October 2012

Greer Mansfield


Interview with Paul Stubbs, Poet and Editor of the Black Herald

.re-lung humankind for
the upcoming exertions
of prayer….

-Paul Stubbs, Afterworldsmen

Glancing at my map of current English-language poetry, one of the most tantalizing regions is one that -- at least in my school of cartography -- is centered around a magazine called the Black Herald. Edited by poets Paul Stubbs and Blandine Longre, it is a concourse for strong and original English-language poetry, publishing interesting new poets like Will Stone, Mark Wilson, and Siddhartha Bose. It has also published more established writers (Clayton Eshleman being an example), and it maintains a constant dialogue with the dead. Or perhaps more accurately: the “dead,” because in its pages the likes of Hart Crane, W.S. Graham, Cesar Vallejo, Georges Rodenbach, Osip Mandelstam, August Stramm, and James Joyce are blazingly alive in the company of the newer writers.

The Black Herald’s gathering of voices extends to a wide array of current French writers. The magazine is published out of Paris, and is bi-lingual: each poem, story, or essay it publishes is printed in English and French. The fact that the Black Herald is a Parisian magazine is one of the most exciting things about it: it is, in part, an expression of international literature in Paris now, something different from a nostalgia for Montmartre or Montparnasse during the Belle Epoque. All the same, the Black Herald is recognizably in the lineage of that Paris, and of other strands in the city’s artistic past: the phantasmagorical Paris of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, as well as the scholarly and violent medieval Paris of Villon, the hungry outlaw-poet.

The Black Herald has just published its third issue. I recently interviewed one of its two editors, Paul Stubbs.

In addition to editing a quality literary magazine and publishing interesting writers new and old, Stubbs happens to be one of our day’s most striking and original English-language poets. His poems are metaphysical but visceral; they are often written in a jagged syntax, but they carry themselves in a rich, full-voiced music.

He has a “religious” imagination insofar as he explores reality (flesh, history, “God,” speech and language itself) conscious of the debris of our religious inheritance (titles of some of his books: The Theological Museum, The Icon Maker, Ex Nihilo). Reading him, I often get the sense that he is testing these icons and theologies to see what illumination or meaningful life they can offer. His work calls to mind the likes of Mayakovsky, Trakl, Benn, Vallejo, and Pilinszky more than any English poet (except perhaps Geoffrey Hill, whom Stubbs admires). Imagine the poetry equivalent to an orchestra playing Bach and Bartok in a post-apocalyptic stone landscape… actually, that gives you no approximation at all, so best to just read his poetry.

At any rate, time to let the man speak:

Why publish a bi-lingual magazine?

In some ways it is a response to the insular British magazines I had become so used to enduring. Having grown tired of their limp and makeshift aesthetics, we felt it was important to return literature to its origins, i.e. the "tree of historical linguistics," and thus to splinter its root anew, to free up language again and loosen the promethean chains of dialects that bind us all too easily to the rock of any one continent. Also, and in much simpler terms, because the co-editors of The Black Herald are English and French. But if anyone today still clings to that rather archaic idea of "inspiration" then for me it would be something of both a biological and imaginative riddle not to include as many multiple languages as we could. In his seminal book The Truth of Poetry, Michael Hamburger remarked that "it still seems self-evident to me that in trying to understand what poetry does, can and cannot do, one must draw one’s exemplars from as wide a range as possible." Likewise Mallarmé got it partially right when he wrote "verse makes up for what languages lack." And while a bi-lingual poetry in a singular sense can never completely exist, it is vital I think that the world-reader is continually exposed to the filament of the original language cast by the shadow of its translated one -- which accounts for why we never publish a translated text without its original counterpart, whatever the language. I like to think of duplicity as in the double mind of Yeats, as a kind of swaying-stalk which leans into and out of reality and language, giving us a brief (though eternal) whiff of the absolute. And I would say that the essence of that "duplicity" is at the heart of everything we publish.

How important to you is an internationalist approach to literature?

It is everything. By that I mean that it is self-evident that the ink-clot at the centre of the imagination can only be truly loosened by the biggest syntactical investigation possible. "Insularity" is but a small chain unable to pull free even a rock from the giant block of language from which "world" literature is hewn. A global literature is vitally important because it re-imagines our own planet a billion times a second, blurring truth, and giving the human imagination a constantly new earth-model from which to learn from; while the literature of coteries and/or "writing-groups" write with their face in the mirror, not, as they should, with their back to it. To maintain an "internationalist approach" as you put it is to ignore even the existence of such insularity. As I have stated in the editorial of issue 3 of the magazine, "accessibility" is not only the death knell of "invention," but it is also a great semantic immobilizer, proposing a window that is, in truth, already a brick wall, a slow act of mental barbarism, caged in by habit, preference and a bungling sociability. Reasons enough to look ‘beyond’ the ontology of any one continent I should think.

What do you think a curious reader can find in the Black Herald that he/she can’t find elsewhere in English-language literary magazines?

I would say certainly some outlines on the "future" of writing. And also a strong editorial voice which is something that should be de rigueur for any European/world magazine, but rarely is. It is important to be bold and record what the needle of the internal seismograph is dictating, so I would say that both myself and my co-editor Blandine Longre agree on the idea that all literature is in itself irrelevant, but it is that very superfluousness that makes it so interesting, that which supercharges the "work" itself, the "pure" idea that thinks beyond thought to thus become superior to the ego. So we both seek (and therefore hope the "curious reader" discovers) the unidentifiable writer, one out of his mind with another mind, i.e. not classifiable in the genre of any type. I personally hold out the hope of locating those minds modern enough to sling-shot themselves beyond the epoch and the nominal reach of all accepted ideas. This though should not be confused or distorted with our combined opinion about quality literature, for if a work excels and is original then we will publish it, regardless of where it might fit in with the "history" of writing. Any reader will find also within our pages a multi-faceted array of texts, previously un-translated works into French and/or English, such as texts by Louis Calaferte and W.S. Graham in the new issue, but also fragments, letters, as well as poems and prose pieces. The only qualification required then to be published in The Black Herald is to be original, nothing else.

