Adam Steiner met with us on the day Disappear Here was being launched. He had already given an interview to BBC Radio Coventry and was due on BBC TV later in the day; it was a busy and exciting day. We particularly wanted to find out about the Disappear Here Project but we also talked about his not-for-profit publishing company and his time working for the NHS that had led to his new novel. The time we spent with Adam was filled with his energy, politics and integrity.
PFL Disappear Here began back in 2015 when you, Brian Harley and Alan van Wijgerden, produced a collaborative poetry film of a local poet, Antony Owen. Tell us about that stage of the project.
AS I was thinking about the ring road as public urban space. The one way to define the ring road is that it is like a new inner city wall; the conflict is there between it keeping people in and perhaps outsiders out. It’s also a nicely definitive thing of the city centre and in my opinion it makes inner city transport really easy as it’s just 2.2 miles and you can zip around in five minutes, especially at night, and you can see the city from above. The subways had a bad reputation, but that improved in the last five years and you can walk in and out of the city. Antony Owen, a local poet, was keen, and I said I’d like to do a poetry film, in particular using a poem The Dreamer of Samuel Vale House, which is a tower block situated by the ring road. The Dreamer of Samuel Vale House is about a guy living in a tower block and seeing planes going across and dreaming and thinking about other places whilst also thinking about his relationship with Coventry. I got Brian Harely, a local filmmaker and Alan van Wijgerden, a sound recordist, and we went to the roof of a local car park, and shot it gorilla style. We didn’t have a bigger project in mind at that time, but it eventually became the definition of the project which went in the Arts Council England bid. We were doing something because there wasn’t anything happening in the city at that time.
PFL Antony is in the film?
AS Yes, I pushed him to perform, as I wanted his gritty-glamour which is perhaps a way to describe Coventry itself. I love the poem, he is a good poet and admired.
PFL How did you go from that one poetry film to ‘9 x writers, 9 x filmmakers/27 films/Coventry Ring Road’?
AS I thought it would be cool to expand it and do it myself, but then I thought it was a good opportunity to do something collaborative. I was once invited to a gig as part of the Enemies Tours, which was a big impressive project run by Steven J. Fowler. It was all about collaborating with another poet. He has done it multiple times, in all sorts of interesting cites and he has reached out to cool places. He was keen to emphasis the power and potential of collaborating. If anyone needs solidarity and mutual support and ideas, I think it’s poets, because so much of what they do gets stuck on web only blogs and obscure e-zines – it is limiting and you may be a local legend and no-one knows you, it’s disheartening.
By taking the idea of collaborating and doing something really interesting and different, it was a great chance to give something back to this relatively small, unloved, sometimes hated, Midlands city, which was my home for a time; and had given me opportunities. I thought that as there are nine junctions on the ring road I could get nine poets and nine filmmakers and mix and match, or I could shake names in a hat – they would each shoot three films of five minutes each tops.
The ring road I define as a modernistic/brutalist super structure. The planning started in the 50s but the construction was 1962-1974 – a really long period which straddled the post war modernist rehabilitation of the city. So it is quite unique: the scale and the size, the above and below, all the subways, nooks and crannies, where things happen and people can go to hide or find themselves. And it can be viewed from above, and from it you can see the city. It has claustrophobia but also open-sky-blue-thinking. Coventry is an iconic place, so I wanted to do some iconic things with it, with local people who deserved a chance, who had strong concepts, people who were born here or had memory and history and would come back and have a new look.
PFL How were the poets and artists selected?
AS As part of the application process people had to give me strong well thought out relevant concepts and ideas. I had a lot of clichés thrown at me that I rejected, such as doing something about Godiva; I said ‘sod Godiva’, it is not personal! I want things about the ring road, I want people who fit the brief. Think about a job application – I am putting money into you, the arts council and the public are putting money into you, and the government are putting money in, and the council are putting money into you – give me something cool and invigorating, something new I haven’t seen before. Some people gave me interesting things and some were not quite the most engaging poets for me personally, so I tempered my taste and looked for people who I knew would do challenging work, and some who were accessible, open minded and flexible. I was keen to have both the rough and smooth, the difficult and fun and engaging. They are not exclusive terms. As a collaboration there needed to be a mixture, so as to be reflective of the sense of place – they had to be passionate.
PFL You have previously said that the first film The Dreamer of Samuel Vale House was ‘a challenge to see what could be done with a poet, an idea and a camera – followed by plenty of post-shoot editing’. What can be done with a poet, an idea, a camera and post editing? (Which, by the way, is a great definition of a poetry film!)
AS I paraphrased the French filmmaker Jean-Luc Goddard who said ‘all you need to make a movie, is a girl and a gun’. For me it was about the poems. A lot of poetry films can be interesting performances if you shove a camera in the face of a slammer. Some of that isn’t always my favourite kind of work especially as a book, but it can work in performance by definition.
The ring road offers all sorts of interesting angles, dispositions, light and shade. In the arts one needs to embrace what is there, the fantastic mistakes and the beautiful coincidences, and you get that on the ring road. In one film shoot there were people passing through, so they took the people and blurred it, then linked it into the poem to identify one of a mass. When the mode, the form, fits the material, you make things different. One of the collaborative pairs was Cormac Faulkner, a local sound artist, who did field recording – there are no stanzas, he captured an atmosphere, an environmental vibe, it is not just a sound track. He worked with a filmmaker from Bristol by way of Vienna, Sangam Sharma. She did slow motion filming blending traffic, slurred in time, with sound waves, doubling up a ghosting feedback loop. It makes it all different and special.
