Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
The late poet on his artistic influences, leftist politics, and reading to anarcho-punks.
I only got to talk with Sean Bonney once before he passed. This fall, we met up at a little bar in Neukölln, Berlin. After interviewing him about his great new book, Our Death (Commune Editions), we ended up drinking and talking for hours. Bonney was trying to find a way out of academia. He was looking forward to spending time in Athens, where he could work on translations of Katerina Gogou’s poetry in her native city. He was also scheduled to do a series of readings in the US, where he had never really spent much time.
We talked about Diane Di Prima sleeping in hallways before she got on her feet in New York City. We talked about Fred Moten’s essays. Our conversation eventually landed on the topic of psychedelics. Bonney mentioned that he once hallucinated an enormous, formless black shape under the influence of DMT. Allen Ginsberg, among others, had witnessed the same thing and written about it. Ginsberg claimed it was God. But Bonney said the giant, shapeless entity told him: “Don’t think that I’m God.” This anecdote might help to contextualize the following discussion about poetry’s role in radical struggles, how autobiography enters into Bonney’s work, and the place of tradition in militant poetics. Bonney was disabused of illusions, without being disillusioned.
Jeffrey Grunthaner We’ve already established that you’ve been in Berlin for about four years. Did you write Our Death primarily here?
Sean Bonney Primarily. The section “Our Death” started off as a continuation of the book that I’d written before, Letters Against the Firmament, which was a collection of open letters to the poetry community about the political situation in Britain at the time. They were definitely in the same kind of voice, which is not quite me—it kind of was me, but, you know, an embellished literary guise. Very quickly it became clear that the pieces I was writing were no longer letters. They were much more classically prose poems. I had done some very rough versions the summer before I moved, but it’s mainly purely Berlin.
JG And what attracts you to the epistolary poem?
SB It’s something I just fell into. I discovered eventually that it wasn’t without precedent. You’ve got it in, say, Hölderlin’s Hyperion and so on. But it seemed new to me. You remember the riots in 2011? I was out in those. I can remember going home and thinking to myself: It seems a bit hokey to go home and write a poem after being involved in something like this. So I wrote a letter which was, in my mind, written to one or two poets I know about how I couldn’t write a poem.
That’s really peculiar because now say, ten years after the fact, they’re in my Selected Poems. They are definitely prose poems. So it’s strange how a literary form will change. But it kind of grew. It became a really interesting way in which to write, in that I could just jump about. And I could also use my subjectivity. In avant-garde poetry it’s still very much a no-no to naively use your subjectivity. But suddenly I could throw in lines that were just trivial details about my autobiography, next to speculations about Pythagorean harmony. It worked for me really well for about five, six years. That was the main way I wrote. I still don’t know too many other poets who use that form.
JG Would you consider yours a militant poetics?
SBYes, definitely. I’ve been a leftist political activist all my life. For a long time, there was a struggle in me between whether I should dedicate myself to militancy or dedicate myself to poetry and at some point they blended together. Maybe it’s because I’m older, but these days I think of my writing as my contribution to that.
JG It seems like your militancy doesn’t eschew things like occultism. Things that maybe don’t easily fall into a classically Marxist framework, you know?
SBYou have traditions of thought that are interested in serving power. And you have traditions of thought that are interested in freeing people from that power. Sometimes these traditions overlap. And sometimes they can be useful in both directions. Marx is one. Hegel is another. Poets are definitely within that. And I think of myself as a poet in that tradition, in trying to contribute in my own small way to human emancipation. Marx is one of the huge figures but then you’ve got strange people like Fourier, who is also part of that tradition. Or the Dadaists or the people who made “The Magic Roundabout.”
JG One thing that struck me reading Our Death was that you—and I’m using this word carefully—seem to occupy or reimagine certain writers, including Rimbaud or Baudelaire.
SBWell, those were both poets I did books on that drew from their imagery, rather than being books of translation that just joined their imagery to make the book. The Baudelaire one I did around 2008. It’s a book of concrete poems. The translations are all done on a typewriter. They’re very much visual poems. They’re readable as English poems, but only just about.
JG Do you feel like you’re continuing Baudelaire’s voice?
SB That would be a big claim. But he’s definitely someone that I admire. I remember that time … my life changed very much. I left a long relationship. I was living by myself. I was going through one of those phases where you look through the books that you read when you were a teenager, or listen to the records you listen to when you were a teenager, to remind yourself why you got into this thing in the first place. I was reading a lot of Baudelaire, and I had enough French to notice that in English he’s basically censored. So I just started messing about like that. But I had no interest in writing a book of translation. I ended up with these concrete poems, which were also love poems to a person I just met at the time. It was also an alibi for me to write lots and lots of poems about sex and drugs, because it’s Baudelaire.
