An Interview with Anthony Etherin

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Interviewer: Çağatay Koparal

In which circumstances and in which phase of your life did the idea of writing poetry emerge? What were your thoughts about literature and poetry before that moment and how was your first poems?

In my teenage years, and throughout my undergraduate degree, I was a musician, playing in bands and serving as principal songwriter. I didn’t particularly enjoy writing the lyrics, much preferring composing music, but since lyrics were a necessity, I took on the challenge as best I could. At this time, I was, academically, involved in the sciences. (My undergraduate degree is in Physics.)

During my penultimate year at university, my main band broke up, leaving me with plenty of spare time on my hands. Seduced by the notion of working within an art form where I wouldn’t have to depend on other people, I decided to try poetry.

At first, my poems were awful free verse, little different from the song lyrics I had been writing — only lacking the added interest of musical accompaniment. It was only when I began to study prosody that my poems improved. Learning how to correctly write in metered verse changed everything for me. It gave me the musical backing my words needed.

So, I began composing metered, formal poetry: sonnets, villanelles, rondels, triolets — I tried any and every form I could.

After some time, I started looking for more complex ways to structure my verse, ultimately leading to my use of alphabetical constraints such as palindromes and anagrams — and, going further, palindromic sonnets, anagrammatic triolets….

I hadn’t read a great deal of poetry until I started writing it (I have since made up for this!), although I was a keen reader of other things, and obsessive about music. My lack of engagement with poetry was largely because the style of poetry I was taught at school — non-metered, non-formal, and emotion-based — was very far from the traditions I would end up embracing.

What is the main motivation that prompted you to write experimental poetry? Did you have a strong influence or a mentor in this choice? Do you think that the culture you are born into and grown in has an impact on this motivation?

My interest in literary constraints grew from my interest in poetic forms. To me, they are part of the same tradition. It was only when I applied metrical and formal rules to my poetry that I finally felt comfortable as a poet. And the more rules I applied, the more comfortable I felt! The shackles liberated me.

I had no mentor, and I wasn’t aware of many people writing the sort of poetry I was becoming interested in. But there was Oulipo, of course, whose very existence appeared tolegitimiseconstrained poetry (and similar practices)as poetry. This was important for me, since I am from the UK, where for the last hundred years the traditions of constraint-based poetry have been largely marginalised, orrelegated to quaint parlour games.

Looking beyond the UK, I gradually began to discover some promising signs for constrained poetry, and this helped motivate me to continue. One stand-out wasEunoia by Christian Bök, a sequence of univocalic lipograms, which had received both commercial and critical success. Apparent renewed interest in formalism, in the United States, was another motivating factor.

How would you describe your poetry, and can you mark the spot of your poetry in today’s literature?

I’m a formalist. But it’s a broad formalism, embracing both traditional forms and experimental forms, and with a deep interest in the sister disciplines of constrained and concrete poetry.

There are obvious connections between my work and that of the conceptualists, and many of my closest friends in the poetry world belong to that movement.

I suppose my poetry could also be considered part of the general formalist revival that’s going on — although much of my poetry is too experimental for that scene. I have received both high praise and dismay from contemporary formalists, depending on the extent of their conservatism.

The dominant poetics worldwide, and especially in the UK, is free verse in the lyrical mode, which is pretty much the opposite of what I do. So, I suppose my poetry could be considered countercultural, albeit unintentionally.

I know that you think form is the most important thing in poetry, would you like to express your feelings about form and content for us?

The dominance of lyrical poetry has instilled the notion that poetry is emotion- and sensation-based, and that the primary goal of the poet is to express his or her feelings. Moreover, it is implied that this is itsuniversal and timeless goal.

But this is wrong and ahistorical. While poetic forms were indeed invented to buttress and focus textual content (content which, in any case, may or may not be sensory-emotive), such forms are also works of art in themselves.

I think of the Sator Square— a 2000-year-old Latin word square, reading the same vertically as horizontally, which is also a palindrome: SATORAREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS. This translates as, “A farmer named Arepo works with a wheel”.

