8/02/2006

Interview with Miles J. Bell

Miles J. Bell has been published in: Word Riot, Zygote in my Coffee, Underground Voices, Underground Window, Cherry Bleeds, Trespass, My Favorite Bullet, Remark, Meat, Instant Pussy, Defenestration, Fire, Poultry Broadside and more. He resides in England.

SK: My copy of your first book The finite beat came with a personalized heart-shaped note. Is what we have special? If so, how long before you leave me in MM/DD/YYYY format please?

Miles J. Bell: Well you WERE the first gullible punter to buy the book, Sean. From anywhere, that is; not even my 3D friends coughed up quicker. I was overwhelmed with a swell of capitalist fondness for your good self, leading to that impulsive heart-shaped note.

Sean, what we have IS special. But I’ll qualify that a little. It’s also special between me and all the other folks who bought it. And I “left you” the minute you got yourself a nicer place to live. You know I won’t associate with poets who aren’t authentic/poor/real/starving/living in a lower level of hell.

SK: In The finite beat, there's pictures of a dummy Elvis, graveyards, bums, bars. Your poem Perfect moment begins: "half an orange / an enormous pile of dogshit" Could you talk about this poem please?

Miles J. Bell: For the benefit of those people wise enough not to buy “The finite beat” – and there were many – I had better quote the poem in question:

half an orange/an enormous pile of dogshit/and a bicycle chain/on the ground/describe/a triangle/as/the green car/wheelspins/from the kerb/and the old man/looks over/his shoulder/to see/what all the/fuss/was about

This, if I remember rightly, was one of my first attempts to see if I could make a poem work emotionally without any emotive words in it.. Flat lines, minimal description. Just movements and colours and things on the ground. It is what it is, really – it’s exactly as it really happened. I feel it’s my duty, having chosen or (being compelled) to write, to have a tuned-in eye. Beauty is to be found in the strangest places and situations. The event in “Perfect moment” struck me as a pure one, even though one or two of the elements would perhaps be seen as distasteful in some quarters. I was thinking “millions of years of evolution and this is what we end up with”, which is conveyed by the old man and the “what all the fuss” line.

Then again, the poem might just be about littering, one of my pet hates. Actually it’s about nothing at all. Just a feeling. Maybe nobody got the same feeling reading it as I did from writing it. Fair enough. I’ve always said I write for myself; if other people like it that’s a bonus.

As for the photos in the book, they were taken by Jude Starkey, a friend of a friend. I only met her once. She came round to the mutual friend’s pad and laid her photos on the floor. I just picked out the ones that fitted best with the poems. The photos were in there as I had no idea how to decide on the running order for the book, so just put the poems into groups of 3 or 4, loosely-themed, and divided the groups with appropriate pictures.

SK: Who influences your style of writing?

Miles J. Bell: Bukowski, and Todd Moore, for their flat, powerful “argue with this if you dare, fucker” lines. William Carlos Williams, for the ever-tuned eye I spoke of earlier, seeing beauty in the ordinary & mundane. Raymond Carver, for his honesty and his ability to stand the reader right beside him in the scene. And there’s other, less-well known writers, such as S.A. Griffin, who is a great guy as well as a great poet. Also there’s William Taylor Jr, whose capturing of late night stillness and sadness is second-to-none, and John Dorsey, who spins lovely ever-moving webs of words that somehow hang together. These last two guys in particular make we want to throw everything else aside and write. I got Bill’s “Everything is burning” and Dorsey’s “Outlaw’s Prayer” through the mail on the same day last April; I’d written nothing in 4 or 5 weeks and after reading these I wrote my epic poem “Icarus Rex” over a single weekend, 1100 words or so, not that I think length equates with quality. Thankfully neither does my wife. But you were talking style, and I’ve wandered dizzily into inspirations…

Sometimes I find a new writer, and I’ve already done something in a similar vein, despite never having read them before. When I posted my poem “House of cards” on MySpace, someone told me I’d “written a Brautigan”, even though I’d never heard of him at that point. The same with Neruda; even though it’s a different language, I found I’d written poems similar in feel to his when I first read him. Which seems to indicate that there are an infinite number of poems to write, but a finite number of styles to write them in.

SK: What is your style of writing?

