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Interview with Vincent Farnsworth for PRAGUE LITERARY REVIEW (CZ), 04/2004

“A meditation on the dark sexuality of Prague” is how Phil Shoenfelt describes the long series of poems, short stories and letters entitled Magdalena, a collaborative effort between him and Czech poet and visual artist Kateřina Piňosová. British-born Shoenfelt is a longtime resident of Prague who is known for being singer-songwriter of the bands Southern Cross (Prague) and The Fatal Shore (Berlin). He has recorded eight CDs to date on various labels in the UK, USA, Czech Republic, Germany and Greece, and is the author of Junkie Love (an autobiographical novel), and Zelený Hotel/The Green Hotel (a bi-lingual edition of poetry and song lyrics). Junkie Love was winner of the 2002 Firecracker Alternative Book Award in New York. Piňosová is associated with the Czech and Slovak Surrealist Group and has had her work published in Analogon, Surrealist Women, Manticore, New Presence and S.U.R.R. She is also the author of Housenka Smrtihlava (a book of poetry and illustrations) and collaborated with the American poet Laura Conway on The Alphabet Of Trees. She has taken part in various collective surrealist exhibitions, and her illustrations and paintings have been shown at exhibitions in Czech Republic, France, the UK and the USA.


Meditations on dark and sexy Prague?  Recapturing through collaboration the mysterious Prague of old? 

Piňosová:  I don’t like that definition. I wouldn’t use such strong terms.

I met a young woman the other day who was doing her dissertation on the English language literary expatriate community in Prague, the myth of it, and how the myth got started. Are you also playing around with a myth in Magdalena? If so, are you trying to pump life back into this construct?  Or are you approaching it from a more direct or, if you will, more authentic source of inspiration?

Shoenfelt: I guess it grew out of reading books like Severin’s Journey Into The Night by Paul Leppin and The Angel Of The West Window by Meyrink – the whole “Magic Prague” thing, in other words. It’s an exploration of that, but at the same time there is a certain amount of humour and detachment to it. 

More detachment than those guys?

PS:   What we were doing was a little more distanced, in the sense that we were playing with the imagery of the dark, decadent Prague which is presented in those books. We were exploring it ourselves on a genuine level, but to a certain extent we did take on the tone and colour of those writings. Maybe you could best describe Magdalena as being somewhere between poetry and pornography.

KP:   Well, to me, it doesn’t have this straight connection to those writers.  As I get older I understand their work more, and I don’t think I was purposely doing that. But I discovered what Phil calls the dark side. I have this personal analogy for the whole thing, what I call the second night life which is connected to the city.  This is more what I would call it.   Meaning there is a high sensibility attached to it, the sensibility of Prague.

Tell me about “the second night life."

KP:   Well this is all very personal for me. I mean that the senses are kind of sharpened like those of a creature that goes hunting at night.  Which isn’t to say that these things are only attached to the night. That’s just my analogy, if you like. Because Prague can be a whore. And this is what I feel and mean when I talk about “the second night life”.  Sometimes she hides from you, like a woman, but she can also be a whore. You have to find it out for yourself, through your own experiences.

PS:  We tried to tap into this subterranean Prague nightlife, the typical Prague scene where you can go from one pub to another, endlessly, meeting all these bizarre people, having these bizarre experiences. I’m not talking about the commercial idea of “Magic Prague”, but there is a certain dark magic to the place. There’s this wealth of mythology here, and if you talk to Czech people you find that they are still aware of all these old stories from their childhoods. In this respect, it’s very different to, say, England or the USA where these old folk tales have largely been submerged and no-one remembers them anymore, except specialists in the field.  Obviously Katka, having grown up here, knows a lot more about this mythology than I do.

A brief summary of these things –

PS:  OK, there is one story in Magdalena about Šemík, the mythological horse that jumped from Vyšehrad, though in our version the story is completely twisted. In fact, it’s quite obscene. Katka was actually carrying out a series of rituals on Vyšehrad when we were writing this. What the hell were you doing up there anyway?

