Last Sunday I had the pleasure of interviewing the poet, editor and gentleman, Jon Stone on the topic of comic-books, poetry and 'The New Seriousness'. Enjoy.
Interview Conducted 17th October 2010
Phil Brown: Good evening Jon Stone, could you briefly introduce yourself to our readers and let us know what it is that you do?
Jon Stone: Hi, I'm Jon, and I'm a poet and editor. With fellow poet Kirsten Irving, I run the arts journal, Fuselit, and a relatively new poetry press called Sidekick Books, which publishes (thus far) themed micro-anthologies.
I have a pamphlet out called 'Scarecrows' with Happenstance Press, and I'm working on a full collection for Salt.
Phil Brown: We were lucky enough at Silkworms to put out a chapbook of your work earlier this year which was themed around comic books... what drew you towards that topic?
Jon Stone: I've been a comic reader since I was small, when comics were still stocked in most newsagents. I'm not a huge fanatic in the grand scale of things, but I certainly read them and get a lot out of the various sub-genres. Recently, with my writing, I've decided that I should be using it to engage with everything I think worth engaging with - ie. not writing things off as not really suitable for poetry - so comics is one of things I've been trying to engage with and explore.
Phil Brown: In terms of boiling down information and ideas into the smallest space available, do you feel that there is a relationship between the comic panel and the poetic line?
Jon Stone: Hm. There are parallels but I'm not sure the parallels are stronger than between, say, poetry and song or comics and film. But yes, poems use textual information in a similar way to how well written comics use visual information - getting rid of the 'noise' and trying to express something as clearly as possible in a tightly controlled space. There's the aspect of arrangement as well, of course.
Phil Brown: Can you think of a specific comic book that 'won you over' to the art form at a young age?
Jon Stone: At a young age, I was reading the UK Marvel Transformers comics and 2000AD. Both of those won me over, in that as well as being hooked on them, they struck me as much more powerful than, say, cartoons or Hardy Boys novels.
It was the kind of thing that you felt in some way you shouldn't be allowed to read. Both had a feeling of being 'adult'. (That may seem like a strange thing to say about Transformers, but they were ripping each others' heads off!)
Phil Brown: I certainly share that experience of comic books being a source of 'adult themes' in a medium which parents, often naively, see as being 'safe' for children to read.
Jon Stone: Yes, there was a sense of someone having found a loophole, a way to bypass the protection around children.
Phil Brown: 2000AD is certainly a series which gives its readers the chance to explore a whole mythology surrounding the characters... do you enjoy that element to the comic series?
Jon Stone: Yes, although it's also something of an albatross. Someone picking up 2000AD for the first time can easily get lost among these sprawling mythologies. I like the simplicity of Judge Dredd, in that although it has a mythology, it also still revolves around an extremely simple concept. The writers don't spend too much time dredging up characters from the past or getting lost in continuity.
That's actually something a lot of 2000AD strips have over, say, Marvel's output, which is far too tied up in its own increasingly complicated universe.
Phil Brown: You admire the Judge Dredd series for being able to stand alone, despite being part of a much wider universe. Do you feel that, on some level, this has informed your approach to writing poetry?
Jon Stone: I couldn't rule it out! If anything, I think that idea is even more crucial in poetry, where there's such a disparity in experience between different readers. And poems, of course, can be informed by so many different contexts. Ultimately, they do have to stand up on their own because you can't control the direction a reader is coming from.
Phil Brown: In one of my favourite poems of yours, you write a monologue from the point-of-view of a bob-a-job henchman from the Batman universe, currently in the employ of The Scarecrow. Is there a story behind how this poem came about?
Jon Stone: Not a very interesting one, I'm afraid! I wanted to write something about Scarecrow - he's my favourite villain from Batman. I wanted to articulate what it was that I liked about the character. When I get a hankering like this, I usually have to wait around for a while for an original angle. Eventually, one turned up while I was reading a Harley Quinn comic. One of the henchmen characters in it talked about having 'henched' for all the major villains, and I realised it never occurred to me that these faceless 'goon' characters could actually be moving around between bosses.
The form, incidentally, was supposed to be a French 'chanson' like the Song of Roland, but I misremembered the rules (which often happens!) There was supposed to be an ironic contrast between the heroic 'mode of telling' and the villainous subject matter.
Phil Brown: The Scarecrow is a character that forces all of his victims to come face to face with whatever they fear most. Do you think he would make a good creative writing tutor?
Jon Stone: Yes, up until the point where he murders his students. They won't learn anything from that.
Phil Brown: You mention that your poem 'Henching for Jonathan Crane' is a chanson of sorts... do you generate a lot of writing from experimenting with classical forms?
Jon Stone: I wouldn't say 'a lot' but definitely some. I sort of go through cycles - for a while, I'll be keen on reusing and adapting classical forms, of which there are many more than the usual suspects. Then I'll go through a phase of wanting to invent or use newer, weirder forms, which is something that really should be done more. Then I'll have a period of reacquainting myself with the delights of free verse.
Phil Brown: Have you invented any fixed forms of which you are particularly proud?
