure, in a world that can no longer conceive of it.

I see Babel and Hem Press as two separate projects, not necessarily moving from one to the other. I don’t think anything specific has prompted me to start a press other than joy.

Two or so years after setting up Babel, what has changed in the British poetry scene (online and off)? What are your feeling about the literary landscape more broadly?

When Babel launched, even though it was set against my experiences coming up in British poetry, I felt that small press poetry had become significant. In the sixteen months Babel ran, tons of exciting presses and journals sprung up. These were in no way inspired by Babel, but rather the hard work of their editors, such as Briony and her team at Osmosis Press or Michelle at Beir Bua. Because of the deserved success of presses like Broken Sleep Books, who had been going for just under three years by the time Babel rocked up, the literary mainstream seemed more ready to accept not only young, independent publishers but the range of work they publish. J.H. Prynne, for example, enjoyed a mini-revival because of the influence he had on Aaron Kent, who published Prynne’s pamphlets (alongside wonderful editions by Face Press and Slub Press).

After spending my youth obsessing about what was going on in America and Canada, my attention is mostly on the UK now. Poetry has always survived through robust networks, which aren’t by any means small but look like they are because they’re so dispersed (to slightly rephrase Bernstein). Poets and presses are facing many challenges, but they’re adaptable. They have more flexibility than, for example, a music venue owner who now has to pay the building’s mortgage through Zoom events.

Conditions are currently very difficult for indie presses (with paper costs, shipping problems, etc.), does this weigh on your mind as you set out to publish with Hem?

EU shipping has given me a bit of a headache. I’m currently in discussions with printers in Europe in the hope they’ll post books for Hem. Mailing can be buffered by P&P costs, which I hope to keep reasonable. Production costs are lumped into printing. Having shopped around, I’ve found a lovely, well-priced, independent printer in the UK.

I have concerns and anxieties as much as the next person, but it’s not in my character to catastrophise. All people can really do (in and outside of poetry!) is have back-up plans and stay as flexible as possible.

Turning to your own writing, your pamphlet Dance! The Statue Has Fallen! Now His Head is Beneath Our Feet!  is centred around the bringing down of the Colston statue in Bristol in 2020, and is deeply engaged with the question of “memorialisation”. I’m curious about the interplay between what you’ve written and the decision to launch a physical press, which could be said to mark a shift away from the ephemeral and towards the lasting. Is that a shift you’re conscious of?

My instinct is to butt against this comparison between memorialisation and the book. Memorials function as narrative containers for an assumed public, a point in space simultaneously tangled in its own historical narratives and the narrative of its environment: the day-to-day activities of a city centre, graffiti that might be tagged on a plinth or, in the extreme case of Edward Colston’s statue, removed in protest.

Books facilitate a proliferation of narratives in a private setting. And yet, memorials and books are both objects which traffic in multiple narratives, which project narratives from themselves while accruing narratives from their surroundings. A book is not necessarily an act of remembrance, although it can’t help but become one over time. I’m left thinking that there isn’t an absolute comparison or distinction to be made between memorials and books.

The plan is to archive (and, crucially, not memorialise!) Babel, so I’ve never thought about it in relation to ephemera. Books are built to last, to end up in charity shops and storage. (I’ve had a remarkable number of uncanny experiences where I’ve found books I’ve needed discarded on pavements.) In any case, no – there’s no shift here.

The removal of Colston, of course, took place during a Black Lives Matter protest, with Dance! including snippets of news reports, slogans and transcripts of online footage from the event. Do you see poetry as a vehicle for social change?

Language is social. Words mean because they have agreed upon definitions. All folk have been taught a language. The foremost change that creative writing can create is at the level of language, which constitutes being and encodes cultural practices. In contrast to assuming social change has to occur on a national or global scale, reading facilitates change for individuals and close-knit communities. This can break through into wider culture. I’m reminded of the story translator Susanna Nied tells, of phrases from Inger Christensen’s poem Det graffitied on walls as an act of protest. But, for the most part, to value reading and writing is to value notions of the individual and the local.

Dance! became a text in which I was thinking through writers like Kathy Acker and Bruce Boone, whose nuanced critique of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry (in which he questions how a language that’s so abstract can speak to a community) was a major influence. It uses narrative to reflect on the cultural narratives that formed it. KL7, my forthcoming pamphlet from Red Ceilings – a fragmented, pamphlet length poem in which a narrator tries to express their dreams and desires but ends up only being able to express the impositions forced on them – and The Voice Without, forthcoming from Beir Bua Press – a response to the early experimental radio of the Swiss-Canadian artist Christof Migone, which got sidetracked by possession and exorcism – both use aggressively abstract forms of language. While all three pamphlets are concerned with the inexplicable, urban environments and public narratives, only Dance! can be said to be communal.

This is to say I want there to be a range of writerly options, not – to be crass – the diaristic on one hand and wordplay on another. Hem Press will reflect this range.

“Aggressively abstract” is a interesting descriptor. Can you give an insight into how this “aggression” manifests?

I tend to think of “abstract language” as any writing with an unclear context, or a language that is seen as inaccurate given its context. The workshop cultures I came up through dealt with this by distinguishing “abstraction” from “ambiguity”, the latter being desired and the former being criticised. I’ve also been fascinated by Ron Silliman’s assertion, which I think is in one of his essays, that there’s no such thing as concrete language: it’s all abstract. There’s plenty to unpack there but, in any case, I started using the term “aggressive abstraction” to avoid confusion. 