KP:  That was the beginning – Vyšehrad introduced itself to me – but then it took years until I really felt like a part of the place. Now it’s very important to me. Again, I wouldn’t use words like “magic”. I just have a very bodily feeling from the place, that’s all.  Well, I was doing certain things up there, but I was provoked by the hill itself to do these things to it, to discover what’s really there.  This is what I call being “down to earth”.


KP:  The connection with Prague is definitely there, with an older Prague which is to some extent an imaginary Prague. Then there are these flashbacks you get, if you live here long enough – you can feel the history and the legends all around you.

How old?  What flashbacks?

KP:   How old? Well this thing I am talking about is pretty timeless. When we were writing the poems and stories in Magdalena I often felt this connection to the Prague of the 1920’s, or to the Prague of the late nineteenth century. Yet mythology is outside time. As you know, history proves that there was some Přemysl and probably some Libuše, but this is mixed history, history mixed with legend. This is what I love. And though I say it’s timeless, I also felt a connection to the era of the cabarets, the time when Prague and Paris were like equal whores.  So I would date it like this, on the level of intuition.

Anyone who has been here a while starts to get fascinated by that time period. As soon as I saw pictures of Prague and realized it was neck and neck with Paris, I thought about what different fates were awaiting these places.

PS:  What Katka is talking about, this intuitive connection to another time, reminds me of The Angel Of The West Window. The central character is a man who believes he is a descendant of the English alchemist John Dee.

KP:   He’s his grand-grand-grand nephew, I think…

PS:  Well, the narrator of the book inherits a package containing the diaries of John Dee, who was the court astrologer to Queen Elizabeth the first, and these diaries tell the story of how Dee and Edward Kelly, the necromancer, apparently managed to conjure up the Green Angel. Dee believed that contact with the angel would enable him to decode “Enochian”, the secret language of the angels mentioned in the Book of Enoch. Later, the narrator goes into a Prague antikvariat where the owner, a strange Mongolian-looking guy, gives him a “skrying glass” similar to that used by Kelly to summon the Green Angel. By using this skrying glass, or magic mirror, he gradually discovers his connection to John Dee. Dee and Kelly actually came to Prague in the late sixteenth century and were invited by Emperor Rudolf to show him the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone, so for me Meyrink’s book has a very strong resonance – on one level it’s about accessing poetic language, the “language of the angels”, and on another more personal level I see it as a bridge between London and Prague. Two very different cities. For me, London is a man. If you look at the statues in London, they’re all about battles and chariots and heroic figures holding swords – Wellington, Nelson, all the English heroes. When you come to Prague it’s a much softer, more feminine atmosphere.  That’s why the book is called Magdalena – it’s an attempt to capture the spirit of the city.

How much more is there?

PS:   (laughs.)  Hard to say.  We wrote this book over a period of about a year and a half, and there are almost two hundred pages to edit. It’s still being worked on.


KP:  I’d like to make another analogy with the idea that you can actually find the history of yourself through someone else. We agreed to pretend that we were related, let’s say like brother and sister. Magdalena, when she writes these letters and responds to the letters and poems of her incestuous lover, believes that the person she is addressing could be many figures – could be a brother, father, some kind of pervert, or lover.

You guys sitting together could be relations somehow.  I wouldn’t say brother and sister.  A cool uncle maybe... (laughter)

PS:   Katka is a member of the Czech-Slovak surrealist group, and she was lending me a lot of books and old issues of Analogon.  I was really into Surrealism and automatic writing when I was studying poetry at university years and years ago. I’m still interested in the concept of automatic writing, even though it’s really located at a certain time in the Modernist movement, the early twentieth century, the Dadaist movement.  So we decided to experiment with that form by getting absolutely drunk in pubs, and reaching a point of inebriation where we weren’t really aware of what we were writing. We played a lot of different games, we wrote maps, we drew pictures. We played this game where I’d write a verse or even just a line, then Katka would write a verse or a line – the folding paper idea, we tried that. 

