Darran Anderson interviews Ben Myers, Adelle Stripe & Tony O’Neill
“The Brutalists were formed in early 2006 by writers Tony O’Neill, Ben Myers and Adelle Stripe, all published poets. Brutalism is an ideology born out of frustration and surplus energy…Brutalism means writing that shows no quarter. Writing that rages and burns across the page – writing that doesn’t worry about causing offence, breaking taboos, cutting to the heart of it. Writing that may shock and shake the reader into submission rather than gently caress them.” So their manifesto goes. Put another way, and to steal a line from Myers’ Book of Fuck, The Brutalists are “writer[s] with a hard-on for life,” “young with gonads like wrecking balls – that alone would suffice.”
Darran Anderson: You’re all no strangers to writing; how did The Brutalists as a collective come about? And how was Brutalism One conceived?
Tony O’Neill: I became aware of Ben and Adelle’s writing through seeing them published in a lot of the same places I was getting published. I remember when I was writing Digging the Vein, I saw Ben’s book up on the Wrecking Ball Press website and I thought: “The Book of Fuck, what a great title.” It was a little inspiring actually, because going to bookstores could be depressing; looking at the latest releases was depressing. But the energy and the attitude of what was going on in the internet was just the opposite: it was fun, it was cathartic, it was alive. I mean, the Book of FUCK. That summed up what I wanted to do. I first read Adelle in Full Moon Empty Sportsbag, which is now sadly gone I think. But it was a brilliant magazine, full of good stuff. Her stuff just seemed so raw; I mean it was totally real, it left you kinda breathless and disturbed. The idea of actually doing something like the Brutalists came out of our correspondence, the poems and stories we were sending to each other. Not only were we all in this very productive phase, but there were all these parallels in the work. It just seemed natural to band together, and do something.
Adelle Stripe: Before I had anything published, a few years back – I sent a story to Lee Rourke at Scarecrow, and he published it. I was astonished that anyone would even be interested, but another place I sent a short story to was FMESB – both issues featured Tony’s writing. I liked what I read; his writing really said something to me. Spoke to me in a language that I could relate to. I was managing a band called Selfish Cunt and Tony had written a poem called ‘Blackburn Lancashire’ which listed the lead singer (Martin Tomlinson) as the only notable resident. So I took that as a sign to drop him an email. Tony was a fantastic person to correspond with, and once he read some of my initial work he gave me a lot of help and encouragement. Some of my early poems were pretty rough. And some of the early stories needed work, but between Tony and Steve Hussy [Savage Kick magazine] I managed to find my feet and more importantly find out what it was I really wanted to say. One day I got an email from Ben Myers with a poem for Straight from the Fridge called ‘The Willy Watcher’. Ben, myself and Tony all agreed that there were a lot of similarities in themes in our writing. I read The Book of Fuck and Digging the Vein in the space of a week and realised that one of main links was our obsession with music. We thought it would be an idea to use that as a basis for Brutalism One. All three of us are Fante nuts, which probably guides us in telling horrible stories about our youth in the most poetic way possible.
Ben Myers: I suppose the Brutalists could be summed up as hedonists who stopped indulging and started writing. It was only when we all individually gave up our wicked ways – over-use of drink and drugs mainly – that we really started writing. All of that happened before we even met.
DA:There’s a feeling of claustrophobia that runs through the book but it’s punctuated by moments of liberation, humour or rebellion, often just revealed in single phrases (“Joy Division in silver paint,” “piss-taking and beer,” “microdots”). How important are/were these escapes?
BM: I think escape is important to any adolescent or teenager. If you have no escape fantasies, then the chances are you going to be happy to stay in the place and do the same thing all your life. I grew up in Durham and love the place – it’s beautiful – but nevertheless there are only limited opportunities. If I wanted to see a band play I had to form one, put on a gig, record it, then watch it back. That type of thing. In my late teens I gravitated towards London. But before that, escape comes in various forms: music, literature, film, sex, alcohol, drugs, friendship, romance. High times, basically.
TO’N: That’s what keeps you sane. I mean, I didn’t have an unhappy childhood or adolescence at all. I wanted desperately to get out of my home town for all of the same reasons that every teenager wants to do it. But going back there to write about it, there was all of these joyous moments. And it seemed ripe for poetry.
