The thingness of language – An Interview with Richard Capener of Hem Press

Based in Birmingham, England, Hem Press is a small independent publisher with a diverse catalogue that includes visual poetry, experimental memoir, narrative verse and radical translation. As part of my on-going series of editor interviews I spoke to Richard Capener, who founded Hem Press in 2022.

–     Richard, in your recent conversation with Anthony Etherin on the Penteract Podcast, you discussed the influence of the Language poets on your writing, in particular Charles Bernstein. You also acknowledged the benefits of a conservative training in poetry, in terms of metre, rhyme and form. Tell me about your creative trajectory, and what led to the founding of Hem Press last year.

Richard: Anthony’s podcast gave me the space to join the dots from being a music-obsessed teen to getting into the avant-garde at a young age, and how that got me into poetry. After getting serious about poetry, I attended open mics and workshops throughout the West Country and quickly realised that, although most attendees were welcoming, there was no outlet for my particular interest in poetry. Being a young ’un, I made the regrettable decision to try and write how I thought I should write to fit in. Contributing to this, despite enjoying the contemporary avant-garde from America and Canada online, Faber, Bloodaxe and Carcanet were the only publishers centre-stage on the British scene at that time. I mean, Salt and Nine Arches, both still going strong, were around, but all attention was on the bigger presses. These were the factors that pushed me to get a conservative grounding in lyric poetry. Going on to study English Lit and Creative Writing as an undergraduate reinforced this.

The positives: learning canonised poetics opened the door for me to appreciate pre-20th century poetry. Also, basic metre and rhyme are troubleshooting tools most writers (not just poets: all writers) lack. If something about a paragraph feels off but everything is stylistically or grammatically correct, it might be a stressed syllable too long or a particular word has an odd internal rhyme with another.

I acknowledge the uses of a conservative training in poetry while remaining deeply sceptical of the phrase, so often parroted in creative writing pedagogy, “You need to know the rules before you break them.” This assumes poetry is a singular, straight forward, tradition that can be explicated and explained. In contrast, poetry are a sprawling, and sometimes contradicting, mess of narratives and counter-narratives. There’s little need for a visual poet to learn what a sonnet is before making a visual poem, irrespective of how formally conservative poets might see visual poetry as “breaking the rules”.

In addition, “You need to know the rules…” is made on false pretences. The workshops that support such a position are writing within defined parameters without sincere reflection on where those parameters originate from. This results in switching around, and taking out, bits and pieces of poetics within those parameters (a villanelle with partial, unrhymed, refrains; blank verse in two columns that can be read three ways: two columns down and one poem across). This reveals the ideological position from which the seemingly reasonable statement is made: “You currently fall outside the literary establishment, by its nature quantifiable and refined, and you will only be accepted on our terms if you do as we say.” A writer, working within these assumptions, has to be told how to break the rules, which is the same as not breaking the rules.

Writers, instead of learning poetics like music grades, would be better served learning the history of the poetry that most excites them. There is comfort in knowing someone’s already struggled with the same questions you’re struggling with. And far from limiting a creative practice, history can propel, expand and renew it.

The obvious caveat with all this is, if an individual wants to write formal lyric poetry, they should probably learn what a sonnet is.

Hem Press itself was an idea that never went away. Towards the end of uni, I slowly became confident with expressing what I wanted to write. I had discovered the bpNichol archive and was interested in writing and intermedia. I made a couple of artist books, and the image of them spoke to both language as a creative material and the joining together of boundaries.

Over the years since graduating, the desire to start a press, and the name, never went away.After having a few of my own pamphlets released, and running an online journal, I had a sense of how to run a press so went at it.

–     The Hem Press website includes the following statement:

“Using FSC certified materials, publications take on the spirit of garments. This emphasises books as objects, language’s palpability and the confronting, and joining, of boundaries.

Can you expand on this statement, and how it is reflected in the Hem Press catalogue?

Richard: Sensuality is an idea with which Hem Press books can be framed. (Basically: vibes yo.) I don’t have the technical knowledge or network to produce bespoke books as beautifully as, say, Guillemot Press. Alongside, I hope, design, Hem books become about grounding the sensual experience. Recently, orders have been wrapped in cloth. I’d like to spray the cloth with perfume in the future but all I currently have is essential oil which, even if mixed with water, might cause allergic reactions or enflame sensitive skin. I’ll probably use rose water, both a wash and, in other forms, an aphrodisiac in the ancient world.

But the Hem Press catalogue, although diverse, shares joy in the thingness of language, or what Bernstein might class as “non-absorptive” language. I want the texture of language to be “an erotics of art”, to borrow from Sontag.

–     As well as print publications, Hem Press produces sound poetry through its imprint, Angry Starlings, including performances by Penn Kemp, Susie Campbell and Chris Kerr, and your own piece ‘Orphanage’, in which brief, disembodied sounds extrude from a surrounding silence. What are the creative connections between Hem Press and Angry Starlings?

Richard: Angry Starlings links back to the sensuality of language. The imprint itself was founded to fill a gap in the UK’s indie scene. While visual poetry had a mini-revival during the pandemic, there seemed to be minimal platforms for sound poetry.