I suggest it would be a mistake to judge the beauty of the Sator Square based solely on the content of its words.The enduring appeal of the Sator Square is not down to its emotive-sensory content, but entirely attributable to its form. Its text is incidental, and its form is everything.

When it comes to my own practice, I think in terms of a content/form aesthetic balance. For example, if I am writing a straight-forward sonnet, or a straight-forward palindrome even, there remains enough freedom that the poem should be, in layman’s terms, ‘a good poem’ — that is, its content should exhibit some tangible poetic virtues, such as melody, imagery, meaning and/or feeling. The aesthetic balance between form and content is more-or-less even in such poems.

However, when further constraints are applied, the balance shifts towards the formal aesthetic. As with the Sator Square, the content becomes somewhat incidental, acting merely in service of a higher, geometric ideal. This is the case with my more severe restrictions: my palindromic sestina, or my anagrammed palindromic sonnets, for example. What is taken from contentual elegance is given to structural elegance. (Though it is worth noting here that my intention is always to achieve maximum contentual elegance; it is the rules that diminish this,not my acquiescence!)

Your poems are incredibly hard to write and quite satisfying to read. You use palindromes which I find very interesting. Would you please describe “aelindrome” for your new readers?

The aelindrome is a literary restriction I invented a few years ago. It is a variation on the palindrome— however, instead of mirroring a repeated, fixed letter-unit, itmirrors units of variable letter-lengths, as determined by premeditated numerical sequences.

For example, the phrase “Melody, a bloody elm” is an aelindrome structured by the numerical palindrome 1234321, since [m]1 [el]2 [ody]3 [a blo]4 reflects backward as [a blo]4 [ody]3 [el]2 [m]1. By convention, aelindromes are said to be “in” the forward incarnation of their sequence (up to and including its “pivot” — in this example, [a blo]4). Therefore, the preceding aelindrome is an “Aelindrome in 1234”. (Note that, when parsing letters this way, a unit of zero letters will return as a unit of zero letters — absence reflects as absence. Thus, an aelindrome in 1234 has a structure identical to that of an aelindrome in, for example, 10020300000004.)

Do you think that other art and literature genres have an influence on poetry? And if so, what are the things that have influence on yours?

Music has been a huge influence on my poetry, as my early, immersive experience of it has given me a good ear for melody and rhythm. I think of mathematics as an artform, too — and its impact on my work is quite evident. Visual art is an influence also — I rarely write ekphrastic poetry, in the strictest sense, but an inspirational painting of, for example, a seascape, is likely to get me thinking and writing about the sea.

Do you think that poets should study writing poetry like studying a lesson or an instrument and practice every day or should they write only in the moments of inspiration?

I believe in self-discipline — rather than waiting for inspiration to hit, poets need to get to work. This is perhaps easier for a poet like me, whose craft employs definite processes; however, I believe poets of all styles can benefit from committing to at least one hour of writingper day.

But I’d be wary of thinking of this as ‘practice’. It’s a bad idea to sit down intending to compose only a ‘practice poem’. I think every time a poet puts pen to paper they should believe they are about to compose the greatest work of their career!

Can you list 5 (or more) names of your latest taste of literature, music or movies? 

Christian Bökcontinues to inspire, and his ongoing Xenotext project — so many years in the making now! — continues to fascinate.

Perhaps the best work of traditional formal poetry in recent years is AE Stallings’ “Like” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).

As for visual poetry (which I have barely mentioned in this interview, but which is another important part of my practice), I am constantly amazed by the work of British poet Mary Frances. Her Twitter account is well worth following.

For music, there’s Samuel Andreyev — both his own compositions and his wonderful YouTube music analysis channel.

And since you mention movies, Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” is one that I can’t seem to get out of my head. Seeing it at the cinema was one of my last outings before the UK went into lockdown, whichhas made the movie’sstrangeness all the stranger to me!

Anthony Etherin and Çağatay Koparal, Buzdokuz Volume: 2, November-December 2020.