JG Of course! (laughter)
SBI did a similar thing with Rimbaud around the time of the student protests and the riots in the UK, because a lot of Rimbaud’s imagery was very, very fitting to what was going on there. They’re just two people—you could do cover versions, you know, they’re not translations. But you are in a tradition. There’s nothing wrong with using a bit from that. I’m a small part of that tradition. I’m from Lautréamont and Artaud and all of these French people. You know what I mean? That’s the definition of poetry I’ve been interested in ever since I’ve known what poetry is.
JG Artaud is not necessarily thought of in terms of leftist poetics. Maybe he’s emancipatory in a grand sense but he’s not necessarily political.
SB He’s no Marxist.
SB There’s a strange feeling at the moment with the rise of the alt-right and those who are trying to be edgy. Nick Land wrote that book on Bataille. Well, that’s easy. Bataille was a communist and anti-fascist street fighter. Even so, he himself was very critical about the implications of some of the things he wrote in the 1930s. Artaud was a much more ambiguous figure. I’m involved with a group of anti-fascist artists in Berlin at the moment, working out ways that make it impossible for fascists to use [literature]. Artaud is one of them. The fascists cannot have him.
JG I’m looking at one of your poems right now, “What Teargas is For.” I assume this is related to the protests?
SB Yeah, yeah.
JGYou were teargassed?
SB Yeah, all that.
JG You have this amazing passage here. I’m just going to read it:
You come to a very real understanding of the nature of things, both visible and invisible, by having your sensory system hijacked and turned against you by a meaningful dose of teargas. It is the anti-Rimbaud. The absolute regulation and administration of all the senses. I mean, try it. Next time things are starting to kick off a little bit just go out on the street and run straight into the middle of the biggest cloud of teargas you can find.
SB I mean, I was having a laugh. (laughter) But it is true. The famous Rimbaud idea: the expansion of all the senses is precisely what tear gas doesn’t do. It hurts. And it smells foul.
JGOn the subject of humor and having a laugh, it’s interesting that the alt-right—at least, coming from the US—seems to have almost monopolized free speech. They can say things that are ridiculously absurd and comical. The established left just wags its finger and goes, No, no, no, you’re not supposed to say that.
SB This is a tricky one. I’m an old member of Antifa in England before the group was known as Antifa. It has actually been going since the 1930s here in Germany. It was an organization of self-defense against Nazi street gangs. The version in Britain in the late ’80s, early ’90s was called Anti-Fascist Action. It was fairly small. We’d find out where the fascists, who were still a small group, were holding their meetings, and we’d make it impossible for them to hold meetings.
JGBy any means necessary?
SB As simple as that. I saw it as working in tandem with the more liberal campaigning groups. They can go and campaign, tell people why it’s wrong to be racist. We’d actively prevent racists from organizing. The question of free speech is difficult because the pat and problematic answer is: You’ve got the right to say anything. And I’ve got the right to smack you in the mouth when you say it. (laughter)
JG I think if free speech has any real value it exists against the state, against power that could coerce or repress.
SB Yeah, totally. Speaking the truth to power.
JG But when it’s restricted to tone policing …
SB It’s pathetic. Even though I’m on the left, I really despise leftist self-righteousness. Callout culture and all of that. That’s got nothing to do with any left I recognize.
JGI bring all this up because your poetry seems to contravene that sort of callout culture. It’s full of animosity filtered through comedy.
SBI’ve been told that it’s no use to the left, because it’s nasty. I mean, I’m influenced by, say, people like Mark E. Smith. When I was a teenager, I was a massive Fall fan. Well, I still am. I remember seeing him live. His stage demeanor, the way he hated everything—I really admired that as a performance artist.
I hate mainstream left wing artists. I don’t consider my work to be protest work. I’m not trying to convince anybody to not like capitalism. My ideal audience already hates cops. I’m not trying to convince anybody of anything. I’m just trying to contribute to a discussion about why they’re bad and the best ways out of this situation.
JG So if it’s not protest, and it’s certainly not centrist, what is your work’s place in relation to, say, revolutionary organization, anti-statist organization, or anti-police organization?
SBWell, it doesn’t just get published in poetry journals. And I don’t just read in poetry reading series. It’s very important to me that I do those things—and I’m very glad that I do—because I am a poet. I want my work to be there. I want it to be good poetry. But it also gets published in anarchist papers and things like that.
I was invited to read at the launch of one of the issues of Endnotes, which is a very high-end communization journal. So I got a foot in the anti-capitalist movement, and my work has as well. That’s how I try and negotiate that. It means a lot to me that it gets out of the poetry world because so many poets, they’re just read by other poets. A lot of my readers are other poets. But then there’s this other area that it reaches out to.
JG Reading Our Death, I noticed that you were setting up a Pantheon—like Katerina Gogou, Pasolini, Artaud. Could you tell me about the importance of this Pantheon and the tradition that you’re a part of?
