'A Miniaturized Bulwark Against Being Solitary': SJ Fowler introduces 'Enemies: Selected Collaborations'

[Enemies: The Selected Collaborations of SJ Fowler is available from Penned in the Margins in the UK, priced £9.99.  This introduction was originally published on the Penned in the Margins web site, November 22, 2013.  The emphasis on collaboration is a perspective to which I feel a very great affinity.  (J.R.)]

We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and
friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.
- Orson Welles

First and foremost, this book is a record of friendships. It is a testament to my refusing to be alone in the creative act, as I would not want to be alone in the world, and to my decision to mediate sociality through the artistic impulse of other human beings, whose brilliance leaves me feeling more at home in that world. If my daily life is primarily defined by individuals who have decided to make their brief time on this planet one of creativity, ingenuity, intelligence and humour, and who have talents far surpassing my own, my experience of life can only be one that is defined by constant growth and learning and, hopefully, understanding — towards nothing more than more art unto expiry. Maybe even enough to temporarily blot out life’s adversarial character and essential purposelessness. Certainly it has worked recently, and that’s more than enough for me.

This is why the book exists as selected collaborations, whittled down from over 60 different exchanges I have been a part of over the last few years with writers, poets, artists, photographers, illustrators, designers, sculptors and filmmakers from across the world. The act of collaboration has become a defining turn in my practice, a constant affirmation of a way of writing as well as a way of communicating in real space, between human beings.

Enemies is a record of potentiality too, of what the aberrant and ambiguous use of language can be when responding, warping and enveloping another, equally abundant, artistic medium. It is my view that poetry lends itself to collaboration as language does conversation, and it is in poetry we are renovating the living space of communication, and this in itself is a collaborative act. The poet comes up against something other than themselves in the writing of every poem; and in the shaping of every fragment of language there is a response taking place. I hope this book showcases original, dynamic examples of what is produced

The motivation behind my taking on so many collaborations was initially a source of uncertainty for me. I’ve come to realise this reluctance (I began collaborating by invitation, the Voiceworks and Blue Touch Paper projects being early examples) is intensely important. It’s becoming clearer with time that I undertake so many collaborations precisely because, at heart, I believe less than many of my peers in the transformative power of poetry. That isn’t to say I believe poetry isn’t transformative at all — of course I do ascribe it such potential (to me personally, it is utterly and immensely transformative — but I refuse it the power to go beyond my own personal subjectivity. I refuse the idea that poetry is improving in and of itself. There is a tension here, maybe even a paradox. I have both feelings at once, that poetry is both nothing and everything. Yet I do believe, somehow and without articulation, in the Brodskyite notion of poetry being the most important artform because of its relationship to the profundity of language, because of its engagement with what fundamentally constitutes all other creativity and discussion. It is impossible for me to escape the feeling that this relationship is wholly individuated, and so at the very same moment — poetry is nothing, a game for the initiated, the distraction of a select. I suppose then that my poetry, and my collaborations, are about stripping away a glib assumption that poetry is profound, to get to the private meaning, which I do believe is utterly closed and personal though very much present. Here is the second paradox: by maintaining a creative practice often reliant on an other, and an act of exposure toward them, I am able to gain fresh and invaluable access to my own poetry and its process. Paulo Friere’s notion that communication builds community in the creative, organisational act which is the antagonistic opposite of manipulation, and a natural development of unity, ties into the idea that my collaborations might be founded on a central turn — a paradox of dismissiveness and legitimacy about the poetical act and the nature of poetry’s power. For me then, this book is a confusion as well as a testament, a symbol of community and accord, as well as a record I cannot fathom on rereading. And this is exactly how it seems to me it should be — lost in the margins.

If this book is held together by poetry, it is as a soft and tacky kind of glue – uhu – as good for eating as for adhesion.

Artists who are powerful alone, and need not collaborate, seem to do so easily, uninterested in the protection of their inspiration. If this book is held together by poetry, it is as a soft and tacky kind of glue — uhu — as good for eating as for adhesion, barely keeping pace (which is its strength, I hope, that it acknowledges this in its very firmament) with the photography, art, illustration, musical composition and design of so many gifted others to be found within these pages. I have been told it is a book dense and mysterious, full of challenging material, and shifts in tone. It doesn’t seem so to me, nor did it feel so in its multifarious creation or compilation. But then perhaps that is because I hope that if my work stands for one thing, it is that experimentation and innovation is not a stance, but a pattern of behaviour, not a philosophy of theory, heavy with beneficial and smug associations of rebellion and kudos, but a specific reaction to a specific need or notion — a philosophy in action. How might I express what I wish to outside of atypical methods? This I do not know, interested as I am in the untameable and almost unknowable, and the dark edges of experience, emotion, civilisation and its history. Broken syntax, free verse, Oulipian codas, found text, unconscious writing, high conception &c.: these are what I deem the necessary tools and, as I hope will be clear throughout this volume, ones wholly symbiotic with the subject of each collaboration and the work of each collaborator.

The twenty-nine works ahead of you are almost always excerpts from larger works. At the end of the book you will find a Notes section, which will shed some light on the content and process of each collaboration, and where you’d find them in their full length, if relevant. I want to thank all the collaborators who made it into the book, all those who didn’t, probably better off not being associated with me, and Tom Chivers, editor of Penned in the Margins, who does important work, selflessly and with immense professionalism. Special debts of gratitude to Jon Opie and Shonagh Manson at the Jerwood Charitable Foundation, who, alongside Arts Council England, have allowed the concept for this book to grow into a huge programme of events and undertakings involving over thirty happenings and two hundred artists and poets. And to David Kelly and Livia Dragomir, monsters who cannot be unmentioned.

Consider this meagre work in your hands a rather miniaturised bulwark against being solitary — a sandcastle before a tsunami, that might provide you with the smallest apertures of pleasant distraction. For my own part, if my work sits alongside, or inside, work of a quality such as I hope you will find beyond this page, it can only be elevated. The others who are my Enemies in art and in life, who make up my community, and who will not let me be complacent, are what this book means to me. I hope for you it might take on another meaning that I cannot possibly fathom from my privileged vantage.

SJ Fowler, September 2013