Further still, the most innovative contemporary sound poetry, for me at least, wasn’t being done in literature but in music and performance. I’m thinking specifically of ID M Theft Able (I urge readers to watch this performance and explore this introductory article) or Charmaine Lee. I’d also point to Ami Yoshida, whose collaborative project Astro Twin inspired my Orphanage. Because I got into poetry through music, sound poetry has been with me for as long as lyric poetry. It’s a dream to be able to run the imprint.

–     In the Penteract Podcast you and Anthony talked frankly of the challenges faced by small independent poetry presses. In a recent post on Twitter/X you described indie publishing as “heartbreaking”. As editor of Hem Press, how do you seek to deal with these challenges and mitigate their impact, both personally and professionally?

Richard: It’s difficult to think of a clear set of strategies because the challenges are multifaceted and differ between publishers. Maybe adaptability over mitigation? I’d have started a press years ago if I realised I could make low/no cost leaflets by hand, for example.

With the broadest strokes, it’s best to distance oneself from folk who incessantly slander others (hint – they’re saying the same shit about you); within reason, keep plans and ideas and goals private; don’t invest your emotional and intellectual energy into panic and indignation, especially on social media: the horrors of injustice will continue regardless, and that energy could be spent on solutions that have an actual impact. But this is advice for all people as much as writers and publishers.

Writers would do well to think about publishing as asking a stranger for hundreds of pounds and hours of free labour. Conversely, I’d caution publishers to view writers as strangers asking for the same.

But sometimes challenges can’t be mitigated – the rising costs of postage and quality printing, unprofessional third parties, regular burnout – and nor should they. It’s important to feel sad, without filtering it, because then grief can come and comfort your heart.

–     Your pamphlet The Voice Without, published in 2022 by Beir Bua Press and now free to download, explores fragments of meaning and the absence of meaning in word-strings and sound, raising questions about verbal and non-verbal communication. It’s a fascinating body of work. Can you tell me something about its conception and your creative process, particularly in seeking to convey sounds in written form?

Richard: My creative process changes with each project. The Voice Without was initially inspired by the Swiss-Canadian artist Christof Migone. He had a radio show in the late 80s/early 90s called Danger in Paradise, which challenged and broke the form. This developed into his first major project, Hole in the Head.

Inspired by this 2003 interview with Migone, I wanted to write a response to his work. The first thing I did was “transcribe” Hole in the Head (which is, essentially, untranscribable). While none, or very little, of that material ended up in the final manuscript, it allowed me to figure out the type of language I wanted to explore. I also began to improvise onto a free, online, speech-to-text transcriber and, in a couple of instances, played Hole in the Head into it to see the results.The process wasn’t quite as clear cut as this, but I basically deleted the correct parts of the transcriptions and kept, and worked with, the errors. This is where the chunks of prose in the pamphlet came from.

Somewhere amongst all this, I became interested in how possession and exorcism could be used to think about language, allowing The Voice Without to formalise the disavowal –the exorcising – of one language only for another to take its place. This led me to draw on found language, literally placing someone else’s words in my mouth. Possession by any other name.

You can imagine how thrilled I was when Migone provided a blurb for the pamphlet.

–     2022 also saw the publication by Overground Underground Books of Today is a Thursday, your collaboration with Imogen Reid. This book has now also generously been made available as a free download, having sold out. I am lucky enough to own a physical copy and am struck by the sense of dialogue between your poems and Imogen’s images, printed as they are on facing pages. The quality of the paper is also distinctive, so reading the book becomes a tactile experience.To what extent do you explore multi-sensory elements in your work?

Richard: One of the reasons language interests me as a creative material is, putting aside how it looks and sounds, it has another thingness to it. We know from 100+ years of linguistics that the signifier is not the signified, yet something unreachable seems present. Maybe this follows Žižek’s commentary on Kinder Surprise, that this “allusive surplus” leads to an anti-metaphysics or, for our discussion, the surface of language. In the same film, he goes on to say the reason why a thing may seem so emotionally deep is because there’s nothing there. It can be filled with desire.

– On your Hem Press Author’s page, you are described as ‘working across text, visuality, sound and live art’. Please share one or two of your poems with us and tell us something of their significance to you.

Richard: My creative practice favours ideas that develop over a manuscript, as opposed to collections of individual pieces. For this reason, I’d signpost readers to the free ebooks you linked above: The Voice Without, Today is a Thursday and Assessment.

I don’t think of writing as having personal significance. It’s not how my brain is. I’m more concerned with exploring alternative ways language can signify.

–     Finally, are there any current or future projects (both your own and Hem Press) that you would like to share with us?

Richard: Hem has James Tadd Adcox’s brilliant Denmark: Variations coming 14th November. I’ll then be gearing up to work on Hem’s first 2024 release over the Christmas break:  Ali Graham’s debut full length. I do still want to create an archive of my old journal, The Babel Tower Notice Board, which kept getting delayed due to home moves and redundancy and Hem Press obligations. I hope to get this done in December too. My next book, The Enochian Alphabet, will be released from Timglaset Editions early next year.

–     Many thanks Richard, for taking the time to answer my questions.

Richard: Thank you for having me!


Hem Press:

Angry Starlings:

Richard Capener on Linktree:

Richard Capener on Substack:

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