The Weird Folds: an interview

Eleanor Beal interviews anthology editors Rhian Williams and Maria Sledmere.

To celebrate the October release of their new anthology of poetry, the weird folds: everyday poems from the anthropocene, editors Rhian Williams and Maria Sledmere chat with us about the collection.

How did you come to work together and what were your (individual or collective) intentions in creating this anthology?

 MS: I first encountered Rhian at the University of Glasgow (way back in 2011), and it was such an honour to have her as my PhD supervisor for a year, helping me think through the sensitivities of doing creative-critical research on entanglement, affect theory and ecopoetics. Rhian is a brilliant and attentive tutor, lecturer and thinker, and it’s been so lovely to work with her on this project — her enthusiasm, thoroughness, care and generosity have been so crucial to pulling the anthology off, especially in the middle of a global pandemic and full-time PhD. When I was asked to become an editor for Dostoyevsky Wannabe, Richard [cofounding editor of Dostoyevsky Wannabe] asked if I also wanted to put out some kind of poetry anthology. Rhian had recently left academia and I was really keen to continue working with her, and this seemed like the perfect project. We wanted to do an anthology of UK-based poets whose work speaks to the anthropocene [as a thought device for thinking various levels of ecological crisis and response, as much as a somewhat fraught and technical term for a new epoch where humankind has become a geologic agent] in a way that reflected the innovation, energy, solidarity and thinking-with that we see in our local poetry communities. Our intention was to seek out friends, fellow poets, comrades, colleagues and writers whose work we felt was often left out of more mainstream discourses on ecopoetics or nature writing. As such, the anthology is an opportunity to present contemporary work in the context of showing how formal experiment speaks to the intersecting ideas of mediation, interdisciplinarity, scale disjuncture and strange intimacy we recognise as characteristic of the anthropocene, creative-critical responsiveness and the existential conditions of ecocide and climate catastrophe.  

 RW: Leaving academia was simultaneously a profound release, and an entrance into uncertainty. There were many moments that led to my decision to move on from the permanency of a tenured job in a very established institution, but in the end, it was a brief jolt in the night — not exactly a vision, but an arresting feeling of presence — that spoke to me, ‘just stop’. And I think it’s things like the weird folds that were looking to find their way in… Maria is an exceptional thinker and writer, remarkable as much for her perceptual imagination as for her generosity and insight in reading and celebrating others. (And she’s just one of my favourite people to talk with, to feel blessed by.) She had always been well-known and highly respected amongst the faculty at Glasgow Uni and it was an enormous privilege to work with her, genuinely the one area that gave me pangs when I knew it was time to leave. But I am *so* gratified that our relationship has been able to grow and flourish in this way! For me, working on this anthology of ‘anthropocene poetics’ has been a commitment to the ‘uninstitutionalised’. As Maria writes so eloquently above, we were looking to gather in voices that aren’t always corralled in mainstream ‘nature’ talk; as my first ‘post-academic’ project, it was so important that we were working with an indie publisher, that we were tracking scents across rigid boundaries, that we could let this emerge literally regardless. My epic-length emails with Rich at Dostoyevsky Wannabe have been a genuine highlight of my year, a space for incredible cultural commentary and mutual understanding. I had become so jaded by academia’s wide-scale embrace of an extraction economy, both literal and figurative; this ‘weird’ process of compassionate excavation came along to heal me just in time. I have become so excited, reading everyone and everywhere for their emergent ecologies, my sense of the more-than-human becoming ever more vivid and expansive.

 How does writing, publishing and performing your own work feel different from editing and publishing the work of others?

