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Try To Be Better—edited by Sam Buchan-Watts and Lavinia Singer—is a multi-disciplinary engagement with the idiosyncratic creative practice of W.S. Graham, foregrounding experiment and process. Contemporary writers and artists respond to prompts Graham left in notebooks and letters to create original poetry, illustration, sculpture, painting, scholarship and more. Published by prototype earlier this year (see here), the collection collates works by Astrid Alben; Nuar Alsadir; Marianne Røthe Arnesen; Edwina Attlee; Tom Betteridge; Rachael Boast; Nancy Campbell; Thomas A. Clark; Holly Corfield Carr; Lauren Doughty; Bobby Dowler; Aisha Farr; Natalie Ferris; Isabel Galleymore; Callie Gardner; Christopher P. Green; Oliver Griffin; Will Harris; Lesley Harrison; Daisy Lafarge; Zigmunds Lapsa; Maureen N. McLane; Lucy Mercer; Aimée Parrott; Natalie Pollard; Paloma Proudfoot; Denise Riley; Ben Sanderson; Denise Saul; Lucy Stein; Amy & Oliver Thomas-Irvine; Nick Thurston and Donya Todd to realize a searching study of Graham’s work, practice, critical inference and poetic influence. Hotel is delighted to run a wide-ranging conversation between author and translator Kate Briggs and editor Sam Buchan-Watts in response to this publication.

See HERE for excerpts from the texts—including works by Lucy Mercer; Lesley Harrison; and Nancy Campbell.

Where and how does a body of work live? In its published, most public and most stable forms? Or somehow also in its drafts, its notebooks, in all the partial and unrealized projects left still-to-come? In his notebooks and letters the poet W.S. Graham left, partially or fully phrased, a number of problems, suggestions and future lines of inquiry—and the writers and artists contributing to Try To Be Better have taken these on. I would say they have taken them on in the sense of thinking through the responsibilities of responsive reading (what it is to extend the line of someone else’s work with your own) and in the sense of taking forward, of variously carrying processes forward into our current moment, extending “arrested thoughts” into new practices of writing, art-making and critical thinking quite different from Graham’s own, and from there out into the future. For it’s difficult not to read—at least, I found it difficult not to read or look at and engage with—the work collected in Try To Be Better forwards as well as backwards: back in relation to the ‘prompts’ the writers and artists chose to respond to as well as forwards and speculatively towards what else could be done—releasing this reader into a responsibility of her own. I asked Sam Buchan-Watts who, together with Lavinia Singer, initiated and edited the volume, questions about their project.


Could you tell me how you think about—how you would want to describe—the status of W.S. Graham’s notebooks in relation to the published body of work? I ask this because I have long been interested in the note-form, having spent time translating lecture notes which were never intended to become books—how to deal with notes as notes? What different potentials do they hold? What different forms of reading and response might they invite?
It’s a fascinating subject, that relation. This book starts out on the basis that there were questions—theoretical and pragmatic—proposed and explored in the notebooks that Graham did not move beyond in his life (‘solve’ would be wrong), despite the profound achievements of his poetry. I think they also embody an unusually close relationship to what occurs in Graham’s poetry, which inhabits the tropes of the notebook. A great achievement of Graham’s poems is their ability to err intuitively in metre to offset stricture and voice, and this was made possible by the experimentations with metre and automatic writing in notebooks: ‘In my note book’, Graham declared, ‘I made myself try to say all kinds of things which seemed impossible to say in this metre’, much of which did not go on to see the light of day. Such experimentation helped Graham arrive at what he called a ‘sensibility which I didn’t know was in me’. The notebook records what might otherwise be lost in the creative process, the act of a mind moving towards a form or an idea. What is the status of those essential experiments that are working ‘towards’ finished poems, I wondered? Graham works at the limits of his medium, language, in which he wants to make ‘disturbance’, but he also works in correspondence with other mediums, like paint. So what happens if the notes are taken up by practitioners whose artistic sensibility is rendered in very different terms, like sculptors?

The notebook also offers means of visualizing or formulating concepts—the means of which may not necessarily be accommodated in the completed or published item—it allows play; it is free from the category of error, as abstract painting might be, and from embarrassment and getting things wrong; it is art as its closest to pure conjecture, potential, experiment. Contextually-speaking, notebooks may be completely interior, or they may be produced in solitude and then gifted to others, as some of Graham’s were. The degree of invulnerability they offer in their creatively undetermined space corresponds with the intimacy between Graham and his painter friends, which is often articulated as a kind of boyish mischief in his poetry, as characterised by the wily face on the book’s cover, drawn for the writer Norman Macleod. (I found this on an envelope to Macleod, but they occur across the notebooks.) Like letters and lyric poetry the notebook may use address to foster intimacy, but it’s a one-sided intimacy. I think a triumph of Graham’s is to retain an element of these characteristics in the so-called ‘finished’ poetry. The notes and notebook ‘prompts’ belonging to Graham—which in their epigrammatic, condensed curiosity are certainly ‘poetic’—enlighten us not only to the nature of Graham’s poetic practice, but—as my co-editor Lavinia and I suspected—to what it is to make art more broadly. This was confirmed by the energetic responses we received from those who contributed to our project, which included illustrators, a typographer, painters and more. Having spent so long with these prompts over the years as a researcher and curator of the project, one of the most special things about seeing a published/printed copy of the book was realizing that the prompts would be out in the world as discrete objects— they are remarkable.