Jon Stone: There's one I've invented but which I haven't managed to use properly yet, which is the barbarelle. It's named after Barbarella. Just as Jane Fonda famously 'stripped in space', the idea of the barbarelle is that something be 'shed' each stanza, be it a line, a metric foot or otherwise. But the better ones generally don't have names - they're just rules that come up during the composition of the poem that I then stick to. Currently I'm writing a sequence of sonnets collaged out of 'fake' or counterfeit texts.
I am quite excited about something I am trying to pioneer at the moment called 'migrating rhyme'. I'm using it in a sequence of poems which all end with the word 'over'. The idea is that you alternately use consonant rhyme and vowel rhyme - maybe with some fuzzy rhyme - so that every line rhymes with the one before and after it, but that the actual sound of the rhyme changes continuously throughout the poem.
And I like the domino one we put in our 'Bard Games' book as well. It's two line stanzas, where the first line of each stanza is a homophone of the second line of the previous stanza. Like how you play dominoes.
Phil Brown: Your taste in forms seems to be geared towards making things play out for longer... to keep things progressing... do you feel that you would end up writing much shorter poems without the machine of form spurring you on?
Jon Stone: It's actually the opposite. Form is a confinement that generally keeps me from going on too long. It forces me to use greater economy. I have a tendency to go almost stream-of-consciousness with free verse poems (in 'Thra-koom', look at the length of 'Gambit' as opposed to, say, 'Dearest Wolverine')
I've actually been using a form invented by Roddy Lumsden recently, which specifically keeps you to eight lines.
Phil Brown: You mention Roddy Lumsden... he is just one of a massive list of poets who you have collaborated with on various projects... when did you begin engaging with poetry as a community?
Jon Stone: It was after we started putting events on in London when it really kicked in, I think. People came to our events and we went to theirs, and I just found there were a lot of writers whose work I was interested in. It almost seems unnatural to me, in this kind of environment, to not want to work together in some way. My whole lifestyle, in this regard, is very influenced by 'ensemble' fiction, as opposed to the Harry Potter narrative, where one guy is the best at everything.
I prefer to see myself as part of a team or group than as some sort of protagonist.
Phil Brown: You are perhaps one of the most collaboratively inclined people in the London scene at the moment... is this why you have so many poetry projects based on the internet?
Jon Stone: Partly, but the internet thing is also because I'm much better at quietly putting something together in my front room than socialising! I'd love to do more in the way of events and live collaboration but it's much more difficult for me.
The internet combines cheapness and semi-permanence, meaning you can experiment more freely and the results stick around for a while.
Phil Brown: You say that you would like to be seen as part of a team or group rather than as a protagonist... How do you feel about Todd Swift's recent article in which he describes you as part of what he refers to as 'The New Seriousness' movement?
Jon Stone: Well, I'm in good company, but I wonder if the word 'seriousness' is slightly intimidating to people and makes us look like we have ideas above our station! Obviously, I liked very much that he said we sound 'like the future', and in a way, he's right - I do have ideas above my station! I definitely take things quite seriously. Kirsty knows better than anyone how melodramatic I can be about poetry ...
Phil Brown: Looking at the other poets on that list, do you feel that there is an identifiable 'movement' between you?
Jon Stone: I'm not so sure about that. I think poets are far too individualistic to be grouped into any kind of movement at the moment - although that said, movements can be built around their own naming. If the idea of 'the new seriousness' takes off, or influences each of us, or people beyond us, it could well become realised. But James Brookes, for example, is a very different writer to me, I think, and although I have things in common with him, I also have things in common with many of the poets in the other groups Todd identified.
Phil Brown: Although it is an intrinsic part of modern behaviour, it seems that since the recent Bloodaxe anthology, 'Identity Parade', was released, there is a sluice of list-making and alternative generation-defining... Do you think it is possible to define a generation whilst you are still in the middle of it?
Jon Stone: Yes. I mean, definitions aren't necessarily right or wrong. They're an interpretation or a way of sorting. Your definitions and lists become 'right' if they successfully pervade people's consciousness - if people, in essence, adopt them - and I don't know how exactly that happens. People should continue trying to do it though, because if you do hit on a successful system of definition or categorization, that creates an entry point for a whole new audience.
Phil Brown: And movements always have a healthy way of spawning counter-movements... can you imagine what a poet would have to do if they were to try to write in the exact opposite way to you
Jon Stone: Interesting question! I guess they would try to write the same or similar poem every time and not read other poets for fear of being too influenced by them. They would avoid any sign of patterning in and between their poems and stick very tightly to the dominant poetic subjects.
They'd also write one poem at a time ...
... and never go back to a poem once it's written and discarded. Their writing would generally be directed towards producing only a few 'absolute best' poems out of hundreds of failed attempts, and the designated 'best' would be the ones that go down best with other people and peers.
Phil Brown: So, finally… Poetry is a world which often seems to have far more writers than readers... what do you think is the best motivation for trying to make the transition from 'someone who has written some poems' to getting your work out there and becoming part of Poetry-World?
Jon Stone: The best motivation? That's kind of asking for a moral judgement and I'm happy to make it! I think the best motivation is wanting to engage - not just with other people but with problems and with subject matter. So as an extension of wanting to talk to each other, wanting to talk and listen. In that way, poetry is one of things that enables us to become something other than a consumer, or slightly advanced computer, or other depressing terms that seem to define our limited purpose.