You’ve been critical of much recent British poetry. Are there any British poets, past or present, that you particularly admire or that are beacons for your poetry and your work on the Black Herald?

If I have been critical of modern British poetry it is because the majority of it (at least the one put forward by the mainstream media for mass consumption) is very bad, equivalent to an emotional photocopier, or a conveyor-belt of factory "products" long since passed their sell-by date. It is a poetry of no subject matter, by that I mean it has no dazzling obscurity, reveals very few hidden facets of the refraction of its central-core. If you were to remove atavism (family, genealogy, personal experience etc.) and "nature" from the mind of the British poet, he would quickly scatter, with then no other choice but to return to the domesticated and idle backchat that passes as "literary" discussion in Britain. They believe that they are "transfixing" the moment, but are in truth only successful in devaluing eternity by thrusting their pen, like a crowbar, into the cogwheels of time.

Besides, the British poet has consistently mistaken the "difference" between what is prose and what is poetry, although three-quarters of what is written nowadays and deemed poetry could not even have made it as a decent short story. Editors conveniently use the word "diversity" as an excuse for their critical incompetence, using it to discard "elitism" or, more ineptly, as a botched attempt to explain away what separates original writing from mediocre writing. Bad literature is accepted in Britain under the flaccid tag of "personal taste" (as seems to be the case in America), despite the fact of course that "personal taste" is not a critical opinion, something continually lost on the modern editor in Britain -- making you wonder if modernism or innovative poets such as W.S. Graham (without mentioning a few American ones such as Wallace Stevens, Mina Loy or E.E. Cummings) have ever existed.

In answer to your question about "influence" I would say that there is not one English-speaking poet that has influenced me personally (my influences being mostly European), but there have of course been many "true" poets that I have admired from Britain, and probably the most original poets of the last fifty years or so in my opinion have been W.S. Graham and Geoffrey Hill, to whom we could add slightly less reputed poets like David Gascoyne or Kathleen Raine. Yet through our work at The Black Herald (while trying to locate the ghost of a future hypermodern voice that haunts a work now), we have been pleased to discover some younger poets of distinction from Britain, such as Andrew Fentham or Gary J. Shipley among others.

In the newest issue, you’ve published poems both by interesting new writers and by the likes of W.S. Graham and Gregory Corso. Why conjure these ghosts? What are your thoughts on maintaining a dialogue between the dead and the living, a contemporaneity of different ages?

In the case of the two writers you mention above, we see them both as highly original but still somewhat neglected poets. In Graham’s case it is due in many ways to the rather superfluous and preposterous literary comparison made by English critics with Philip Larkin, which has hitherto stifled the rate of his recognition in Britain. Graham has fell victim also to what I would describe as the "terrorism" of popular taste and the Eliot-encrusted apparatus that still passes for "criticism" in England. Critical judgment in Britain is rarely, if ever, blessed by an acute linguistic abundance in which to explain itself, and thus an experimental poet like Graham has been treated in a mostly idiotic, if not off-hand way. As for Gregory Corso, there is no secret anymore of his neglect, and while there have been intermittent attempts to rectify this, we at The Black Herald want to continue to push for this "reversal." We came across Kirby Olson’s excellent book Doubting Thomist, and he then wrote a "re-introduction" to Corso’s work that appears in the newest issue. In France today, just as in other parts of the world, it seems that Corso’s work has been squeezed out from the central core of Beat writers, such as Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs, yet for us and many others he is maybe the most original. We hope that the translations in the new issue will, like for Graham, keep his name in the firmament. We should make a distinction between the "canon" (hopelessly exploited as the "rule" and thus followed sheep-like by students and teachers alike, a repugnant hindrance and is in fact the last bloody yard fought for on the battlefield in the war between writers of a mediocre talent and those of a convulsively dull one) and "tradition," which has more to do, as you put it, with keeping alive a "dialogue" with past writers; and so it is essential to always publish them alongside living writers so as to continue to re-body their "ghosts" via publication -- as we did also with Georg Trakl, August Stramm, E.M. Cioran, Tristan Corbière, César Vallejo or Emile Verhaeren among others.

This issue includes a first-ever English translation of Louis Calaferte. Could you say a few words about what attracted you to him?

The work of Louis Calaferte was first brought to my attention by the translator John Taylor who had already translated the French poets George Perros and Laurence Werner David for the second issue of the magazine. My co-editor Blandine Longre was already familiar with his work, but, like Perros and maybe the wonderful writer Philippe Rahmy (published in our first issue and translated by Rosemary Lloyd), these French writers deserve a wider audience, to perhaps elevate them to a "level" of interest that the likes of Jacques Dupin and Yves Bonnefoy currently enjoy in the English-speaking world. Both Louis Calaferte and George Perros explored the "fragment" at a very intense level, seeking always to locate the hypertrophy of "meaning" that trigger new appetites in which to eat words clean to the bone; in a way it is what I think "all" true writers search for, the sense of what Paul Celan described as "reality that must be searched for and conquered."