AS: It was important in 1995, as without escapism there is simply no way that you can get through spending the rest of your life in a place like Tadcaster. It’s a strange town; many of the poems in Brutalism One are set around a brief period in the mid 90s. There was a spate of copycat suicides in the space of a month or two (which had also happened in early 1980s). It was the end of the acid house era. Initially people would use heroin to come down off when they came back from raving, but eventually they stopped going out altogether and just stayed in and shot up. There was no money. No jobs. No hope. I can’t even begin to describe the desolation that hung over the town at that time. I lived over the wall from the cemetery. When you see coffins being dropped every other day the warning bells start to ring. But despite it all, people remained stoic. Problems were not discussed. That’s the Yorkshire way. Brush it under the carpet and hope it goes away. Which eventually it did…
DA: And do you agree with the Joycean idea of exile; that you have to escape your place of birth but that the place never escapes you?
AS: Absolutely. You can take the girl out of Tad – but you can’t take Tad out of the girl. I know that Tadcaster will be a constant theme for my work probably for the rest of my life. I haven’t lived there since 1998, but it’s such a rich place to characterise – there are people in Tadcaster that you would never find anywhere else. In a way I think it deserves to be mythologised.
BM: If you spend your first (and formative) eighteen years in a town it’s bound to shape you. It’s only when you leave that you gain a better understanding of it. It took me leaving Durham to appreciate it’s beauty and it took living in London to appreciate how genuinely friendly most people in the north-east are by comparison. But I probably wouldn’t have found that out if I’d stayed there all my life. Joyce was right.
[Illustrations: Lisa Cradduck]
DA: The collection seems to follow in the rich vein of, for want of a better word, transgressive writing. Who do you see as your most important inspirations?
AS: Music. Esape. Perceived truth. Mythology. Love. Banality.
DA: You’ve commented on Brutalism as “the place where traditional poetry and the poetry of punk rock meet.” It’s an approach that’s been reflected in your nod to Sniffin’ Glue‘s manifesto in your call “Here’s a laptop. Here’s a spell-check. Now write a novel” and the fact that your collection is published by the music label Captains of Industry. Would it be right to say Brutalism has absorbed as many musical influences as it has literary ones?
BM: Yes, I think that’s definitely right to say.
AS: Completely. All three of us are such geeks. Tony is a free jazz nut, Ben is a hardcore aficionado, and I am a total dub and punk obsessive. Music we like runs from James Chance, Gun Club, The Cramps, Dr John, through to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Ornette Coleman, The Normal, PiL, The Slits, Sun Ra, King Tubby, Sly & Robbie, right down to Nico, Jacques Brel, Scott Walker, Lil’ Son Jackson, and Diamanda Galas. I could go on but the list is way too long.
TO’N: The poetry of the likes of Lou Reed, or John Lydon, of James Chance is as important to me as any of the other “poets” you might think of. Establishment poetry is so fucking stale now, fusty and boring. No wonder people are turned off. I think a lot of people approach reading a poetry book like they approach going to the dentist. There’s this feeling that they SHOULD do it, but they really don’t want to. It’s because poetry is too fucking precious, too closed off. Frankly it’s irresponsible for any art form to shut itself off from outside influence as totally as poetry has done, and to have so much fucking reverence for what came before. To me, poets should approach the page with a sense that what went before is gone, irrelevant. They need to be writing without so much fucking history on their shoulders.
DA: And do you think indie writing has much to learn from the approach of independent music?
TO’N: Actually, I think indie writing is doing great. It’s doing what it should be doing. People are publishing, people are reading other unpublished writers, they’re corresponding, they’re offering praise, criticism, they’re starting small presses. I think were at the genesis of something really interesting in writing right now.
AS: I think the ethos behind indie music should most definitely be an inspiration to any new writers wanting to get their work out there. Technology is giving new writers the advantage – you don’t need a publisher or a distributor these days. If people want to buy your books you can sell to them direct. All you need is a cracked copy of Quark XPress, a printer, proof reader – and a few hundred quid. If you can sell it online then you get all the profit yourself. It seems like the best way forward. Send a few copies to bigger publishers or agents as a calling card. It seems to make sense to start small and control everything yourself.
BM: Definitely. Or rather, indie publishing can learn a lot from indie record labels, as opposed to the music itself. I’m not anti-mainstream publishers in any way, but I am anti-snobbery, anti-apathy and anti-traditionalist. Culture is ever-evolving so it stands to reason that the industries that support it (whether the music industry, the art world or book publishing) need to evolve with it too. There will always be a place for independent publishing. There will always maniacs publishing pamphlets, diatribes, poems, essays, stories or manifestos.
