JULIA ROSE LEWIS and JAMES MILLER: Preface to ‘Strays’

It is a slightly strange experience to read Julia’s poems because I am, in a sense, also the author of them. (You are the author of them, not because you are the author of the source text, but because you helped me rewrite the source text into these poems.) Many of the poems in this collection rewrite or re-appropriate the text of my debut novel, Lost Boys. I wrote Lost Boys between 2003-2006, and the novel was published by Little, Brown in 2008. The novel was written, in part, as a response to the events of the Iraq war and as a way to explore and critique certain forms of privileged male alienation – but it was also an overt rewriting of Barrie’s Peter Pan that incorporates (or pays homage to) elements from JG Ballard’s novella ‘Running Wild’ and ‘Wild Boys’ by William Burroughs. My novel, although ‘original’ is also an overt rewriting or reworking of pre-existing texts – but then I would argue this is true of all novels (to all poems, to all texts). It’s not a question of ‘originality’ or ‘authority’ but rather an honest showing of the workings (rather than a dishonest covering up under the guise of ‘the author’s own work’ or ‘the author’s unique imagination) (how lovely). (Against Originality – this was the title of the phd proposal that you and I wrote together.) So, who is the author of these poems – is it really me and not Julia? Or is the author a hybrid, a mediation-combination, a both Julia and me (Yes, we are the author: as the voice of our book emerged from our conversations, and can not be reduced to either of our voices.) (and JM Barrie and William Burroughs and JG Ballard not to mention Anne Carson and Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas, a constellation of ghost writers tracing the line back in time, a root system rather than a clear hierarchy) a space that we might say is gendered neither male nor female, not one nor the other. (There is also a sexual orientation thing happening, my queerness may have made the book feel more other and queer to you.) As a result my experience of reading these poems was an uncanny one, almost a haunting, as if my book had been broken down and boiled up – an extracted, compressed essence, a distillation and an echo of my ‘original’ words and intentions. The poems continued to trace the narrative arc of the novel and the strongest poems (for me) are the ones based on what I had always considered the strongest passages of the novel. The poems become a meta text, one of many possible ‘deep structures’: the text of my novel realised in its purest form but also a deformation or a breaking up of that form, like a shattered stain glass window, fragments that manage to be both greater than and less than the text itself. The other text. Thematically, Lost Boys is a novel much concerned with radical alterity, with otherness or becoming ‘other’; with hauntings, doublings and spectral figures, with the revenge of the son against the father, the Third Worlding of the Oedipus complex, the murderous edge of the west’s own dream of itself – an exploration-critique of its deluded but flattering self-image. The beauty (if that’s the word not the word) of these poems is the way in which they perform this othering, becoming – in places – the very expression of this radical otherness that my novel was reaching towards but incapable of inhabiting completely due to the different constraints and formal demands of the novel-narrative. Julia has gone back to the wide open reconfigurations enabled by poetry, producing a remix, a dub version (a creative interpretation). Add Julia’s new counterpoint poems and we have not so much a shattered stain glass window as a kaleidoscope, a true jouissance (to use a term beloved of the post-structuralists) of infinite meanings, possibilities, of forms birthed by forms. It was the end of western civilisation – this was one refrain from the novel but – I realise – a sentence absent from in this re-working; instead we return to the true liminal and marginal, we listen to the voices at the back of the novel’s polyphony; because something always gets drowned out… but we can change the levels, adjust the volume. We can foreground the background. We can listen more closely to this – the pregnant silence of the – pause -

Julia
I think you need to admit that pause is your favorite word.
The funny thing is that the pause poems prepared me for the “have you been a bad boy poems?”
Was it like that for you when you wrote it?

James
You know, I just can’t remember, probably because everything was rewritten so much any sense of writing sequentially is lost – it’s more like a rhizome than a direct sequence.

Julia
How odd then that I rewrote it almost completely sequentially?
I usually write my series of poems sequentially. To build up a language-scape unique to the series.

James
I like the fact that you followed the order as it reads like a meta version of the novel, the novel boiled down to a hallucinatory essence and thus closer to the true otherness of perception of the lost boys.

