It’s World Poetry Day! As such, we thought we’d introduce RJ Arkhipov, a poet and essayist based in London with roots in Paris, and Buenos Aires or, as his bio says “Born in Wales, Reborn in Paris”. RJ is releasing his new book Visceral this May. I met RJ at Hailey Tuck’s album showcase, a friend he made in his days in Paris. We quickly got chatting about his work and life and he spoke to me some more about what you can expect from this intriguing anthology to celebrate World Poetry Day.
So your new book is an anthology of personal essays and poems exploring the topic of blood from a number of different perspectives. What drew you to blood as a stimulus in the first place?
Blood is a substance of potent metaphor. Notions of family, sacrifice, violence and stigma are all tied up in it. Blood courses in constant flux throughout us from before we are born to the moment we die, transforming effortlessly from liquid into solid when it escapes us. What is now an anthology of poems, essays and photographs by the name of Visceral began, however, as a handful of poems back in 2015. I was particularly inspired by a line attributed most often to Ernest Hemingway: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
The book is a collection of both poetry and personal essays. Was there a dramatically different approach to writing either and how does your process work?
Throughout my childhood and adolescence (and to some extent even now in my adulthood when I have a spare moment), I read the dictionary. When I was younger and believed all books should be read from beginning to end, I would go through each of the letters as though they were chapters. Upon encountering a word with numerous distinct definitions, I would marvel at how a single word could capture so many different ideas. Both my poetry and my essays begin with a single, often ambiguous, word, but after that the process is very different. Poetry is painting precision with ambiguity. The words are more often felt than thought. The essays are a combination of analysis and biography, so thought (be it research or remembrance) plays an important role in their writing.
I hope this isn’t too personal but as a gay man, blood has a number of connotations especially in regard to stigma and fear (not in the gothic sense), was that a major reason for choosing it?
It certainly nourished the work. As I was having my blood taken to be used as ink for the first collection of poems back in 2015, I naturally thought of blood donation and how the blood of gay men is unfairly discriminated against throughout the world, including in the UK. Impassioned, writing the poems with my own blood as ink became both an act of protest against the stigma of gay blood and a testament of personhood. In a way, I felt that the use of my own blood as ink rendered my poems more heartfelt, and as poetry makes its transition onto digital media, I also felt I was making my poetry more human in a way.
You told me that you wrote the poems originally in your own blood. I was quite shocked myself but can you tell us about the responses you had to that and the experience you had doing that?
A lot of people often align blood with more contemporary cultural references like Dracula, body horror franchises such as Saw and the gothic. Is this anthology an attempt to destabilise those perceptions?
Definitely. Although, in the first chapter I do look at why blood is such a powerful vector for horror. One of the later chapters of the book, however, looks closely at the association of blood and intimacy. While most minds considering blood and sex are drawn to violence, few actually consider that the very act of sexual intimacy depends on blood. After all, both erection and orgasm are characterised by the flow and ebb of blood.
Would you say there was a lot of research involved in the writing process or has this been more a personal exploration?
Both. The book was very much imagined as a literal body of work with the poetry of blood flowing between each of the book’s six chapters, or organs: abjection, ancestry, faith, intimacy, mortality and stigma. Each chapter begins with a personal essay explaining both its association with blood and why I chose it, then the poems under that category follow. As I said earlier, most of the poems were felt rather than thought, and the essays balance research and biography.
The title of the book is Visceral. When we spoke, you spoke about Blood in a way that makes me wonder if you relate Blood to the emotional definition rather than the scientific one?
Certainly, although I have definitely researched the scientific history of blood in the conception of this work and many of the poems within the book take the science of blood as the basis for their format. For example, there is an abecedarian poem using the ABO blood groups and a circular poem which mimics the circulation of blood in the body. I wouldn’t go so far as to say this work is in any way scientific, even if it is informative. Either way, I believe interesting outcomes can result when science and art come together.
As the book arrives in April this year, would you be happy to share one of the poems from it with our readers?
Of course. Here is XY, narrated by yours truly.
Why did you choose that one?
It was one of the first “blood poems” I wrote and even has its own video directed by Hadi Mousally for The12Project.
Where can we preorder Visceral?
Thanks for taking the time RJ!
RJ Arkhipov’s Visceral is released in April 2018 in hardback.
Images: Headshot: Michael Sturrock
Visceral Photography: Maud Maillard