SBI think on one level, every poet or every artist has their own Pantheon, their own cluster of influences that they’re trying to continue from, which is more or less unique to them. Some influences fall away. Other influences stay with you, and others become more important.
Pasolini is massively important. Pasolini is an exemplary communist artist. A great filmmaker, a great essayist, a great poet, and a great contrarian. Because one of the great things about being a poet is you don’t have to toe any party line. You can say whatever you want. Another influence is Rimbaud and the surrealists. The Situationists were massively important to me for a long, long while and they continue to be.
JGIt’s interesting that you mention the Situationists because they eventually adopted a hard line of: No galleries, no object-making, no poetry.
SBThe Situationists did write poetry! You could make the argument that The Society of the Spectacle is a poem. It’s a collage of Lukács, Hegel, and Marx. And that doesn’t take anything away from its value as a book of theory either. I think poetry can be a place where subjectivity can go into a political discourse. It would be kind of dreadful if you are handing out a leaflet about some particular situation and it went blah, blah, blah-ing about how you felt while you’re eating your cornflakes. But in a poem, if you do it right, it can work.
JG So maybe that’s the place of leftist poetics, to preserve subjectivity?
SB Yeah, one of the places.
JG Can we talk a little bit about Katerina Gogou, one of the members of your Pantheon? She’s new to me. I’ve only just been introduced to her through your book.
SB She was a wonderful Greek poet. I came across her on the website Libcom.org. I was looking for a photograph of the surrealist poet Benjamin Péret. Apparently a photograph exists of him when he was in the anarchist militia, sitting on a stoop somewhere with a cat on his lap and a rifle in his hand. And I wanted that picture. I wanted to put it on my wall. And so I put “poetry” into the search engine and it didn’t turn up, but Katerina Gogou did.
JG How long ago was this?
SBThis was four or five years ago. It was an interesting essay on her life, but it also included what the author of the essay said were bad literal translations. So on a rainy afternoon I just started fucking about with them, trying to make them into decent English poems. And it ended up being the sequence it is now. There are poems using her themes, and there are poems that are purely by me, but they are part of that sequence.
There’s a very flattering thing’s got told to me. I read an early version of those poems at an anarchist social centre in Athens about four years ago. I was worried because Gogou is basically, I wouldn’t use the word sacred, because they’re anarchists, but you know what I mean—a figure for a lot of Greek anarchists. And they loved it. The woman who knew Gogou came up to me and told me that I had entirely the correct spirit. A few other coincidences happened that made me know that I was doing the right thing.
JG Like synchronicities?
SBYeah, yeah. She’s a very important figure to me. Her work is not just something you contemplate in the book and go, Oh how pretty, and put the book on the shelf and forget about it. It makes you do things, like make other poems. My book was insisting on Gogou’s work still being alive—unfinished business, as it were. I was trying to add historical depth to my book, because I didn’t want it to just be my Brexit book. I wanted it to be more than that. I wanted it to be a book that said: No, we’re in a tradition.
For my new project, I’m working on proper translations of her with some Greek poets. Since that sequence was so poetically successful, I feel that I should try and give something back, to actually bring her into the English-speaking world. I know enough publishers that I can be confident that our selected poems will find a publisher.
JGDo you think that poetry communicates a more emancipatory message than music? Or is that not necessarily true?
SBI don’t think you can separate them. Most poetry readings are dull. The ones that I do and the ones that I do with my friends, we work with musicians and dancers while we’re reading. Usually. So it’s a different setup. We’re not a band, but we’re also not just solo poetry readings.
A poet who really influenced me when I was young was Tom Raworth. He was a British poet, but spent a lot of time in America. While most experimental British poets would read with a complete lack of affect, he’d have these long skinny poems, pretty much one word a line, and he would read them so fast. The words would sound like they were falling over one another. The first time I saw him, it was like what I imagined seeing the Ramones at CBGB’s in ‘75 must have been like. I was, like, hopping all the way home, saying to everyone, Listen, that’s the way readings should be.
I’ve hopefully done that. I’m known for doing very energetic, in your face readings. Like I said, my earliest readings were at punk shows back in the late ‘80s. The thing was to make a bunch of anarcho-punks, who were there to listen to bands, listen to some little skinny guy ranting on about Margaret Thatcher—which is about the level my poems were at, at the time. (laughter) But I do still believe that readings should be exciting. Poetry is many things, but it’s also a form of entertainment. So it should do that.
Jeffrey Grunthaner is an artist-writer-musician-curator currently based in Berlin. Articles, reviews, poems, and essays have appeared via Drag City Books, American Art Catalogues, Heavy Feather Review, the Brooklyn Rail, artnet News, Hyperallergic, and other venues. Recent curatorial projects include the reading and discussion series Conversations in Contemporary Poetics at Hauser & Wirth (NYC). Some music can be found here.
Some music can be found here.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.