Serena Mayer is a new voice in the poetry world. Her strange texts are like towers of building blocks assembled by a child, uncentred and unstable, all edges and angles, with remnants of punctuation throughout and a total lack of anything except thematic linking one line to the next for the reader to initially focus on. Each poem is a kind of impressionistic ladder that the reader has to slowly climb, poetry without epiphany or closure, although occasionally the last lines such as ‘part of the story of being’ (‘New Histories’) or ‘together in another order’ (‘Apparition’) feel like a kind of summary or key to what has gone before, encouraging re-reading and reconsideration. Mayer’s first book, Theoretical Complexities is published by Broken Sleep Books.
Jonathan Stubbs: You don’t give much away to the reader, but your brief biography states that you ‘ studied anthropology and social geography, and [are] interested in hidden texts and forgotten or discarded language.’ Can you unpack that a bit? What’s it got to do with poetry?
Serena Mayer: I am very interested in how society works, how it leaves traces of itself, organises itself, excludes and includes, and how it occupies the spaces it lives in. I love the fact that, for instance, people make their own paths across the corners of parks and waste ground instead of following the prescribed routes. I came to see these as secret routes, personal mappings, of places. In cities, of course, it can be described as psychogeography, but that seems a very urban, male discourse. There are historical sites and traces of people everywhere, of course. In fact this summer’s unseasonably hot weather revealed many forgotten or unknown sites and markings across the UK.
Of course, tied up with our knowledge is the matter of how we use it. Claude Lévi-Strauss was a fantastic anthropologist but indulged in some questionable assumptions and ideas about the ‘savage’. Ideas and contexts change, although academia doesn’t like those who go against the grain or indulge in different systems. The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, for instance, exhibits material by type of object rather than by country of origin. I think it’s fantastic to compare, say, an African cudgel with a British policeman’s truncheon, but many specialists do not.
JS: And the poetry?
SM: Sorry, I am getting to that. The different ways of dealing with material, with objects, and people’s own use of place, made me think about hidden maps, hidden texts. I am fascinated by the historical and literary interpretations of ancient texts, from archaeological sites but also the literal fragments of Sappho, and the slippage involved in translation, depending on the translator’s concerns and skills.
Somehow this led me, via the idea of the reader making what they will of what they read, to the idea of hidden texts within other texts. Secret texts, forgotten texts, codes, thrown away language (the rubbish on the street, unread or abandoned books, half-heard songs from cars passing or open windows) to seeking out my own texts within the work of others.
JS: So your poetry is simply, or only, constructed from other texts?
SM: That is my writing process at the moment. I choose phrases or excerpts from books I find and build my poems, line by line. The horizontal placing of each of the lines is dependent upon their place in the original text I take it from.
JS: So chance procedure? Random juxtaposition? Extreme collage?
SM: Oh no. I choose each phrase and my editing includes rearranging, re-ordering, replacing lines with others, as any writer does. There is no chance procedure. I choose a theme I wish to explore, or which seems present to me in my studies or reading. I believe I am assembling one possible text from an infinite number of possible texts in the world.
JS: You have very quickly had a number of works published in small press magazines and online journals, and now Broken Sleep Books are publishing your first book. Was that a surprise?
SM: Yes, of course, but I am delighted, especially with the book. I have found much support from a variety of editors (although of course I have had plenty of rejections), but it is all much simpler than the slow way universities and academia process things. Most editors seem friendly and willing to give advice, as well as a simple yes or no reply to submissions. And I like the different range of magazines available. At X-Peri, for instance, who have just published a sequence of mine, my work sits alongside the strangest, most experimental writing and visuals, whilst at I Am Not A Silent Poet the poem is seen as a revolutionary observation, critique or call to arms. Amethyst Review is a busy online blog publishing work about spirituality in the widest sense; A Restricted View From Under the Hedge is a beautiful paperback magazine. I am amazed at how my work is now available to readers, and it was this that encouraged me to try and find a publisher.
JS: There are more and more small presses springing up, but how did you choose where to send your manuscript?
SM: Broken Sleep Books was the second publisher I submitted to, and they very quickly accepted my book. I was encouraged by the simple design of their books, the number of women on their list, and their commitment to inclusivity and diversity. It seemed a good place to submit to. I had no idea how new the publisher was! But I am very grateful to the editors there and looking forward to seeing my book.
JS: And what’s next for Serena Mayer the poet?
SM: I am working on a poetry sequence using titles from the artist Joan Miró (although the poems are not about his work) and continuing to submit individual poems to magazines. School is about to begin again, so organising and supporting my daughter must be my main concern for a while. I also have an anthropological trip to undertake before Christmas and will have to write that up. I am enjoying creative writing very much at the moment.
JS: Good luck with everything, and thank you for your time.
Theoretical Complexities is available from https://www.brokensleepbooks.com/shop
Jonathan Stubbs is a systems analyst in London and an avid reader and cyclist.