The Exquisite Corpse...

KP:   I was very lucky that my friends from the group introduced me to all these games, which are not only based on Exquisite Corpse but also come from the individual’s own imagination, the way the person thinks. Yet I was still interested in this simple form, in writing not with a stranger, but with someone that I’m related to in a way. From my point of view, I wanted to be amazed and to explore more of Phil. We were experimenting, not only to get to know each other, but to get to a place without limits. We didn’t care that a third of what we wrote would probably end up in the trashcan.  The point was to extend the possibilities, and we used transgressive sexuality for that. Of course, I don’t mean that we’d actually kill some child on Vyšehrad hill by sacrificing it, or something. But we used such imagery to provoke and to explore our own imaginative limits.

PS:   It’s very interesting to me now because all this stuff was written two or three years ago, much of it, quite honestly, in an alcoholic haze. Now, coming back to it, I’m discovering it all over again, as if it were a text written by two people I don’t know. I have it all on computer, and while Katka was away in America and Mexico I went through it and selected which bits worked and which bits didn’t.  Because it was an exercise in automatic writing, there’s no narrative there, no real story. It’s just a series of poems, letters, short stories, maps, drawings.  And yet somehow it does tell a story.


PS:  I guess the alcohol freed us up. Like any drug, it cuts out the conscious mind to a certain extent and you just write whatever comes into your head without censoring it, without worrying about it making sense. We got some beautifully evocative imagery from this, from being completely open to the atmosphere around us, and what I’ve been working on lately is a process of editing and selection. Sometimes the whole poem just doesn’t work, but there may be two lines in it that are beautiful. So then I copy and paste them into another poem where perhaps two thirds of that poem is working. And somehow it fits. You discover that there actually is a direction, and this comes through by itself. It’s really like looking through the skrying glass and suddenly seeing something emerge from formlessness into form.

Another poet who spent some time here, Bill Lavender, just did a book in a similar way, based on found texts having to do with computers. He kept running them through things to mix them all up, and then chose the good parts. And the thing is, you say you are picking out these two beautiful lines, but it could also be that  those two lines are just what’s needed to further the story, even though you’re not consciously aware of it. You don’t know what the story is consciously, but you do on some level.

PS:   I showed some parts to Katka the other night and I think she was quite surprised.

KP:   Yeah.

PS:  One of the most interesting things is that we don’t remember now who wrote which bits. Sometimes I remember, oh yeah, we were sitting in this or that pub when we wrote this stanza. But it’s all been chopped and changed and has mutated so much that we really don’t know who wrote which lines anymore.

KP:   And after this it’s all very fresh for me again. It did surprise me when I saw what Phil had done – I could recognise a lot of the writing, but at the same time it was like reading something I remembered from a dream. We still have these original papers, beer-stained and often in very strange handwriting – but now it’s changing into something quite different. And I want to say – this is very important for me – that what Phil is doing is making a collage out of a great source of spontaneously written material. I don’t like it when people write automatic texts then later impose a rational meaning, to the point where the logos is so much in there that it destroys the flow. But what he is doing is different – because we didn’t finish things, because the game is never finished, because you can still play with it. I think if you are taking part in a game, then you should  really just follow your intuition, not your logos.  He is creating a new thing, actually, this is what I like. A new thing based on what we did, but an extension of that game.  It’s so vivid and alive to me.

When you say that you remember where you were but you don’t remember who wrote what, that’s also a loss of self among a group, not just automatic writing. It’s really a loss of self concerning an individual –

PS:   Yeah...

– between individuals.

PS:   It’s like this idea of “the third mind” that Brion Gysin had, where two minds come together and it’s like a third mind outside those two minds.


A short turn to language – what would you say about the word magic in English, the word magicky in Czech and the word kourelna?

KP:  The adjective?

Or the noun.