Julia
I felt as though I was one of the “lost boys” while I was writing it. The boy writer as opposed to photographer or whatever. I feel guilty too.
A meta-novel? I like that very much, meta as the distance from the plot.

James
It’s fun for me how the different events and details come floating back same-but different, it’s very uncanny, like an abstract painting almost.

Julia
The floating novel?

James
I’ve speculated about doing a sort of extreme edit of one of my books that would perhaps be something a bit like this, breaking narrative even more apart into resonating shards.

Julia
A narrative in fragments?

James
Images break free and gain a new internal logic.

Julia
I love the idea of giving meaning to images through repetition, building a context for them.

James
Definitely, it’s something I try to do in my stories anyway, so this magnifies that effect (in some ways the ‘story’ of the images can be more interesting that the actual story) (latent and manifest narrative strategies) (which this process perhaps swaps round).

Julia
How do you differentiate between story and narrative and plot?

James
I guess ‘story’ is the overarching thing that happens. Narrative is how the thing that happens is played out through character, and plot as the engine/architecture that structures the events of the narrative, with all three locking together seamlessly, if it works well.

Julia
Because we have narrative poems here and possibly a love story/coming of age story.

James
Yes, there’s definitely a narrative to the poems – like the ghost of the story of the novel.

Julia
Who killed your novel?

James
If not a ghost then an emanation (in the Blakean sense perhaps)?

Julia
In the case of these texts, perhaps in all the senses?

James
I suspect I’m not being ruthless enough & am marking too many to go through. The thing is there is a narrative sequence which justifies inclusion. I’m probably not objective enough with the lost boys ones for obvious reasons.

Julia
You might feel differently after the first edit. Most of those found/erasure poems took 3 drafts, some as many as 10.

James
I think they gain power through repetition, but how many is right for that or whether it gets too relentless?

Julia
Or I could take another go and we could risk a cycle of endless revision?

James
I’m reading it more as an avant-garde novel than a poetry collection, which might require more variety.

Julia
Are you suggesting that we wrote a novel?

James
No, its a sequence of poems, but it could be published as a stand alone experimental narrative poem. IE it’s the difference between an album that is a series of repetitive variations that bleed together into a grander experience versus an album that showcases different songs. But I’ve not read the answer poems yet so that might change things.

Julia
I will be super curious to hear how you feel after reading the other half… I had always imagined it as single, if containing internal variations, narrative.

James
Yes, reading it should answer my thoughts about whether there is a dominant stylistic voice (mine or yours) or a more supple blending/dialogue.

Julia
I think it is dialogue all the way down. I could feel voice changing/misinterpreting your words, but I could also feel myself reaching towards your words in the response poems.
Think of a puppet show, where I had a puppet on each hand…

James
Ha, good image.

Julia
Does that mean that you are the puppet master now? Or is something less symmetric happening?

It still seems a bit incredible to me that we wrote this book together; in 2013 I was an MFA student and James was my tutor for 10 Critical Challenges at Kingston University London. We discovered a shared appreciation for Roland Barthes, critical theory, and bickering. By bickering I mean the incessant back and forth exchange that occurs between two people who share very similar views including a love of arguing. The portfolio of work I submitted for the module was an intersectional feminist critique of James’ module, complete with a rewritten module guide. The following year, James invited me to lead the seminars for his experiments in form module for third year undergraduate students. The bickering continued as James would try to lecture and I would interrupt, I hit James with Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, James let me mark the student portfolios.

We caught up last year after my first poetry pamphlet came out and found ourselves playing with the idea that experimental writers have more in common with one another than they do with mainstream writers of their respective genres. We thought it might be fun to try to translate each other’s work into another genre. On this very generous dare, I began rewriting James’ novel as a series of poems, and a desire to show off for my former teacher. My original constraints for the project were that the poems had to be erasure poems; they could only use the words from the novel in the order in which they appeared in the novel. My process involved reading and underlining a short section of text, typing up the underlined words, and over the course of as many as ten drafts continuing to cut out words until a poem emerged. For every found and/or erased poem I wrote, I wrote an unconstrained response poem as well. I had at first imagined a series of ten poems or so, but after I sent these poems to James and he was so interested, I wanted to continue to a pamphlet length sequence I thought. Except the narrative pulled me in more and more each day, until I couldn’t imagine ending the series of poems. So I just wrote poems until I ran out of novel, and dumped this feral affair on James and asked him to select a reasonable number of poems from the lot to publish. In this way, our text is twice found, first by me and second by James.