 MS: As (newly appointed!) editor-in-chief of SPAM Press, a poetry press and magazine I joined as an assistant editor back in 2017, I’m quite used to the day-to-day work of editing, admin and promotion that goes alongside DIY poetry publication. The beauty of the weird folds is that in working with an independent publisher, we have a lot more freedom around choosing our authors and orientating the project towards a wider audience beyond the usual academic committee. I don’t differentiate too much between my own work as a poet and what I do as an editor: poetry’s economy at this level is mostly an ecology of trading each other’s pamphlets, supporting the work. There is so much free labour involved in running a small press, becoming a poetry reviewer; most of us do it for sheer love and the sense of community. Everything I write is somehow a product of that, just as I’m (hopefully) feeding back in with my own stuff. The real challenge with other people’s work is being attentive in copy-editing and curating the anthology. I’ve worked on anthologies before with SPAM, but not quite anything of this scale. There’s such a buzz in receiving work from poets you admire that is just as good as when your own work is accepted for publication. It’s something about keeping the faith in what we are doing, knowing there is still work to be done, voices to share.

RW: Working with others on their writing is quite familiar for me; for about twenty years I’ve been reading students’ and friends’ work, appraising it, editing it, teasing out strengths, trying to bolster confidence, noticing connections, building collaborations. When I was a lecturer, I loved the opportunities available for showing work back to writers, helping them see what I could see in their work, what I could sense they had come to understand, even (perhaps especially) when they hadn’t been able to see that, so deep within the strata of the writing were they. But for me, the weird folds was something different — genuinely, everyone’s work was so luminescent from the off, it was extraordinary! These beautiful, beautiful creations would come into our inbox and I just loved them immediately. I couldn’t quite believe that we were getting simply to be the gentle curators of this work, not really editors at all. In terms of my own work within it, what also felt different to me, at least from my previous years of writing for academia, was that opportunities for writing in a genuine sense kept proliferating. What had previously sometimes felt like academic grunt work (sending calls for submissions, reminders, replying, even writing an introduction) in this context were consistent and persisting moments for joy, solidarity, articulation, sharing. I don’t know for certain where my ‘own’ writing is going next (I’m even uncertain these days about the boundaries that that adjective/pronoun connotes…) but the processes of letting go and shifting mode that the weird folds has inaugurated in my practice will, I think, continue.

Which writers and poets influence you the most and why?An artrful photograph of an upside-down jellyfish which is white with brown edges. The jellyfish is on a blue background. The image is oval in shape and is placed in a black rectangular frame.

 MS: This is such a huge question! I’m a Gemini so my sense of inspiration and obsession is all over the place. I’m like a kid who keeps going through phases. One person I return to constantly, after being gently introduced to her through a Zoom reading several years ago with Colin Herd (my PhD supervisor, brilliant poet, generous reader and curator of readings, all round solid gold human), is Bernadette Mayer. She’s so prolific, hilarious, genius, dynamic, pointed: such an example of a poet who really went out on her own while fostering community through her various projects, including a stint as head of St. Mark’s Poetry Project and ‘the Porch School’ classes she runs from home. Her work often centres around themes of the everyday, motherhood, ‘nature’, love and desire, but her formal experiments are so vast and varied — everything from the one-day long poem, Midwinter Day (which she literally wrote in a day), to the incredible prose-poetic blocks and streams of the Studying Hunger Journals. I’ve kept a handwritten diary for ten years now, plus other kinds of journals including dream and weather journals, and I’m so interested in how this kind of ‘common book’ style of writing, collage and record-keeping feeds into experimental poetics and modes of environmental, bodily and climate attunement. For me her work is all about rhythm and humour, memory, voice and vibrant imaginary. I love how she can move between really dense works and then also these razoring, lightfast lyrics like the ones in her recent book, Works & Days. I’m also a big fan of Fred Moten, the way he turns between inside and outside, working beneath and through the institutions of writing (see The Undercommons), but also the rich grain of his voice, his generous citational practice, his engagement with jazz prosody, sense of personality, spontaneity and essaying between poetry and prose. Again, another prolific writer. I’m always seduced by writers from the school of dreams — Hélène Cixous, Clarice Lispector, Marianne Morris, Alice Notley, Jackie Wang, to name a few — those who are able to eke out this performative intensity, at such an amazing range and luminosity. Recently, lots of Peter Gizzi, whose work is often elegiac but there’s a clarity to its weight, its cadence, its carriage of ghosts, that just somehow lifts me.