I’d be interested to know when and how did you first came across the notebooks, and in what context?
I first came across the notebooks a year into my doctoral research on poetic artifice. From at least 1958 Graham began selling notebooks and typescripts to patron-friends, so there is a degree to which the notebooks have their eye on posterity. These financial arrangements, and the labour of his wife, the poet Nessie Dunsmuir, subsidized his puritanically (aside from the booze) poetry-centred life. Are the mysterious, confounding and compelling annotations notes-to-self or notes to selves? One particularly illuminating notebook from 1949 was given to Elizabeth Smart and republished in 1987 in Edinburgh Review, which continues to be a rich resource in accessing the poetry’s complex formalism and evidencing Graham’s debt to his modernist forebears. In some ways it’s an excellent ‘tool-kit;’ in other ways it thickens the conceptual work. It does this via its philosophical propositions and rabbit holes of form, which were perhaps not all explored to their limit in the published work.

Thanks to the poet Robin Skelton especially, who bought a large number of Graham’s typescripts, annotated books and other treasures from 1963 onwards, there is a rich store of material in one place—the only drawback being that it’s in British Columbia! The National Library of Scotland also has a large and various collection, including notebooks, typescripts, drawings, letters and postcards. There are other pieces I came across via private collection—I was tipped off in 2016 by a poet that a mutual friend had come to own some quite remarkable examples. They are interesting material objects in their own right: Graham was so poor that he would produce work on whatever was available. These worksheets are huge sheets of cartridge paper and feature non-verbal grids of projected verse – apt for a trained journeyman engineer who conceived of his long poems visually and numerically, the way a draughtsman might. They also feature tantalizing notes in the margins—genuinely mystifying, mnemonic and original ways of conceiving of verse structure: his characteristic loose three-beat line is described as a ‘three stress lode out’, above the Poundian imperative to ‘innovate innovate innovate’, the thought itself compressed into the artifice of verse. What is striking is the degree of overlap across Graham’s ‘outputs’. The visual drafting, the performed intimacy of elegy, the handwritten missive—the formal boundaries between these are constantly bleeding. Indeed, Graham would produce constructivist installations for his live readings, inhabiting the geometrics of those drafts; the letters resemble poems, his most famous poems are ‘verse letters’, and so on. They embody the extent to which the style and the experiment was lived.  

So when did you start thinking of inviting others to respond these notes—to make this collection? And how would you characterize the call or the charge of what, in the introduction to Try To Be Better, you call “prompts”? Did they find you in some way?
I love this idea, and the fact that linguistic devices only too often have their way with us will be well-known by anyone familiar with Graham’s poetry: ‘What is the language using us for?’. I wonder at what level that ‘finding’ is situated in the text—were we conditioned to find the prompts particularly enlightening and provocative because we are sympathetic to the aims of the work? Maybe, but many of the contributors were new to Graham’s work (which was important to us), and they inhabit and are inhabited by the prompts to the same extent, and they also can be said to extend Graham’s poetic project. Graham is often considered a ‘writer’s writer’ partly, from what I can tell, because his work is itself such a generative prompt: it’s a toolkit from which to make poetry—as the engagements with Graham across various schools and styles demonstrate. (I am certainly one who feels especially attracted to writers whose work motivates me to experiment along similar lines, who inspire me to write, and this often seems to be the case for fans of Graham. Though as a friend recently pointed out, this quality needs to be treated with a degree of caution, given that it may contribute to what makes canons often stylistically fixed in their (white) normative perspectives.) In some sense this project reflects back and asks, well, what were Graham’s prompts? They were visual and verbal: as much Paul Klee as James Joyce. But I think they operate at quite a fundamental and essential level—of language, of image—which, though not unique, is profound and, importantly, generous to those practitioners who engage with them.
Now that Try To Be Better has been published, how are you thinking about the status of the works in the collection: new poems, writings, images, sculptures? Are all they “readings,” for you, as well as works in their own right?
From the very beginning, we were interested in foregrounding the creative process in some way, making visible those parts and paths that are usually invisible at the time of the finished work. The title Try To Be Better was chosen not only because it was a kind of ‘catchphrase’ Graham commonly used to sign off his correspondence (often with a touching sense of companionableness), but also because it captures the elements of experimentation and endeavour. Our publication takes the form of a multidisciplinary ‘notebook’, itself made up of five booklets. One of these is a separate insert that consists of statements, photographs and scans of drafts, which gives contextual insight into the creation of the pieces. Therefore, the works are independent, but also positioned to reflect on the ‘work’ that went into creating them.