A typical phrase from The Voice Without is: “would be in a car crash economy comment on course a minute minute call man cost roman names the man only knew and stay in them beast east canada manichean”. I would never say this type of writing – or any type of writing – has no context, but I think it’s inarguable that the context this quote implies is not normal. It’s this stripping of normative contexts I try to articulate as “aggressive abstraction”. 

Do you intend to cultivate an antagonist relationship with the reader, or is the aggression more of a reaction to the context(s) which inspired the work?

Of sorts, but in a positive sense. I enjoy language’s obscuration, disjointedness and ambiguity as much as its ability to console or be decorative, in the sense of rhyme and metre. To call this antagonism “a reaction to the context(s) which inspired the work” is absolutely correct. Dance! needed an expositive narrative for the ideas it explored. Likewise, the projects I’ve worked on since could only explore their topics through abstraction. This is done to open language, to open ways of thinking (exposition can do this too in ways that, by definition, abstraction without expositive narrative can’t). 

You previously mentioned a kind of resistance to the term ‘avant-garde’, could you explain your reluctance? How has ambivalence towards the term informed your writing?

I may have misrepresented myself. For me, the term avant-garde is preferable for the type of writing I’m interested in, as opposed to experimental writing which I use begrudgingly. Avant-garde signifies a reasonably clear set of historical narratives and creative practices, which also remain porous: that can be critiqued and added to.

If I come across as resistant, it’s because I’ve seen my preferred term spark a lot of anger. There are many reasons for this. Some dismiss it as necessarily pretentious and elitist. Others, who might be more aware of its history, can point to the horrifying political sympathies found in some of the avant-garde: Ezra Pound’s fascist sympathies, or the allegiances to Mussolini found in some (by no means all) of the Italian Futurists. I think it’s safe to move away from newness as the main concern of the avant-garde towards aesthetic difference as a form of critique.

When I say I hold onto the term lightly, it’s because I don’t think all my writing adheres to my definition of the avant-garde. If it’s defined as creative critique, then I’d argue that Dance! is, and probably KL7. Conversely, The Voice Without and Visible Tattoos – a full-length manuscript I’m currently submitting which plays with physical structures to think about language, and language to think about physical structures – draws on the ideas and practices of the avant-garde, but that might be their only relation to it.  

Hem’s first book is Just Meat Not God by JD Howse, a series of ekphrastic sonnets on the work of Francis Bacon. Why did you choose this to be your first title?

Chloë, knowing I was ready to start a press, forwarded a pamphlet version of JD’s manuscript to me. I had published two poems from the manuscript the year before on Babel and followed JD’s amazing online journal, Permeable Barrier. Also at this time, I was considering writing my own project on Francis Bacon but didn’t have the in-depth knowledge of Francis’ painting to find a way into the idea. 

Reading the initial manuscript of Just Meat Not God, it had all the components I felt writing about Francis Bacon required: the ability to find notions of beauty in transgression and decay; images starkly juxtaposed; snapshots of post-war Britain as narrated by the unconscious…

I had also been reading Berrigan’s The Sonnets. I had read the often anthologised poems – such as ‘Sonnet #2’ – many times, but never read the whole collection. Turns out I was inadvertently researching for JD’s manuscript!

I was interested to see Just Meat Not God blur the boundaries between prose, the sonnet and forms of experimental writing associated with the 1980s and 1990s: the QWERTY keyboards and word processing that poets explored as PCs became more popular (when I write this, I’m thinking about poems where JD breaks words and constantly interrupts the text with forward slashes). The writing slides between these forms like Francis’ paint. I was excited to see Just Meat Not God wield the sonnet in provocative and inspiring ways.   

On accepting the pamphlet manuscript, JD mentioned he had 70 more poems in the project. I asked to see the full-length manuscript and was blown away by its brutal beauty: relentless, aggressive but controlled. 

What can we expect from Hem in future?

Hem’s publishing four books: JD’s debut in May, a pamphlet in October, and a pamphlet and full-length collection in late November. Two of these authors, one of which is JD, haven’t had a huge presence in contemporary writing, so it’s exciting to champion them alongside established writers. There’s also an imprint that will launch towards the end of this year, which will fill a huge gap in poetry. That’s all I’m going to say about that for now.

Hem also has three books scheduled for 2023 and four more in discussion, which will likely bridge 2023 to 2024 if they come to fruition.

Babel was very much a project of desire, of decadence. I’m not thinking about Hem in the same way. Where Babel intentionally tried to do too much, Hem will publish books. I wasn’t even going to do launch events until writers talked me around to the idea.   

Richard Capener is a poet, editor and publisher. His pamphlets include KL7 (Red Ceilings, forthcoming 2022) and Dance! The Statue Has Fallen! Now His Head is Beneath Our Feet! (Broken Sleep Books, 2021). The Voice Without will be released by Beir Bua Press in December 2022. He will be launching Hem Press, an independent publisher for contemporary writing, in May 2022 and he is Reviews Editor for Mercurius Magazine. Twitter: @richardcapener3