KP:  Okay. Well, I discovered through learning English, and being obsessed with it, that it became something else, something more than just a subject I had to learn. I still have difficulties with it because I know what a big field I have to explore – a field that is wild, as we say here. The thing is, I discovered that in English people use words a little differently, or I understand them differently. For instance, we might use magic too, but we might also understand it in a different way. For me, it’s all very personal. Whenever I talk with people about such things, I always make sure we understand the terms.

Have you had this talk with Phil?

KP:  I didn’t have to. There are individuals in this world who share your own understanding. It was never a problem for us to understand each other.

PS:  It’s very interesting that when she writes in English she uses the language in a way that an English person wouldn’t. Her poetic voice is very strong, and in addition it has this special quality that comes from writing in a language that isn’t her own. Yet somehow she makes it her own, and I didn’t want to lose that quality by correcting it into perfect, formal English. I mean, it makes sense in English, but I think her own unique voice is still there.

I got the feeling you were reading some very old English texts.

PS:   Katka got kind of obsessed with the richness of this antiquated English terminology, and so sometimes we’d explore it a little – using doth instead of does, for instance, or old-fashioned terms of address such as thee and thou. Like I said, there’s a certain amount of irony to it.

I’m not talking about that, I’m talking about the sensibility.

PS:  Maybe we were trying to capture a sort of dark gothic feeling, the atmosphere that is so much a part of Prague, even today. And because I love the way that Katka writes in English, to a certain extent I tapped into her voice, and also into her fascination with old-fashioned syntax and vocabulary. I’ll say it again – she has a very strong and individual poetic voice.

(to Piňosová) Is it yours?

KP:  I think so. The thing is, I had to wait years and years until I met people who I could talk to in both Czech and English, to see if I was understanding things correctly. It’s taken me seven years. And I have the impression, now, when speaking English or writing in English or reading in English, that I feel the words differently from the way a native speaker does. To me, these words are like jewels that I can hold in my hands, but I could never explain why I get a certain feeling from a certain word. Because they’ve become a part of me, part of my own experience – and so yes, I do think it is my own voice. Sometimes English allows me to express things more easily than in Czech, but at the same time I’m never quite sure if the person I’m talking to has the same understanding as me.


And what about this rarefied language? Where is it coming from, and is that you also?

KP:  Well, I think so. Because once something becomes an obsession and you must live with it, you experience it in your own way and so it becomes a part of you.

But don’t obsessions come from the outside?  Don’t they pick you?

KP:  Well you have to be careful. For some people that can become a lifelong struggle.

Did it pick you, or did you pick it?

KP:  I think at the beginning the monster was doing whatever it wanted with me, but I’m pretty sure now that I know what I’m doing. Well, maybe I do have illusions, but I fight with them.

Does the monster have a name?

KP:  Are we still talking about Old English? It used to be a monster but it’s not anymore.

PS:   I don’t know how it is in Czech because my knowledge of the language is still very basic and I can’t really understand what Katka writes in Czech. But certainly in English she has a very visual and also a very tactile relationship with language. She would become obsessed with certain words, there’d be an almost incantatory quality to the way she used them. Certain words would crop up again and again, and I really enjoyed her fascination with these more antiquated English forms. My favorite era of English poetry is the 16th and 17th century, and for me the literature of this period somehow connects with the literature of the First Republic in Czechoslovakia. I don’t know why, but for me it somehow does.

There’s a future project, finding the connection.

PS:  John Donne, Richard Herrick, Andrew Marvell, for example. There used to be this gentlemen’s drinking establishment called the Hellfire Club, where aristocrats with literary leanings would meet in the caves around High Wycombe, just outside London. It wasn’t exactly a literarture appreciation society – all kinds of debauchery went on there, apparently, in a very demonic sort of atmosphere. I think it’s the fifth poem in Magdalena that taps into this, the stanza about the “haunted bitch” being sacrificed “on a table of toadsmeat and ebony”. We play with a lot of these sacrificial images in Magdalena.