[Photo: Lili Wilde]
DA: Brutalism One has a host of oddballs and fuck-ups (The Willy Watcher, Manny “No Nose,” Pauline the Tad Bike), whilst Tony’s earlier novel Digging The Vein tips a hat to “junkies, thieves, whores, malcontents, fuck-ups, burnouts, psychos, and drug dealers.” Who are the strangest characters you’ve encountered on your travels?
BM: Everywhere in the world is full of crazies. Some are likeable, some are dangerous and Durham has its fair share of both. ‘The Willy Watcher’ is a character who is well known around Durham – or was in the early 90s. He was a guy who would comeout of the mental hospital on day release and creep everybody out. He followed a friend of mine late at night down dark lanes, he once lay at my feet and asked me to piss on him, another time – as depicted in the poem – he spied on me having sex with my girlfriend, then sprung out of nowhere just after we’d finished. This was before dogging made such behaviour acceptable. I wasn’t scared of him though; I actually felt sorry for the poor fucker. He’s just one example of damaged person who makes his mark on a small town.
AS: I was watching the [DVD] extras on Ideal the other night and Graham Duff was talking about where he got the idea for Cartoon Head from. There was a guy in Accrington who was really hard, but had lost half of his nose due to snorting coke. He couldn’t afford plastic surgery, so he would walk around town with a false silver nose on held on by a bit of string. Everyone was so scared of him that nobody ever mentioned it! I laughed so hard because I thought that was exactly the sort of thing that would have happened in Tad. Then you realise that all backwaters have people like that. I think my favourite oddball would have to be Warlock. He used to sit in doorways in York City Centre playing The Doors out of a ghetto blaster. He had a long beard and was an acid casualty. The people at York Theatre couldn’t afford a full time security guard so they gave Warlock a shed to live in out the back on the proviso that he left every morning before 9 a.m. There were two junkies who lived in Tad under the bridge in a tent. They were having a gay affair, not out of ‘love’, but just because nobody else would have them. They were covered in welts and used beg for 20ps on Tad high street “my man’s had a heart attack I need 20p for a phone call…” Tad is full of crazy people though. I think it’s something in the water. Or perhaps the fact that beer is only £1.17 a pint and it sends everyone insane. I blame Ayingerbrau.
TO’N: There are tons, I mean the thing with me was I knew that I was only maybe five years and two bad decisions away from being one of those strange marginal people who never fully adapt to life. I’m fascinated by people who can’t function properly in society, because I recognise a lot of myself in them. I suppose being homeless, going crazy, being a crack head, a junkie, a drunk, a thief made me appreciate that what was going on with the ‘outside’ people was as valid as what was going on with everyone else. I wrote that dedication because when I think about some of the truly fucked up people I have met, I am awed by their purity, their purpose. I feel like I am neither fish nor fowl sometimes, I never fully went crazy so bad that I couldn’t make it back, but I have never fully adapted to this other life of paying rent, making bills, being responsible. There is a schism there that I can’t fix.
DA: You’ve described Brutalism as an open movement, accessible and welcome to everyone. How encouraged have you been by discovering like-minded spirits, particularly in Adelle’s Straight From The Fridge and other sites such as Scarecrow, The Beat and 3:AM? And do you think there’s a vacuum waiting to be filled?
BM: It’s very encouraging. Some people have wrongly assumed that ‘Brutalism’ is about writing stories filled with brutality – violence, drugs, whatever. That’s really not the case. Personally, I favour humour over shock tactics and I suspect we’re much wider read that people suspect. We’re not ‘from the streets’; I have a degree in English Literature, for what it’s worth. Instead, Brutalism, to us, is about writing with a sense of energy and economy, and also getting the work out there. As a result, we’ve met many other writers who feel the same. Most of them are a part of what has been dubbed the Off-Beat Generation. So we feel an affinity with lots of other writers who are making the jump from publishing on the internet to publishing books, a lot of them via 3:AM Magazine: Lee Rourke, Tao Lin, Heidi James, H.P. Tinker, Matthew Coleman, Chris Killen], Paul Ewen, Joseph Ridgwell, Mike Meraz to name but some of them. I think there is a vacuum of sorts in that there aren’t that many young contemporary writers who speak to us. We’re from the same generation as Zadie Smith, but I can’t really relate to her works.