RW: Oh my goodness, I don’t think I can answer this! I’m grateful to Maria for introducing me recently to Bernadette Meyer, so another tick there from me (and always for Colin!). But wow, there is so much I could say… *One* thing I might say is that I don’t always think in terms of ‘writers’ as such. I’ve never been someone who has to read everything a particular writer publishes, and I struggle to conceive of work in those terms (I feel this is a neurological block of mine; I can’t always remember who wrote something, but I remember what was said; I can’t reliably remember names when I am tired or under pressure. This can feel like a real vulnerability as academic discourse in particular is very committed to the logic of the individual author as rationale and if you don’t think in those terms then you can feel yourself falling out of the loop). So I feel more influenced by techniques, metaphors, phrases, pieces of writing, a bricolage of mutterings… but I guess I *could* say those flashes of light might come from Kathleen Stewart, William Cowper, Claudia Rankine, Hannah Arendt, Banana Yoshimoto, Gilbert White, William Wordsworth, the Pearl poet, Julian of Norwich, Ariana Reines, William Carlos Williams, nicky melville, Isobel Armstrong, Nina Mingya Powles, Audre Lorde….

The problem of scale is important to this book. On the one hand, the Anthropocene refers to an immense environmental problem, which is also an ethical problem, of addressing past and present human impact on the earth. On the other hand, as you point out in the book, this is really a problem of the everyday, the mundane, the minutiae. I am interested in the formal implications of this. What do you think is the relationship between form and the book’s subject matter? Or, to put it another way, how does form relate to the book’s insistence on the weirdness of the anthropocene?

RW: Form is undoubtedly a way of thinking, a cultural force, but it is an odd phenomenon that is simultaneously enduring and at every moment dissolving. Every manifestation of a particular ‘form’ is, in fact, an adjustment, an alteration. In significant senses, this articulates the anthropocene’s relationship to our living days too: there is something there, something that looms, that both makes sense of everything we do, and is yet always changed by what we do. So when we wanted poets to think formally we wanted for poems to emerge from this dynamic, but in effect that’s simply wanting poems to do what poems do best. In terms of the forms of this collection, you have the anthology itself — a collection of blossoms, from anthos, flower — and all the blooms within it. Here I think we’re thinking of things that are both antithetical to each other — the collective that seeks to contain the individual — and conducive to their mutual efficacy — ‘would you like to speak from within this group?’. When it comes to scale, then I think also that form is mode of understanding. I baulk at making claims for any one formal approach to anything — it is imperative that the anthropocene is spoken of across forms and disciplines, and we must commit to reading across forms and disciplines too — but I think we were compelled by the Blakean sense of poetry’s envisioning of ‘a world in a grain of sand’ to watch poems conceptualise this looming that we’re all living with.

Please could you talk a little bit about the arrangement of such diverse poems and the affinities that you identified in them. How did you go about selecting poems for this anthology?

RW: This process began with our call for submissions, which felt like a ‘tuning-in’ to startling frequencies. It was a great privilege to be able to call on our particular eco/everyday influences (Kathryn Yusoff, Kathleen Stewart, Christine Sharp, Anna Tsing) to tessellate a call that then ended in an incantation of ‘keywords’… Surge | Slippage | Pulse | Eclipse | Diurnal | Solstice | Solarity | Hospitality | Kinesis | Ash | Glitch | Metabolism | Spectre | Kin. I think this is where the work of affinity building began. As we continued to correspond with our contributors, and to read their work, we were simultaneously living through seasons and time, differing paces and realities and we tried to honour those in our emails and messages, which became the fluttering means by which the poems started to constellate into various orbits. In real terms, once the deadlines had passed, we printed everyone’s pieces out and we spent a day together in my home (oh, for spending time in each others’ homes…!), talking, thinking, eating soup and bread, standing together at a long wallpapering table softly moving paper around and about and watching the poems speak to each other and find their friends. We had this feeling that the pieces were going to fall into three movements, but didn’t have any programmatic sense of what those movements would be. And I don’t think I could say with direct certainty what they are now. They are to do with things like pace, animals, earthy-ness, wateriness, curiosity, anger, perturbation, love, understanding, memory, documentation, but in some senses these movements are sui generis, they just are that way because they manifested themselves thus.