KP:   To clarify things a little – imagery that can somehow make a person feel sick, I guess it’s more of an illusion for that particular person. There are things that can make me sick, of course, but I am trying to understand them in a different way, so it’s like coming back to myself. Since the age of five, I can remember having these dreams where I was sacrificed, but I managed to stop them after a long, long time of very hard work. But I could cope with myself and work on that, and while I remember that there were these images, it wasn’t so much the killing itself but the ritual of the sacrificial act that interested me. But I’m not so obsessed with this imagery anymore. I mean, I don’t want to sexually sacrifice someone and get myself excited! For me, what’s interesting is to read things in a different way because they have a message, they show you different things. And I use these very strong images to bring out this message.

In my experience, Czechs are a very materialistic and irreligious people. These teenage students of mine, they don’t just deny religion but even any idea of ghosts or an existence beyond the senses.  How does this work, then, that we have “Magic Prague”, emanating a strange glow, and we have Bohemians saying, for instance, that dreams don’t mean anything?

KP:  This is interesting to me because it’s your survey, and you ask how come? Well, that’s not my experience.  If you were to do this survey anywhere in this world – well probably it would be different in Mexico, as I know now – but I think it’s likely you would get a very similar response.

You think so?

KP:   It’s hard to judge, because I haven’t travelled a lot, and actually I don’t know so many languages that I’d be able to talk to people and really get into them. But I think it’s just the way the world is nowadays, that people would deny the spiritual element at any cost.

PS:  I have a very different experience. For example, all these young people around Jolana (Phil’s wife, and Czech fashion designer), they all believe in ESP, they all believe in UFOs, they all believe in telepathy. They seem obsessed with New Age philosophy – dreams, psychic powers, herbal remedies, the whole caboodle. And like I said before, just about every Czech person you meet will know all these traditional folk stories and songs. The folk roots go much deeper here than in western Europe or the States. When I go to visit Jolana’s family for Christmas, it’s just nonstop singing – all these traditional Czech hymns and folk songs that everybody here knows from childhood. I don’t know so many from England anymore – maybe something like Roll Out the Barrel, but it’s hardly the same. Come to think of it, even the melody to that song was written by a Czech!  My grandmother’s generation was the last to know all these English folk songs and stories. I vaguely remember them from when I was a kid, but most people have forgotten them and don’t consider them relevant to their lives. We’ve got Irvine Welsh and the mythology of the permanently unemployed instead! Of course, there’s a very strong streak of materialsm in the Czech Republic, but I think that’s more to do with the end of Communism and the images of western affluence portrayed in the media. I think the folk roots are still there, hidden away beneath the surface of the new consumer society.

It’s definitely disappeared in the States.

KP:   I think Communism destroyed a lot of things, and of course its handwriting is still there in the mentality of the people that grew up under that system. It destroyed a lot of old folk traditions, or at least those that weren’t useful to it. But I think that within people these things are so embedded – they step on these cobblestones, they go to these woods – and the woods here are so sweet that they make you faint.  You can feel the presence of all these magical creatures, and people do remember them – so I’d say that this denial is only a fashion thing. When you are born here, and regardless of the system you live under, you really do have this secret belief in the invisible world. Because the surroundings force you to, they make these things real for you.

That’s amazing. I thought I was becoming this way in contradiction to the people around me, who were so irreligious. 

KP:  When I talk to my friends’ children, they have names for the monsters, ghosts and fairies they meet, you can talk to them about these fabulous creatures – and I consider that all very natural. And if you live among Czechs, you’ll notice that they often do things that are not logical at all. They seem to follow a strange voice, or something. Because the Czech lands, the Slavic lands, these lands are still very powerful, they have a strong impact on people that can’t really be explained rationally. Someone might do something really strange and believe that it’s perfectly normal, but if you asked them to explain their actions they wouldn’t be able to. It’s the power of the place, the power of the landscape, the power of dream.

Alright. You convinced me.

KP:  Well, I didn’t mean to. It’s just what I believe.


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