James contributed so much more to the collection than the source text or the selection of the poems. He and I exchanged a staggering number of messages about project, everything from the etymology of crocodile to what music to listen to while drafting poems on the train. He read the poems as they were being written, line by line at times, and discussed with me while I was rewriting. For example, we argued at length about using xylitol in our alphabet poem and compromised with xenolith. The poems in the series emerged from Facebook Messenger conversations between James and myself and the cat photographs.

Narrative is determined not by a desire to narrate but by a desire to exchange. (Roland Barthes, S/Z)

 

Some Poems from Strays 

 

Lost Boys

An airplane trail lost to the sky

he shivered outside

the dream the boy had sat in the branches

promising the air was warm

words like words light clear sound

touching cool glass to his bones in the rise of those notes

 

one day, one day would fly away.

 

Water burned, had turned against working

in his great white tower no

no in the morning the wooden good seconds the sound.

 

Only the pavements turned against the morning tension

tight in his stomach as he had in the city

a second city shadows.

 

Waiting could wait patient that place

place

place that the way it was did not have to be the way

it always would be lights

changed from green back to red again.

 

Nothing moved into the cold mud was going

to be a name carved

onto the mahogany boards in the grand hall

he wanted to movehis eyes.

 

The radio was so dull

he pressed his palm against the glass the dampness

seeping lines revealed his palm

 

a reverse self these thoughts had the image had faded the city.

 

 

Not a Sonnet

 

That is just fine, that

is purple, maybe peppers

Let us first let us flesh age. Let

things: learning about

comfort of a big bowl of

lettuce is first. Off

fourteen rapunsel leaves are

rampion, the bell

flower of the tower. Radish

are not magenta,

if the night the rabbits came.

 

Chickens can eat marshmallows;

rabbits can eat halloumi.

 

 

Lost Boys

 

He was sure,

he was sure he could

still hear the faint strain

of his flute playing so soft

and a cup of cocoa

and the light, the smallest

noise in the house as small

as scrutinizing specimens

under a microscope.

 

In his study, he had his own

ideas about things

had tried to say he tried

dreams a bit like that dream

promised he had a big soft

toy crocodile, bright with

big yellow eyes.

 

He lay back on his bed he

had a feeling.

 

 

Lost Boys V

 

The audience eyes

Red to old two hundred and

Fifty there fifty

To fight the hour was a night

Wind against the castle walls.

 

 

Bed of Ecology IV

 

It is easier

to speak to you of oysters

as sputum not sperm

as opposed to semen you

say thick sea water

is acquired so you think

 

sick and tack into

scallop beds and waves of sand

waves of the golden

water breed retrievers there

 

thing to pass and sing

permission and permission

matters so must there

 

be permission to retell

the lesbian tale

of incest of free will all

the ways to talk of

sex with free will again the

 

enemy of my

enemy is a river

not an oyster note

 

Julia Rose Lewis took her MFA from Kingston University and is working on a PhD in Creative Writing at Cardiff University. She is the author of Zeroing Event (Zarf Poetry 2016) and Exhalation Halves Lambda (Finishing Line Press 2017). She won the 2017 Pitch Viper Prize, and her short book How to Hypnotize a Lobster is forthcoming with Fathom Books. She co-edited the current edition of Junction Box.

James Miller was born in London, 1976. He read English at Oxford and has a PhD from King’s College in American Literature. He is the author of the acclaimed novels Lost Boys and Sunshine State as well as numerous short stories. His third novel, UnAmerican Activities is published by Dodo Ink in November. He is currently senior lecturer in Creative Writing at Kingston University.

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