Described by Astra Papachristodoulou as “one of the most exciting voices in visual poetry today”, James Knight is an experimental poet, artist, performer and the founding editor of Steel Incisors Press. I’ve long been an admirer of his work, so was delighted when James agreed to an interview with me. We discussed contemporary visual poetry, the projects he’s currently working on, and what the future holds for Steel Incisors.
– James Knight; the Bird King; @badbadpoet; editor of Steel Incisors; tell us about these various manifestations of yourself, particularly in relation to your poetry.
James: I’ve been writing poetry and making visual art for a very long time, and there has always been a connection between the two activities. From around 2012 the connection became a synthesis, as I started producing complex digital collages, usually comprising several layers, and including text. I joined Twitter and wanted to use the handle “@badpoet”, but that was already taken, so I had to make it “@badbadpoet.” I was conscious that my work would be considered “bad” by anyone with any knowledge of poetry and how it works, and also by people with a nose for the zeitgeist or what might be considered cool, fashionable or relevant. I pray that no one ever applies any of those adjectives to my work; if they do, I’ll change direction. All a bit infantile, perhaps, but I’m fiercely antagonistic to po-faced seriousness and preciosity in poetry and art in general.
The Bird King started as tweet, at a time when I was hopelessly immersed in Surrealism. An image came to mind of a strange anthropomorphic being with wings, running alone through a city at midnight, so I quickly tweeted it. One tweet became a hundred or so, and I enjoyed the enthusiastic responses with which my tweets were greeted. The Bird King turned into a little book, with gorgeous illustrations by Diana Probst. Over time, and without really thinking about it, the Bird King changed again, this time from a character into my persona, and in 2019 I bought a horrible latex bird mask and started performing at poetry events as my creation.
The Bird King is a sort of anti-poetic figure, in that he symbolises everything that isn’t poetic; he is unthinking, rash, incapable of empathy; idiotic, even. And therein lies his poetry.
– Steel Incisors is a memorable name for a poetry press (I love it!). The press is further described as “visual poetry with teeth”. How and when did Steel Incisors come into being, what is the origin of the name, and what are the press’s ethos and intent?
James: Steel Incisors started in 2020 as a name (I was probably thinking of the character Jaws in the old James Bond movies), a Twitter account, and a vague intention to publish exciting visual poetry. This was at a time when the vispo scene was starting to enjoy the renaissance we see today, and there were some tremendously exciting artists associated with the scene, for example Richard Biddle, SJ Fowler and ReVerse Butcher. Although I had no clear idea what Steel Incisors was about (I still don’t), I did know I wanted to promote visual poetry that was semantically rich and in some way provocative. I hate to say it, but a lot of visual poetry is very anodyne. The tagline “visual poetry with teeth” was my way of articulating a desire for something more dangerous, more alive.
– Steel Incisors books such as SJ Fowler’s Bastard Poems and Cosmologorrhea, which is a collaboration between you and Richard Biddle, strike me as placing the onus of interpretation squarely on the reader. In the essay that accompanies the collage collection Bastard Poems, SJ Fowler writes:
Collage, if useful for anything, is a way to lay a barrier between a poet and their poetic material…. in collage, as in much visual, conceptual, and abstract poetry, the signature of the poet can’t be forged, and is all the more intimate for not being literal. This is, perhaps, the unknowable part of us pouring through, when we think we know what we choose.
By contrast, perhaps, Emma Filtness’s collage poems The Venus Atmosphere are threaded together, lyrically and visually, in delicate layers that guide us towards a profoundly sensuous, deeply intimate, interpretation. Dan Power’s Selected Dreams has a surreal, oneiric narrative: as you write in your Afterword,
The territory of dreams no longer belongs to our sleep. It has been colonised and plundered.
All Steel Incisors books are visually sumptuous, with an element of playfulness that firmly avoids being pretentious. Would you like to comment on these observations, and on the role of Steel Incisors within contemporary visual poetry?
James: You’ve made some very incisive observations there! I agree that I have generally favoured work that asks the reader to supply much of the meaning, and some sort of playfulness is certainly at the heart of all the books published by Steel Incisors. It’s also important to me that the books I publish offer a rich reading experience; I want the reader’s eye to be arrested by several things on a page, to linger on them, wonderingly, and to enjoy the adventure of constructing meaning through an act of intense looking that takes in shapes, colours, recognisable and unrecognisable forms, words, and strange figures that could be taken as words. Colour is an important component of most Steel Incisors books, as is the suggestion of movement. I like visual poetry that has a kinetic quality, as if it has been captured in flight or in a violent convulsion.
– At the end of August, Steel Incisors posted the following on Twitter/ X:
We have three remaining titles coming out this year, including our big anthology. After that, we’re going on indefinite hiatus. You’ll still be able to buy our books, but unfortunately we won’t be in a position to publish new titles. The cost-of-living crisis has hit us all hard.