PFL It was said that Disappear Here will ‘make people see the city of Coventry in a different light; whether they are new or have lived here for years. And will inspire others to write/read/experience poetry in its many forms; live and on the page, as well as sparking interest in the new and developing genre of poetry films’. To what extent have these aims been achieved so far?
AS Yes I do think we have done that, by working with great collaborators and the current audiences in Coventry and poets I know here in Coventry. And the people who run the monthly open mike nights are starting to get interesting guests from the midlands and beyond. It is a great way of having our poets working as ambassadors for the city and then poets from other places bringing their stuff here. It’s created whole new collaborations with people publishing other people. I don’t think it will bring loads of people putting pen to paper but I think it will shatter and reinvigorate some conceptions of poetry and what poetry can, or could be, in the future, especially with the films, which are a very accessible and immediate format. If you watch a poetry film, or see a great performance and it stays with you, if a line or two of poetry sticks, it has done its job – if your lines carry on through a person that’s all you can ask for as a poet.
PFL Where next for the project?
AS The main thing is a national tour, a series of screenings, to let other people see them on a decent big screen with a decent sound system – not on their phones, even though it’s a good way to access films. It is an opportunity to meet people. We may also do a hometown tour by exchanges or do longer poetry films. We will also be showing the three films of each collaborative pair over the next nine weeks, on our blog. We will celebrate what people have done together.
PFL Adam, you’re a published poet, fiction writer and novelist, you also lead creative projects, run a not-for-profit publishing company, and you have a particular interest in improving access to the publishing world for under-represented audiences and minority groups. What came first?
AS First was the novel. I was working as a cleaner in an NHS hospital in Warwickshire, that was my summer job while I was in university. I finished as the recession kicked off and I applied to work in a job centre, which I didn’t get. I then started a journalism course and did some experience on local news and I did evening cleaning. Then I decided to write a novel about my experience working in a hospital. When you are a cleaner you are a part of the old-fashioned services industry – you are a fly on the wall, a little bit invisible, but you are meant to be everywhere. I was angry about things like management and admin and the NHS as an organisation. As a body, it is so big and sprawling. The pressure and dismantling of the NHS by the government in a really focused, vindictive, destructive way, has put pressure on the staff to such an extent it has led to what J.G. Ballard called the ‘death of affect’, that basically centres around a loss of empathy, care and feeling which I think is being put on the staff. It is not that the staff are bad people and they are not necessarily doing a bad job, but it might be that a lot of standards are declining, all at the same time. So that’s then I was writing a novel.
Then I thought I will start up a publishing company and a friend and I kick started a magazine Here Comes Everyone in 2012. The idea was to make an accessible, open-minded literary magazine that would include: crosswords, non-fiction, and reviews and give more emerging writers their first credit. So that was our aim. The key difference to a lot of publications is that we wanted to have themed issues, to be more relevant and socially aware than perhaps some established magazine and journals were. The first issue was the Riots issue and weirdly that was the one year anniversary of the England riots especially in London. It was kind of an odd thing to commemorate, but we were saying, a year on – what’s changed, what’s happened, where are those people now? So then we did a Heroes issue and then we went to the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire and there we were trying to question the thesis and the meaning of what it is to be a hero or what it is to be heroic. All this brought up interesting and difficult questions. Then we did issues on Colours, the NHS, Jerusalem and it snowballed. Now the magazine has been handed on the next generation.
Alongside that we started Silhouette Press – if we were going to make a learning sound-box for a magazine, maybe we could make a publishing house that would then take on those authors and support and build up their writing career towards proper publication with us. So we have kept to the authors we wanted to work with. There is one poetry book so far Exclamation Marx! By Neil Laurenson, then we have three more coming out this year, by the end of April.
PFL What things can we look forward to from you next? And tell us a bit about your novel.
AS I have a few ideas for poetry film. I will always be an advocated to Silhouette Press. Urbane will publish my novel Politics of the Asylum in October 2017. The sound bite for the novel is that it is a mish-mash of Will Self and Virginia Wolfe, angry young man and a critique of the NHS.
More from Adam about Politics of the Asylum can be found here: https://aloverofbooks.wordpress.com/2017/03/17/guest-post-by-adam-steiner/
Adam Steiner’s poetry and fiction appear in Rockland Lit, Proletarian Poetry, The Next Review, Fractured Nuance zine, BoscRev: 4, The Weary Blues, The Stare’s Nest, ShoutOut UK, 3:AM, The Cadaverine, Spontaneity, Abridged 0-13, The Literateur, Nostrovia! SquawkBack, NOUS. Anthologies: Interpal – Palestine Verses, Fugue 1 (Siren Press), Poems Underwater, Stepaway – Voicewalks (Durham University).
Adam was selected for the 2014 Ó Bhéal Coventry-Cork Twin Cities Poetry Exchange and was part of the Coventry SHOOT Festival, 2014. He is former Editor of Here Comes Everyone magazine.