And yes, the works in TTBB are also ‘readings’, in the sense of being drawn from this particular method of reading and responding to another artist’s works. Perhaps they might be better characterised as ‘speakings’: each piece is entering a conversation, and dialogue is encouraged within specific collaborations between artists and writers; between the pieces themselves (the author names and titles of each is lowered on the page to allow a more fluid engagement); and also, of course, via the prompts, with Graham’s work and practice. We hope this notebook might even be a kind of ‘workshop’ to prompt further responses and continue the conversation.
So given the methods of reading and responding to another’s work that are active here, I wonder if you could you speculate on the invitation the collection offers to the teaching, and the practice, of literary  criticism— perhaps especially, but not solely, poetry criticism?
To our minds, Try To Be Better encourages a form of literary criticism that is open and creative, which considers the importance of an artist’s process as much as the finished work. It suggests we might learn and understand through practice—an active and generative engagement—rather than offering closed, authoritative judgement. In this way, we might be prompted to reflect on our own creative practices, and what it might mean to ‘try to be better’.

Graham claimed, in the aforementioned 1949 notebook, that ‘[t]he “help” the critic should give us in work like this,’ in talking of Pound’s Cantos, ‘is towards understanding the language apparatus.’ Almost thirty years later he wrote to Michael Schmidt that he wished that he as a critic would be ‘an observer of what verse means and how it works.’ These are not unreasonable demands for the critic (or indeed the reader), especially given that the poetry is constantly providing its own rich account of its formal apparatus. Graham’s rhythmic framework is highly intuitive and idiosyncratic; there is a degree to which it resists conventional metrical analysis. (One of our contributors aligned it with Thomas Wyatt recently in this respect.) Graham is a writer whose conceptual work always occurs in verse, or in notebooks and letters (which are themselves highly lyrical). Only one critical prose statement was produced, early in his career, ‘Notes on a Poetry of Release’ in 1946. To unpack what the verse means is, especially in his case, to understand how it works. His worksheets are visually very instructive, and give a particularly vivid demonstration of the ‘language apparatus’, indicating how self-sufficient the whole poetic project is.

Graham was very at home among the work of his modernist forebears (Moore, Stevens, Eliot, Joyce), but he did not think in canons—he aimed to inhabit styles, rhythms and forms, which is surely the best way to understand what they mean. He read these writers as a practitioner. Of writing ‘The Dark Dialogues’, he said he’d ‘attempted to live inside this three stress metre I have chosen’. That gives a good indication of the level of form at which the critical thought occurs. Inhabiting the prompts by way of other artistic mediums in Try To Be Better was also an invitation to ‘live’—and, perhaps, an opportunity to enliven aspects of criticism.

I am very struck by this idea of a critic as someone who, or of criticism as a practice which, helps: helps poetry, helps writing, helps art-making. I wonder if you have further thoughts on this—would you think of this collection as a form of help? Has the process of bringing it together helped you, as a scholar, a poet?
This is such an interesting question and there are many ways one could answer it—I think so many of the techniques or states of being which enliven texts could be perceived as helpful in some way: close reading, reparative reading, the kind of practice-as-continuation you discuss in This Little Art. In a selfish way, this project has helped me enormously, as it offered a way of thinking about Graham’s work and the prompts that inevitably/necessarily exceeded my own responses to the work as a scholar or practitioner, and the material from Try To Be Better permeates much of my thinking today.

‘Help’ is something we do not usually associate with the work of literary critics, who may be—to generalise—more prone to accusations of codifying or obscuring work, whereas people do turn more commonly to the creative arts for ‘help’. Graham has higher expectations for his critic than my generalisations suggest. The notebooks and jottings towards the constitution of his own inventive ‘language apparatus’ is not helpful in an instructive sense, but it is energising, enlightening. I think the help is in the open-endedness of work, be it creative or critical, in the kind of open text Lyn Hejinian writes about in ‘The Rejection of Closure’ – one amenable to many readings, and perhaps also many ‘speakings’. To me Graham left a body of extraordinary work but also an invitation to partake and continue to change poetry at a deep, formal level. That is, I think, why the work does not date. There is much still (thankfully) to do.

Kate BRIGGS is the translator of two volumes of Roland Barthes’s lecture and seminar notes at the Collège de France: The Preparation of the Novel and How to Live Together, both published by Columbia University Press. She has published three works of literary criticism: Exercise in Pathetic Criticism, The Nabokov Paper, a collective work co-edited with Lucrezia Russo (Information as Material, 2011 and 2013) and  Entertaining Ideas (The Long View) (Ma Bibliothèque, 2019). This Little Art, an essay on the practice of literary translation, was published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in 2017. She teaches at the Piet Zwart Institute, Rotterdam. 

Sam BUCHAN-WATTS is the author of Faber New Poets 15 and co-editor of Try To Be Better (Prototype, 2019). He is the recipient of an Eric Gregory Award (2016) and a Northern Writers’ Award for Poetry (2019). A new pamphlet, Cloud Study, is forthcoming.


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Partner to a press called Tenement, Hotel is a publications series for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. 

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