– Let’s begin with the positive news. Tell me about the three remaining titles and in particular the big anthology.
James: One of those titles, a collaboration between me and James Roome called The Annotated Daniel, was published a couple of months ago. Another is a very exciting project by Madelaine Culver, about which I’m keeping mum for now.
As for the anthology, it’s a 352-page megalodon of a book, entitled Seeing in Tongues. My intention when planning the anthology was simple; I wanted to create a wide-ranging survey of the contemporary visual poetry I find most exciting. There is no theme, no thesis. The book contains no prefatory material (apart from some brief introductory comments by each of the contributors), and no essays or polemical statements. Reading the book is supposed to be like wandering through an art gallery; each poet has his or her own “room”, and the sequence of rooms does not embody any kind of narrative – though the reader may construct one, of course! If you’ll pardon the plug, Seeing in Tongues is available as a sumptuous paperback and an inexpensive ebook: Seeing in Tongues | Steel Incisors.
– What are some of the challenges Steel Incisors has faced as a small independent poetry press, and what are the reasons behind the decision to go on “indefinite hiatus”?
James: The main problem faced by Steel Incisors is lack of sales, which plummeted around the time of Liz Truss’s disastrous mini-budget last autumn. Even a small print-run can cost quite a lot of money; if books aren’t selling I don’t have the disposable income to pay for a print-run. I get approached by a lot of poets who say, “Please publish my work!” but have never bought a Steel Incisors book. A publisher can’t survive if people aren’t prepared to shell out a few quid now and then, it’s as simple as that.
– Let’s turn now to your own poetry. You describe yourself as “an experimental poet and visual artist”. Your work is surreal and startling, at once visceral and disembodied, chaotic and incisive, with a dark absurdist humour. Please share a couple of your pieces with us, and tell us about their significance to you.
James: I think some people write me off as a “horror poet”, but that’s understandable. With hindsight, I didn’t do myself any favours calling my Hem Press collection Cosmic Horror! The title is partly tongue-in-cheek, though I also wanted to reclaim a somewhat trite genre label, in order to explore themes that have long fascinated me, foremost among of which is the notion of the body as a linguistic symbol. Almost all of my work is about the body. I’m interested in: the arbitrary distinctions we hubristically make between our bodies and those of other animals; our facility for seeing our bodies as something separate from ourselves; and the innate strangeness of the body – it is both wonderful and horrifying. My antagonism to order and hierarchy is such that chaos is embodied in much of my work, manifesting in aleatory processes, messy compositions and destruction of my own words and work.
I’ll share a couple of new visual poems…
Both of these pieces are part of a project begun in the summer (and currently comprising over 200 visual poems), incorporating painting, collaged text, original writing and various digital processes. I’m fascinated by hybridity (thus my passion for visual poetry) and polyphony, and in these pieces I use and fuse tiny fragments of text from films, novels and plays in which monstrous hybridity features, including The Tempest, Macbeth, The Thing, The Fly, and The Island of Dr Moreau. I consider these visual poems the culmination of all I’ve learned in the past five years or so, as well as a new start, a new adventure.
– Your book Chimera (Penteract Press) is now out of print and your book Bloods Dream was published with Beir Bua Press, which sadly closed down earlier this year. You have opted to make both books available as free PDF downloads on your website. This is a generous gesture to your readership. How do you see the future of experimental poetry, and of small press publishing?
James: Experimental poetry will continue to evolve as the world changes and as new technologies and ways of reading/responding to “text” gain prevalence. The avant-garde is a tradition like any, though, and bound by conventions, attitudes and assumptions that should be challenged. In an ideal world, we would no longer need to distinguish “experimental” poetry from any other form of poetic endeavour; if by the word “experimental” we denote an openness to possibility and the courage to let things be written the way they need to be written, I don’t think there can be any such thing as a poem that is not experimental.
– Finally, do you have any ongoing or future projects that you would like to share with us?
James: The project mentioned earlier is both ongoing and future, and long may it remain so! I’m having too much fun to let it stop and become something fixed.
– Many thanks, James, for taking the time to answer my questions.
Steel Incisors: https://www.steelincisors.com
James Knight (the Bird King): https://thebirdking.com
Bloods Dream (originally published by Beir Bua Press: downloadable PDF): https://jamesknightbadpoet.files.wordpress.com/2023/07/bloods-dream-from-g-drive.pdf
Chimera (originally published by Penteract Press: downloadable PDF): https://jamesknightbadpoet.files.wordpress.com/2021/08/chimera_james_knight.pdf
Cosmic Horror (published by Hem Press): Cosmic Horror by James Knight — Hem Press (hempressbooks.com)
Machine (published by Trickhouse Press): Machine by James Knight – Trickhouse Press (trickhousepress.com)
The Murderer Threatened and Lacunae, both by James Knight, published by Paper View Books