Rob Sherman in conversation with Frank Burton
Rob Sherman's poetry collection, Valve Works, can be read online or downloaded for free at www.philistinepress.com.
So, Valve Works is themed around the human body. What made you choose this particular theme?
A lot of what I write is bodily; I have not worked out whether this is puerile fascination or genuine interest, but pretty much everything I write, music, prose or poetry, has some element of biology, specifically human biology, within it. The idea, I guess, is to exalt the body, to render it religious; it has both horrific and beatific applications, and poetic language seemed the ideal medium for what is really an ode to health, unhealth, and anatomy. We all have parts of ourselves that we try to conceal, or change, and, while I may not be happy with my own body, it at least deserves an airing once in a while!
Is your poetry influenced by music?
I think it would be very hard not to be influenced by music, especially for a modern poet; they sort of feed off each other. Some songs I write become poems, or vice versa, and a lot of my favourite artists place an emphasis on spoken rhythm or lyric; any old-school hip-hop or rap artist you care to mention takes great pride in the musicality of their language. Even less rhythmic poems, such as "Eyes", would work set to music. It is something I often think about doing; paired music and poetry, as they should be, on a single recording.
Were the poems in Valve Works written with performance in mind?
Not really. Some of them do work better when spoken - again, "Eyes" is an example of this - though I have never really been at home performing my poetry as "poetry". Whether that is because spoken word and performance poetry have become creative pursuits in their own right, or because of my own reluctance, I'm not sure. I did have some poetry read in Plymouth as part of the Barbican's "Voice Cafe" piece. Then again, with the involvement of music, I think I would be happy to read poetry. It's a strange system in my head.
Do you think the internet has had a big impact on the poetry scene?
I think so, definitely. I think the internet is far too ubiquitous for artists to ignore. Poetry hasn't had a good decade in the public eye; declining sales, waning interest. As with music, the internet allows poets to compare notes and promote their work with much greater frequency and ease. I have read quite a few interesting essays on releasing one's stuff for free, and it seems to really work; that is what I liked about Philistine. People do not go out and buy poetry anymore; though this is not irreparable, to gain a respectful audience you have to willing to broadcast your material for free. This is, really, how it has always been done; the only difference now is that it is done digitally, rather than from a box in the town square.
Which writers are you influenced by?
It's a mixed bag, as I think it should be with anyone. I adore graphic novels, so there's Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis and Jim Woodring, who is a god, amongst many others. In fiction, Italo Calvino, Philip K. Dick, Marcel Schwob and Ted Hughes are some of those that I am reading currently. Ted Hughes, especially, had a big part to play in Valve Works, particularly his "Crow" poems; he's so wonderfully strange, and adores the grosser aspects of anatomy, just as I do! But it ranges; subjects more than writers tend to grab me. Architecture, chemistry, history, etymology, they all seep into projects without much coercion.
Is the human body a work of art?
I guess so. It's a machine, it's a function, but it's fascinated us since we thought to pick at our nails or slap our stomachs. A machine can be a work of art; it's not perfect, but the more we learn about it the less it needs to be. The functions it performs are so mind-boggling, at least to me, that they become almost religious, or magical; the liver might as well exist in a fantastical, sonnet-like setting, as how it processes alcohol or regulates toxicity I don't know. How we don't just sink into ourselves, I don't know. It's a piece of art and artifice that I don't understand, and that makes it all the more impressive. It's described using those wonderful words only found in medical dictionaries; they may as well be sorcerer’s grimoires. Yes, the body is art, if only because it scares the hell out of me.