Miles J. Bell: I’m not sure. I must have a style, or more accurately a voice, that is uniquely mine; people have said as much. For a long time I’ve been trying to ensure that there’s atmosphere in my writing, some kind of feeling. Emotive might be the word I’m after. Maybe evocative. I try to put the reader in the scene. I’m wry when I’m being funny, sarcastic most of the rest of the time, maybe a touch wistful. If I can get the same atmosphere and evocative qualities in a poem that, say, exists in the song “Boys of Summer” or “Holes” by Mercury Rev, I’ll be happy with that.

I’ve also stopped for the most part editing after the event. It was a conscious decision; a big part of how I communicate in conversation is my tendency to come out with witty one liners, unrehearsed. I laugh at my own jokes, as it’s the first time I’ve heard them. So I decided to leave poems as they come out. Sometimes a word or two will get changed, often the line breaks will be pulled about, but mainly I write a poem at home longhand, type it up at work, and that’s how it stays. Not the most textbook way, but one I’ve accepted is true to who I am.

SK: Do you have one style or do you jump styles?

Miles J. Bell: I jump around according to what works for the subject of the writing, or how I feel at that particular moment. As I said, I’m very impulsive, so I’ll have an idea or maybe a line I want to build on, and I’ll pick a way of getting that emotional content in there using whichever style I need to best accomplish that. Some of my poems change styles halfway through, or have a stanza in prose poetry with the rest free verse. I would always reserve the right to change style, tack, etc, whenever I want. And I think I’m getting better at knowing how to write, when.

With writing, I’m not sure you can learn to write. I think you can or you can’t. But what you can learn is how best to express your point, be it lyrics, poems, prose, essays, etc. I wrote songs for 20 years before trying poetry 2 ½ years ago. I would love to be an essayist, but I haven’t learned how to do it yet.

SK: Do you believe in having influences?

Miles J. Bell: It’s not whether you believe in having them. It’s just a fact. You have influences. Deal with them.

When I met Todd Moore recently, and saw him read, I went home and wrote maybe 15 poems in 2 days; I was fired up and full of inspiration. The first few were very similar in style to his, but by the end of that batch I’d written my way out of it, and had returned to my own style somewhat, albeit with elements of his style in there. Like the Borg, assimilating other cultures. It’s good to add things to my repertoire, so that when I am looking for the style in which to tackle a problem a poem is setting me, I have a greater range to call on. Like an old bluesman travelling around, picking up different riffs as he goes and blending them with his own.

SK: Do you want to be liked?

Miles J. Bell: Of course. It’s why I send these words out into the world, for whatever fate awaits. It’s all propaganda for an ego, anyway, and that’s copyfuckingrighted too, for a future collection, so nobody had better steal it.

I’ve always said I write poetry for other people; if I like it myself it’s a bonus.

SK: Are poetry magazines in the US different from the ones in England (where you live)?

Miles J. Bell: Very much so. UK poetry magazines seem more stuffy, middle-class, safe, in my opinion, with the odd exception, like “Fire”. US magazines; well, I know there’s a good deal of arty crap there, too, but there are some real gems. When I first signed up to MySpace I had been mailing out poems to all the UK journals I could find, with very little success. Of course some of the reason for all those lovely rejections was the quality of the poetry – I’d only just started out, after all. But I’m pretty sure even my best, most recent stuff wouldn’t get into some of these publications in a million years. Anyway, I chanced upon C. Allen Rearick, who pointed me in the direction of several fine small press mags, like Remark, Zygote in my Coffee, Underground Voices, etc, and suddenly the rejections began to turn to acceptances.

I think the difference between the poetry worlds of our respective countries, Sean, is that poetry has always been the preserve of the well-educated, middle-class over here. Not much tradition of the young or working class writing anything much at all until rock and roll happened. Even Lennon was a fairly well-off kid.

The poetry reading where I met Todd Moore had a few poets reading besides him. And they were dreadful. One girl, a pretty thing whose name I immediately forgot, read an interminable piece involving carrots. She was distraught about them, in fact. She sighed, cried, did all the acting you might expect to see in the theatre. It was embarrassing. I wanted to shout “use the language to convey your distress, love, not your body”, but I’m polite. But the thing was, the mostly-younger-than-me audience lapped this shit up. Hence, I lean towards the US for my poetry culture. I’m not dismissing the hundreds of years of poetry from this green and pleasant land. Oh, wait, fuck it, I guess I am. Gimme a few cans of Grolsch and a Buk collection and I’m as happy as a dog with two dicks.