Why do the ‘weird’ and ‘occult’ make appropriate modes for discussing the anthropocene?An image of two golden-yellow jellyfish in a tank

MS: In Dark Ecology, Timothy Morton [who very graciously contributed a foreword to the book] talks about ‘ecognosis’ as a kind of ‘knowing in a loop—a weird knowing’. He’s using the term weird ‘from the Old Norse urth, meaning twisted, in a loop. […] The term weird can mean causal: the winding of the spool of fate.’ I like this idea of ecological thought as a mesh of funny turns, strange occurrences — the sense of time, the seasons and bodily rhythms out of joint with each other. If everything is entangled, then there are snares, coils and knots in the threads. I’m not interested in the anthropocene as a definitive epoch with humankind at the centre, an epoch with a fixed start-date in history, so much as a kind of thought-device (I’m thinking with Joanna Zylinska here) for negotiating the disruptions, slippages, uncanny traces and sense of the unnatural pervading what we could once supposedly point to as Nature. This thought-device requires thinking, like Björk does, with a more varied palette of environmental imaginary. You can’t just be green. There’s darkness and nacre and fire in there, if you want to think with the elements. Also in fiction and music there has been a ‘New Weird’ turn that’s tied to a sense of dislocation in the context of our changing urban and rural landscapes, late capitalist duress and increasing awareness of ecocide. And if there’s one word I’ve overused this year, apart from Zoom, it’s weird.

Unlike the ‘monofutures’ of extractive land ownership that Nat Raha describes in her poem ‘after Nina Simone & Kathryn Yusoff’, ‘weird’ eludes our attempts to control it, yet remains endlessly fertile as this ouroboros place to start and end with, feeling into ambience and the intergenerational labour of thinking back from the future and drawing strength from different alignments of care: ‘for a sensorial ethics, unlearn / each assonance tuning the ordinary / daydrift i / fabricate, known in ancestral vibrat- / ions life giving to flesh’ (Nat Raha). Weirdly the term ‘weird’ is almost perfect for these times, which seem to loop back into each other. When the present is almost too traumatic and confusing to articulate, I collapse back upon the phrase it’s just all so weird. It’s not so much a hand-wringing surrender as this fall through abyss that eventually tips us in a gravitational veer just so we might want to find a way to write about it. The covid pandemic, like the anthropocene, represents this huge scalar convergence, a sense of horizons receding, everyday life subject to precarity, socioeconomic upheaval and collapsing boundaries. For I love you, miss you, wish we could touch; say if you’re scared it’s just so weird. It’s that sense of being ‘redirect[ed] to a / Page not found’ (fred spoliar, ‘talk / show / ghost’) or the abject, splicing longing of ‘I / WANT / YOU / SO BAD / VOMIT / VOMIT / VOMIT’, ‘SURGES / s/he / SURGES’ (Sascha Akhtar).

RW: I really don’t feel I can add much to Maria’s nuanced enunciations here.. Except to say that I am becoming much more sensitive to how much of what we do/feel/understand/act upon is occult, in the etymological sense of covered over, hidden, secreted. Thin membranes seem to stretch across the turbine houses; soft inky blackness seeps and closes over (‘(all wordy in its word caul)’, as Jane Goldman writes in ‘bitter lemons for the dead beavers’). I feel we need to recognise this more, to tease apart the fibres, to make ourselves available to watery surges of origin and understanding, but also to recognise that those secrets are our conditions of living. The poems in the weird folds help me to do that, help me to make myself porous, help me to know that things are hidden even in me. In terms of politics, however, it is absolutely crucial – imperative – to hold onto our flashlights, to keep excavating, to keep on pointing to the occult forces (otherwise, to go back to Jane Goldman in ‘field animots’, ‘off the scoundrel fucks’).

Did editing this collection change or influence how you feel about or interpret climate change?

