7. SPECIAL FEATURE: An Interview by Jean-Paul L. Garnier
Author Michael Butterworth
A pioneer of New Wave science fiction.
An Interview with Michael Butterworth
JPG – For a long time, your work has addressed our mistreatment of the environment, why do you think these warnings in the arts have been ignored by the people, and what do you think a writer’s role is in addressing the problem?
I think there is a disconnect from reality.
MB – I wrote in ‘Space Radio’ about the world ignoring climate breakdown: “You think it all a mirage, a con trick, or a game.” This was written in the eighties – the last century – and it seems even more true now. People would rather believe anything to continue their life and work as normal than make changes. I think there is a disconnect from reality. We believe the world we know is ending, but we think we will somehow deal with it; or we deny it, even though we can see environmental change starting to happen all around us. For me it’s been an imperative to write about what’s happening. I can’t write anything, even off-topic, without this wider awareness somehow impinging – the harm we’re doing to the web of life that supports us, the interconnectedness of this web, and how damaging one part of it has consequences elsewhere. I hope what people take away from my poetry is the love I feel for the world, and my sadness, but also the anger I feel. I hope it changes minds, or propels enough people to act, to say STOP… drilling for oil, opening coal mines, deforesting, using cars and planes unnecessarily.
The writer’s role is to say this, and to those growing up I would also do what I am belatedly trying to do after years of writing warnings, which is to say write about the positive things that are happening. A sea-change in the way we live, and work, is how we are going to survive. And keep writing about the same thing. A sudden quantum shift in human attention, in every person, in every field, in every corner of the planet won’t solve anything straight away, but it will put on the brakes and buy time.
JPG – Wind is a common theme in your stories and poetry, what is its significance for you?
the post-atomic deserts, populated now only by a micro-computer’s imagination.
MB – It has multiple meanings. In my novel My Servant the Wind it symbolises change and impermanence, and denotes the post-atomic deserts, populated now only by a micro-computer’s imagination. A last chip of humanity. It also stands for memory and longing. A wind from long ago, in my own life or pre-history or even from the dawn of life, or some remote point in space and time. A genetic yearning or a feeling of destiny. It can symbolise animation, and life, too.
JPG – War, and its absurdity, is also a regular theme in your work – can you elaborate on your feelings about this issue?
One was about a proxy war fought on an alien world and the senseless loss of life, but the participants were as much to blame as the warmongers because they continuously allowed themselves to be manipulated and used.
MB – Like many others, I’m sure, from a young age I wanted to help the world. As an eleven- or twelve-year-old I wanted to be a scientist who would help feed an overpopulated world. Interested in chemistry and botany the problem, I reasoned, was to apply photosynthesis, the process used by plants, to factory-manufacture food from basic ingredients like CO2, water, and sunlight. I read chemistry textbooks, fascinated by equations and industrial methods, which led me to science fiction and, alarmingly, the end of the world through atomic war. That changed my career trajectory completely. I suddenly wanted to be an artist or a writer, someone who could paint graphic pictures to alert the world to what was happening. My first two stories, published in the school magazine, seemed to come from nowhere. I just found myself writing them. One was about a proxy war fought on an alien world and the senseless loss of life, but the participants were as much to blame as the warmongers because they continuously allowed themselves to be manipulated and used. I didn’t say this in so many words. The story was entirely metaphorical. I wanted readers to draw their own conclusions. But the absurdity of war and its results – usually its results – became an abiding subject, and metaphor is my way of expressing it, because I am much more interested in the poetry, in describing reality, than didacticism. The sad conclusion is, though, as with the environment, so with war. We can’t continue to have expensive resource-heavy wars. There remains a chance that we can talk and act our way out of the futures now facing us. We can transcend the inbuilt limitations that keep us locked into them, but it must be radical change in the way we all think, not just how some of us do. That is the theme of most of my fiction, which, in its metaphorical way, accepts destruction as a given, but always in the hope this will inspire change even in a small way. My poetry tries to do the same but is more direct and expressive of emotion.
JPG – For a long time you also ran bookstores and worked as a publisher, what did interacting with the backend of the business teach you about writing?
The bookstores were great educators in the university of life.
MB – The bookshops grew out of my writing and were essential to the trajectory I was on at the time, building a new platform for my work after the collapse of New Worlds. They catered to the youth market of the time, and were the rough end of creativity, if you like, and came with their own hassles, but they gave me the opportunity to be my own boss and the freedom and means to build Savoy Books. I saw them as a means to an end. They could have been any business, though books were more interesting, and they did teach you. As well as new titles we did part-exchange, so you could sometimes find the unexpected among the morass of books, comics and magazines coming over the counter. We branched out into underground and bootleg vinyl before the chain stores came along to take the market, and film stills, new lines that fitted with books, which drew in a wider public. This was the other thing the shops taught us about: people. The bookstores were great educators in the university of life.
JPG – What are your thoughts on immediacy in poetry, and in particular short form poetry?
Simultaneity of phenomenon as opposed to biologic existence, which perceives things temporally.
MB – Immediacy attracts because if I achieve it in any meaningful way – and its very elusive – I feel I am communicating with other places and times than the one I am in. When I read Ryõkan, say, who was writing hundreds of years ago and writes like this, it’s as though he’s speaking to me now, as though no time has passed. The world has become one moment, which may be how reality really is: no time. Simultaneity of phenomenon as opposed to biologic existence, which perceives things temporally. I am trying to perceive reality, how things are, and when I try to do this, when I have these thoughts, I am in what feels like a permanent now, properly ‘awakened’, but unfortunately, I have little control over staying there. I can’t turn nowness on like a tap, which it is why the moments when I have managed to do this have been so fleeting, and why it has taken a whole lifetime to produce a single book of poetry. Short form attracts because often it’s all I can write when the muse descends. If I can write for longer, then I am deliriously happy to do so, ‘Ghosts’ for instance, or ‘Till Now’; or poems like ‘Summer Poems’ or ‘Buddhafield’ or ‘Space Radio’. I would like to find the inspiration to write a whole book like that. But a few lines of words can take the place of a book, they can carry the same weight of content and narrative and implication, and poems that do this are as hard to come by, so they are no means lesser.
JPG – What gives you hope in today’s world, and how does this differ from your feelings about hope in the past?
If we deny climate change is caused even in part by humans, we can have the comfort of pretense, but while we stick our heads in the sand things are only going to get worse.
MB – People around the world are trying to turn back the clock to an imagined time when hope was innocent, when if you did the right things you could make your mark on the world and live a good life. It’s easier to do this, to turn away than to face up to the complexities of contemporary life. Better to deny what you don’t like, turn away, or bully a dissenting voice or partner or group or country into submission in the hope we can carry on as we used to do. The backlash has become a very angry one because people have held resentments for a very long time and are seeing what they think is an opportunity to change things back to how they were. But it won’t work. If we deny climate change is caused even in part by humans, we can have the comfort of pretense, but while we stick our heads in the sand things are only going to get worse. The world’s resources are finite and won’t allow us a second run at life. So, to answer your question, my hope has changed from youthful hope for a simple life, in an orderly world, when climate change seemed less threatening, to hope that somehow, in a world that is suddenly becoming lawless and chaotic, the right voices will prevail. The world is becoming more divided again, and societies are fragmenting, just at the very moment we need to pull together in a common cause.
JPG – If possible, can you sum up your career as a writer in a haiku?
I took a chance,
It was the only thing I
Could have done.
That’s not haiku!
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Get your copy of Complete Poems 1965-2020 here.
Learn more about Michael Butterworth here.