There’s much more of an acceptance of the mere fact of being a poet in the US, certainly in some circles. It’s more rebellious, more outlaw. Part of the American myth of the rebel. Pioneers, etc. There’s more scope for that kind of style and that kind of straightforward honesty to exist in writing over your side of the ocean. Steinbeck, Kerouac, Fante, Bukowski, McCullers, even Springsteen, might not all have been working class. The point is they WRITE like they are. Or they write about the disaffected, the downtrodden, the expendable, without trace of voyeurism. Over here, you tell people - even those in an alternative or underground scene - that you’re a poet, and they laugh. Straight away. Perhaps nervously. The don’t know what poetry is, even. All they remember is being taught about wandering lonely as a fucking cloud or whatever at school. So many people bought “The finite beat” because myself or Luke, my publisher and great friend, bullied or charmed them into it. Most came back saying, “it’s GOOD, actually”. Hopefully they’ll find their own way into poetry, and if I kick started that, then I couldn’t be more pleased and proud.

SK: Has any general failure or personal suffering helped your writing?

Miles J. Bell: Just the general failure to let the world wash over me, a failure to let it pass me by unregarded and unrecorded.

There must be a reason I have to write, maybe it’s that most people I know have left town, I haven’t anyone much to shout my stupid theories to these days. I am a communicator by nature. The Poem is the only way I can really still do it. Is that suffering? I‘m not comfortable hanging that tag on it. Plus, reinventing yourself is a fascinating thing. All the folks I know in the US know only what I’ve told them, and what they’ve read of what I’ve written. Hardly anyone I talk to on a regular basis knew me before I was a poet. It’s like a forgotten me, in some ways.

SK: When you met Todd Moore, did he have a beard?

Miles J. Bell: No, but he had an impish glint in his eyes. A true legend, in my opinion. And listening to him read was to be transported.

SK: Are you for occasional adjectives?

Miles J. Bell: Surely. Depends how I feel. Sometimes you don’t need them – they can get in the way of the feel or the meaning of the poem. It’s good on occasion to leave the reader to do the colouring in. But as I keep saying, I’m impulsive; I invoke the right of U-Turn. I can be prone to adjectivitis, so I try to be careful in my choices. Using an inappropriate or pretentious adjective is the worst kind of twattery.

SK: How stupid is the name of my blog on a scale from 1 to cliche?

Miles J. Bell: It’s a lovely name, for what it is. More accurately, for WHOSE it is. It’s very Kilpatrickian. Again, I’ll copyright that word.

SK: Do you also think people who discuss meaning in poetry are cunts?

Miles J. Bell: No. After all, you made me discuss “Perfect moment” earlier in the interview. Let people discuss whatever the hell they want. Some poems need talking about for the things you might have missed. But I do think you should be able to “get” a poem, or at least the core of what it’s about, without having it explained, if it’s meant to be about anything at all. Poems should not be elitist, or wilfully dense or obtuse. I don’t see much value in having to have an English Lit degree behind you before you can grasp a poem.

SK: Would you fuck Mary Oliver?

Miles J. Bell: I’m afraid I had to do a Google image search. I presume she’s a poet. The answer is no, not while dogs still run in the street. No offence meant to Mary, or indeed street walking mutts. Ah fuck it, let’s say yes, I would. Did I mention how impulsive I am? She looks like a game old dear at least, and maybe she has an excellent line in home-made pastries for after.

SK: Your second book Icarus Rex is a fourteen page poem about, would it be fair to say, cities, or your city, city-life, the middle-class? S.A. Griffin composed the lovely cover. Could you talk about this and the lovely cover?

Miles J. Bell: Well, Icarus Rex is presented as a long poem, but is really several small ones running on from one another. It contains a fair amount of snapshots of my town. It all came from a crisis of confidence, if that’s an accurate description of my state of mind. I’d written nothing for a while, and was beginning to wonder if I even wanted to start again. Mainly because the people I saw every day, in their viciousness, with their spines and tongues and idiocy, couldn’t give a tin shit for reading anything but the t.v. guide. So the question was: who am I writing for? My poetry pals? The drunk twenty-somethings who would punch me in a post-pub taxi rank?

Eventually of course I realised that I write for myself, because not to write would be awful, much worse than writing anyway no matter how few people ever read it. So the Icarus Rex title comes from that. Icarus knew the risks, said “fuck it”, and flew anyway, ignoring his elders (or his fear) no matter what the outcome. A few minutes in the sun is worth almost anything.