MS: It definitely altered my feelings towards this condition I’m increasingly leaning into as crisis, catastrophe, mass extinction/ecocide and global heating rather than ‘climate change’. The language matters in how we talk about this (see recent decision by The Guardian to change its language on climate issues), and the works in this anthology sound out the various affective, observatory and analytic states of climate attention. Beginning with Pratyusha’s prophecy’, which describes ‘The dream [as] swollen with pain’, and the speaker not knowing ‘what season it is anymore’, or even ‘if seasons / exist anymore’. Through these poems I’m experiencing climate crisis as a disruption of rhythm, and thinking about Henri Lefebvre’s term rhythmanalysis, which I know Rhian has also written on. There’s an urgency and directness, but none of these poems read didactic and chiding so much as a nuanced feeling into the myriad ways that the huge scale effects of the anthropocene (as both a material and existential condition) are encountered in circadian rhythms, our daily habitus, our noticing of beauty, our felt sense of desire, disorientation or loss. What is this place called anymore.

After reading so much theory I was feeling disheartened in the face of the impossible, but these poems restore to me a sense of that flicker between poetry’s potential and failure. There are vital moments of charm, or ‘arts of noticing’ as Anna Tsing would put it, that still coyly recede from human control, such as Gloria Dawson’s ‘that’s the grass / doing its wee camp holler and that’s / what nothing fabricates’. Encountering these poems and putting them in conversation comforted me, challenged me and prompted a real sense that we need our ecological thought to be queer, historical, hauntological, sensuous, lyric, strange. Flicking through the pages, I get to see fractions of lifetimes flash before my eyes, it’s a memory reel — there’s an emphasis on the spoken voice(s), human and more-than, being restored to a world of otherwise increasing automation and chaos. I’m given to the importance of questioning, not so much labelling, assuming: ‘Painter, / was this your waterfall?’, as Vahni Capildeo writes in their ‘Nocturne #4’. There’s a performative language, a recognition of our ecological thought as mediated, ambient, shaped by myriad cultural forms; a temporality of hesitance, pause but sometimes full plunge into ontological uncertainty, trace and drift. ‘As me about the horse / That never happened’, teases the speaker of fred spoliar’s ‘talk / show / ghost’ – a poem which reads a bit like a magical circuit board for the whole book.

RW: I recently read someone explain that they feel that human presence on the earth is at the hospice stage. It’s not going to last into the future; the days are ebbing away (as Lila Matsumoto writes for us, ‘All around us was casual destruction, and I don’t blame it on the weather’). This frightens me. I have a child. The thought seizes at my heart; I am afraid. But this person was saying this as someone who worked extensively in AIDS hospices in the 80s and 90s, and their report from the front line is that it is in the hospice that we come to know ourselves, where speaking can happen. The hospice is where love is. As Iain Morrison writes for us, ‘This acreage maps discomfort out for me’; of course it feels ‘dis’, but I’m grateful for that mapping. The latin ‘hospis’ is both ‘host’ and ‘guest’. This dyad of interdependency is what the weird folds came to look like for me in this anthropocenic hospice — a place where we could host, a place to invite guests, a place to swap places, a place for love. We really need those. And everything that Maria said.

What do you see as the role of the poet in modern-day society?A photo of droplets hanging from a green washing line, outside in a garden. Only the water droplets are in focus; the background is blurred.

