Apologia pro Omnesia

(As Omnesia appears to be out, it’s time to begin whatever it is which that tautology ‘the immodest author’ does by way of product-promotion – the upfront-lash? Here then is the intro that appears in both volumes, and purports to explain just what it is I’ve done.)

Dear reader, I apologise for the position I’ve put you in. Not just you, but the bookseller, the reviewer, and the various assessors through whose hands one or both aspects of this book has or have had to or will pass or passed – and indeed my publisher, who painstakingly produced two mirror versions of it, one of which you are, probably with increasing reluctance, reading now. And to what end?

Our culture is as happily full of mash-ups, remixes, and directors’ cuts, as it is of variorum editions of novelists, poets and playwrights. It is entirely possible in the world of e- (and p-) publishing to imagine any book having several versions, supplemented by additional materials through websites or pamphlets. So, I wondered, why not write a book which absorbs that flexibility into its basic structure?

Hence Omnesia, a book in two volumes and neither, its title both a portmanteau and a sort of oxymoron, pairing ‘omniscience’ (‘You must know everything’) with ‘amnesia’, an often traumatic condition of forgetfulness. For me, writing a book of poetry is both of these, simultaneously a shoring up and a letting go. (In fact, for me, being in the world is also like this – perhaps that’s why so much of this book is on the move, between tones and genres as much as places, not quite at home in any of them.)

So writing a book of poetry becomes both punk experiment and prog system. That is, I go with the emphatic flow of its inspirations, I forget everything a poem ‘should’ be, and improvise its subjects, its themes, its forms and tones, but at the same time I am constantly trying to orchestrate these into a whole, thinking of them as sections that contrast, complement and speak to each other.

This echoes my reading experience, in which any book that has moved, troubled or changed me begins to exist as one version in my head, and another in my hand. To the extent to which it has such an effect, it becomes ‘my’ book, and begins to be imagined as a collaboration between myself and the author, or by a sort of third mind that knows what we both know. Then, when I re-read the actual book, I find there is so much I have forgotten, or overlooked, or mistaken, that it has become yet another book. These two versions then enter into further dialogue.

While I was writing Omnesia – or rather while I was lying on a bed daydreaming before an event at the Cuírt Festival in Galway – I began to wonder if these various dynamics could be embodied in two physically distinct but twin-like books.

In my first Bloodaxe volume, Forked Tongue, I had suggested the principle of ‘And not Or’ to position a poetic of variousness in a market that favours (if not fetishizes) concision and restraint. All my books since have been doubled – linguistically, stylistically or thematically. Omnesia takes that principle one step further: the various sections in each volume mirror, juxtapose, continue or contrast. Hopefully, they make one sense read in isolation, and a further read together.

What this interrelation does not appear to be is a dialectic – it is not that debate between thesis and antithesis which our media loves, creating pantomime oppositions in order to pitch common sense against complexity. It’s more like the dance between ideas we encounter in the ancient mode of strophe and antistrophe, each step taking the step it echoes and reflecting it onto another level: the epode arises from this, not as a matter of logical synthesis, but as news from nowhere.

Of course, you needn’t concern yourself with this unless it engages you: this volume can be read by itself, and only if you are at all moved, troubled or changed need it be considered in conjunction with its non-identical twin. I hope you are (moved, troubled or changed), not least because it will double my sales, a consideration I should confess occurred to me almost immediately after the principles outlined above.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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1 Response to Apologia pro Omnesia

  1. Pingback: Waukendremes, 1 | gairnet provides: press of blll

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