The cover was knocked up by S.A. Griffin, who more than anyone has given me advice and help whenever I’ve asked. I just asked him to do a cover, sent him the poem, and he did this great collage. Not sure how to talk about the cover. I just see the great hand in there, middle finger as the tower of Babel or something. He must have had something in mind, but I let him do as he pleased. It was a favour he did for me, in exchange for a copy of the poem, so I could hardly start dictating what I wanted the cover to be. I’d have done it myself if I thought it possible, but I’m not great in that field.

SK: What are you working on now?

Miles J. Bell: A few things, maybe too many at once, but I get impatient and want the world NOW!

The main thing is getting the Underground goes Underground book finished. I’ve collected 1 poem each from about 35 fantastic underground poets, the poem they consider their best, and I’m putting them in a simple chap, which will then be buried inside a vacuum flask somewhere in the UK. A poetry capsule, if you like, so that after the apocalypse, future people or aliens might find it and think that maybe the world wasn’t populated exclusively by murderous, greedy savages. A copy of the book will go to each contributor, and maybe 1 to each of the 10 biggest arts/lit magazines in the US and UK. It’s not about the money, it’s about bringing some of these overlooked poets to people’s attention, if it’s possible.

Besides this, I have three manuscripts under consideration by three different publishers. I’d love to be in a position where I had collections out regularly for the next 9 months or year. Give me time to build up stock for the next thing.

SK: Have you been in a bar fight?

Miles J. Bell: No. I’m a writer, not a fighter. The whole thing is just so…tiresome. I’ve done lots of things in bars; fallen asleep, shit myself, thrown drinks over people, thrown up, become inconsolable with grief, but a fight, well, it isn’t really me. Plus, there are four reasons why I’ve never had any bother in bars: 1) I don’t make enemies, really, and am never aggressive, only either friendly or disinterested; 2) I virtually never go out anymore, kind of goes against my “recluse” tag; 3) When I DID used to go out, there were always 1 or 2 of my pals who although nice fellows, they were definitely not men to mess with; 4) I’m quite a big boy myself.

There was one time I remember where it was close. The Barge was the pub we all used to go to in our late teens/early twenties. A real canal barge, full of goths, and punks and assorted odd folk, like my bunch, who didn’t fit anywhere else. The weirdo pub, as it was known by the rest of town. One evening a huge gang of lads came down the steps. Dressers, they were known as, the kind of young guys who wore designer clothes and liked to fight. The leader, this guy called Pete, had an awesome reputation for violence. And he was looking for one of ours, a drunk called Daz, who owed him money for dope or something. Everybody tensed as the dressers took positions around the pub and this Pete confronted Daz. It was like West Side Story, except with no dancing. Pete gave Daz a little tap on the cheek, and all the Barge regulars got ready. Hands tightened around pint glasses and bottles. You could smell the potential for an imminent and terrible battle. Then I spotted one of their number I’d been at school with, we got talking about old teachers and suddenly all their bunch were talking to all our bunch while Pete did his macho thing and Daz quickly borrowed money to pay him. It was all a big show I suppose, the army backing up their general, but nothing came of it in the end, and they never came back. Two different subcultures staying away from each other, which was for the best.

SK: I try to write my idea of what characters in the film Gummo would enjoy, if they read. Do you ever write for someone else? If you wanted to write something that would get the attention of any character in literature or film, which character would it be?

Miles J. Bell: I never write for anyone else. Not consciously, at least. I do decide which type of poem goes best to which publication, but I guess everyone does that.

If I had to write to get the attention of some character, then I would love to write a poem for Jones, the black doorman in “A confederacy of dunces”. He’s my favourite fictitious character, apart from Dr Perry Cox from Scrubs. And I would love to write a screenplay for the character Withnail, from “Withnail & I”, so he could become famous and movie stars could be fun again.

2 Comments:

Blogger c. allen rearick said...

"post-pub taxi rank"

what does that even mean. zany brits.

sean, i would love to see you take miles' almost bar brawl story and turn it into somethin' the characters from gumo would watch.

p.s. kudos on gumo. ohio represent.

2.8.06  
Blogger The Anorexic Museum said...

Gummo is the only film about america. Gummo and Stroszek. "We have a 10-80 out here, a truck on fire, we have a man on the lift. We are unable to find the switch to turn the lift off, can't stop the dancing chickens."

2.8.06  

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