 MS: It’s difficult to make any claims for ‘the poet’ in general — every society has a different conception of what that might mean —  but I’m with Ariana Reines in taking heed that poetry (at least in Anglo-American contexts) is having a ‘moment’ right now and that this is a response to so many things, not least climate anxiety, the depressing state of electoral politics and the overwhelming cognitive usurping of social media. Somehow poetry can slow things down and find space for rhythm and breath outside of the algorithmic platforms where so much of our day is spent. Through my work with SPAM, I have a lot of interest in ‘post-internet poetry’: in the loose sense of works that acknowledge how our lives, intimacies, memories and data are irrevocably shaped by changes in technology and the infrastructures of Web 2.0. Poetry, for Reines, who often writes about intergenerational trauma, violence, shame and desire, ‘can break up some of the plaque that sits on the heart […] and sits on language, because the powerful are using language as a weapon every single day’. Advertising, politics and all kinds of regulatory, oppressive or capitalist discourse (from twitter abuse to policy documents and mall signage) use poetic techniques and there’s something about chipping away at that, feeling to what language can do, always surprised by it. Letting the poem get out of your hands. I wouldn’t want to claim any ‘role’ for poetry as such, since it always escapes our attempts to define or reify its purpose — it’s always thirsty. As Callie Gardner, editor of Zarf, puts it: ‘[poetry] is and always will be this little naked worm, drummed up out of the earth by the sound of rain’. I’m not saying the poets are the rain, but we have to feel the rain too. Poetry is a weather condition!

RW: To make us see, to make us hear; to have us be seen, to have us heard.

Did you have a particular audience in mind when you put this collection together, an ideal reader?

MS: True to any DIY commitment, we wanted to put together a book that would be affordable and accessible, that might represent a diversity of approaches to how poetry can think and feel towards ecological entanglement in the current moment, reach between traditional forms and the kinds of ruptures and discursive turns produced by the internet. An anthology that you could pick up for casual reading, or indeed teach within a poetry curriculum, or buy as a gift. So not an ideal reader as such, but I like the idea that the book might be a portal for people to discover writers they might not otherwise have heard of and in doing so rethink and expand their sense of a ‘canon’ for anthropocene thinkers. Someone who is open to play, and the movement of thought between creativity and critique, not to mention the performance, im/possibility and pleasure of various genres.

RW: Yes, absolutely — cost and accessibility are vital in reaching ‘ideal readers’, who are readers who are teaching themselves, who are curious, thoughtful, not defensive! Who are alert to and excited by weirdly folding concertinas of insight and perception. Who like books that have beautiful covers and feel nice in your hand.

What other projects (writing and editing) are you working on, or would like to work on in the future?A blurry, artful image of out-of-focus water droplets

 MS: In 2020, I’ve got two pamphlets of my own poetry coming out: Chlorophyllia with OrangeApple Press and neutral milky halo with Guillemot Press. With SPAM, we’re super busy with two issues of our new online magazine, which you should be able to see before Christmas. People have been so generous sending us their work and I’m really happy with the lineup. We’re also putting out three new books in the autumn, including Oli Hazzard’s PROGRESS: REAL AND IMAGINED and Sam Walton’s Bad Moon. Otherwise I’m still busy writing up my PhD thesis, running occasional Zoom workshops (including Pop Matters: a studio for thinking the alternative) and working on a few collaborations and reviews, including a piece on Candace Hill’s dazzling Muss Sill (Distance No Object). I’m really excited to have worked with Jane Goldman on her new Dostoyevsky Wannabe collection, SEKXPHRASTICS, which comes out this year also – it’s an incredibly rich assemblage of writing on art, epistolary writing, ekphrasis, lyric tics, jouissance and metamorphosis. With the Glasgow-based art and ecology collective (A+E) I’m in, we’re working alongside academic Rhys Williams and anthropologists Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer on a COP-adjacent project on low-carbon pleasure. And with Iryna Zamuruieva and others, a joint project on pig pandemics. In future I would like to sleep more and have more time for drawing and visual practice, but I’m always open to longer term collaborations and some kind of waged job would be lovely.

RW: At the moment I am writing in different ways, and enjoying and appreciating that. I love to review, and I am writing for a social enterprise company that focuses on pre-loved clothing for children. I write most days in some way or other for a community group that is trying to progress anti-racist imperatives in everyday learning and education. I have been working with Maria Fusco on an exciting performance poetry piece for the Geffrye Museum of the Home in London, I think due to happen in 2021. And also with the BBC on a series on nineteenth-century art and culture. I have some tentative plans for essays in mind; I am building confidence towards submitting creative pieces for publication. I hope to collaborate more. I am permanently open to conversations and writing projects!