TO’N: As I’ve said, I can feel that there is something brewing. All of these people are encouraged by the democracy of the internet, and they’re having a crack at it. These writers are less likely to have regressive thoughts like “I haven’t absorbed the classics yet, so I have no right to have a go at poetry.” Now they can write a poem, and instantaneously submit it. No three or four month wait for a reply. And 48 hours after it goes up, someone’s e-mailing them saying “your poem is shit” or “your poem really spoke to me” and something else interesting happens. There are so many strange, interesting and talented poems out there right now, and they’re just burning, writing like crazy, performing without a safety net. The fact that all of this new writing exists is proof that there’s a vacuum. At the moment the novel seems very middle class to me. Why are people so into memoir right now? I think it’s because many of the “big” writers have stopped writing about real life. Take Laura Hird: you pick up one of her books, and it’s like a slap in the face. You think: “wow, people still write good shit! I thought this had gone out of fashion!” It seems almost strange when compared to the drivel that the majors are putting out. I mean, why isn’t Laura Hird selling more copies than Zadie Smith? Can anyone answer this? Well because Laura Hird doesn’t have a million dollar publicity department pushing her into the public eye. But in terms of writing, comparing Laura Hird with Zadie Smith is like comparing John Lennon to Billy Ocean.
AS: There are some incredible writers out there that have yet to surface but who I truly believe to be the next wave of important writers in this country. What I am reading from poets and fiction writers across the world is language ingrained with the same pain and ideology no matter where they come from. What we initially thought to be an obscure northern poetry movement has turned out to be something with much more global appeal than was ever originally envisaged. I think more than anything that Brutalism is the voice of small town mentality – which can relate to anyone from any background in any place.
DA: Whilst many have been enthused by your writing, there have been some vocal dissenters (namely in response to Tony’s Guardian articles); how do you feel towards critics?
AS: Our critics represent ‘the old guard’. They think we are misogynists (yeah, right…), idiots, uneducated, uncouth, and guttural. Because we write about honest experience, and write ‘from the heart’, it disturbs them as they just don’t understand the places and feelings that we describe. But that’s okay with me, because every poetry movement in history has had exactly the same problem with the poetry establishment. I’ve been studying the Romantics as part of my degree, in particular the Romantics and William Blake – and you know what, it’s fucking inspiring to hear that they were laughed at by the “accepted” poets of their day. Blake didn’t give a shit about that though, just printed up his own books and sold them door to door, in the vain hope that somebody somewhere might like what he was doing. The same goes for Lyrical Ballads. I take more notice of history than I do of flabby overly intellectual ghouls that lurk on Guardian forums.
TO’N: I’d be worried if people were all on-board. I’d think we were doing something wrong. My feeling is this: poetry is too important to be left up to the “poets”. It’s too important to be left up to the critics. At the end of the day I write and I publish without anybody’s permission and I’ve had many, many worse things happen to me in my life than someone tell me my poetry is shit, or I can’t write. It’s like any form: when it changes, when it mutates, the people who loved it the way it was cover their ears and tell you this isn’t poetry or music or art any more. To be honest, the fact that we can even sneak under the radar and get written about in a place like the Guardian is hilarious to me.
BM: I’m wary of any cliques, groups or movements. I just hope people realise that we’re doing this because we’re inspired to. We’re self-funding the work, self-editing. We distribute the books ourselves, stuff the envelopes, do all the design work – this is a label of love in much the same way that William Blake or Billy Childish clearly love(d) their work too.
DA: All literary movements have their enemies. If you could take on any literary figure living or dead (Marquis of Queensbury rules of course), who would it be?
AS: I think it would have to be Louise Bagshawe – writer of appalling chick-lit novels and now a Tory MP. She’s exactly the kind of woman I hate. She was inspired by “pinning a picture of Margaret Thatcher” to her monitor. I would happily pin her down and shit in her mouth.
TO’N: Anne Widdecome or Jeffrey Archer. Look, nobody’s writing pisses me off so much that I’d want to beat ’em up. But politicians are a different matter. It’s a shame Bush ain’t got the smarts to write a book because obviously I wouldn’t mind a crack at him.
BM: I have no enemies in the literary world; most writers are OK by me. My enemies are the rip-off estate agents, the Inland Revenue, the power companies, the CCTV operators, the traffic wardens, the clueless politicians – all the people who conspire to casually make your life so much more difficult. Brutalism is pro-freedom in every way.
DA: What are the plans for Brutalism Two?
BM: All will be revealed shortly…
AS: At the moment – completely under our hats. We will keep you informed Dogmatika.
TO’N: Ha, if you find out before I do, please let me know.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Darran Anderson is co-editor of Dogmatika. His writing features in The Flash fiction anthology and in the Poetry Salzburg Review [Austria], the Listening To Water anthology [NY State], BLATT Magazine [Prague] and a load of websites.