The Work and the Tradition: Holly Pester on ‘Comic Timing’

The UK-based poet speaks with frieze editor Andrew Durbin about her debut collection of poems from Granta

BY Andrew Durbin in Books , Interviews | 18 FEB 21

Earlier this month, Holly Pester published a new collection of poems, Comic Timing (Granta Books). It’s a long-awaited debut from one of the most remarkable poets – and performers – working in the UK today. As the poet Sophie Collins writes in a blurb for the book, Pester’s poems are ‘funny, restless, charming, shattering’, displaying ‘formal guile and genuine originality’. Pester and I spoke about that ‘formal guile’ in an exchange shortly after the book’s publication.

Andrew Durbin I’ve always had the sense that you wrote poetry with the intention of performing it. Yet, here, in this book, I loved experiencing the poems as written. I’m curious how – and where – a poem begins for you? Is it first the music, or the writing? 

Holly Pester Delivery is essential to the poem; whether it’s at a poetry reading or on the page, there’s always delivery. And I love that. Delivery is a word that might be synonymous with performance, but I like to remember that the text is always there, like a score, a contract, a script, the fate of my speech. So, it does begin with sound. In the same way that I think of timing – not just in the sense of performance or the comic, but in the oral swerves of the voice playing with and against syntax. I cut my teeth as a poet doing open mics and disorderly ‘poetry and music’ nights, where I learned the tactical effects of delivery and timing as modes of writing – or the very simple but never not astonishing way a small, live voice can score time.

Holly Pester
Holly Pester, Comic Timing, 2021. Courtesy: Granta Books

AD Can you say more about the title of the book? It’s not just about humour here, though of course these poems are sometimes funny. Reading you, I’m reminded of the Ancient Greek sense of ‘revelry’ and satire, especially political satire. This is a very political book, too. And I think your sense of the comic is intimately connected to your politics. You write in the title poem of ‘clowning time’, which is a line I could imagine from Aristophanes.  

HP Yes, that’s it! I am interested in comedy as a genre of time, or an effect on sequential time. Events or instances are funny; forms of time are comedic. There are crossovers, of course. Slipping on a banana peel, terminating a pregnancy, falling asleep at your desk, tenancy contracts – for me, these are all in the comedy-tragedy continuum in that they are material collapses of time or narrative. In each, something changed in the course of the body and the course of the person’s life, and they sort of fell into one another. I was interested in positioning that in poetics, as poetry plays with comedic timing anyway, with breaks and returns and disorder as form. This maybe links to Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon [1852], where he writes that history repeats itself  – ‘the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce’ – and also to the theatrical genre of ancient comedy. That is, all revelry and satire.

AD A line from ‘The Work and Its Record’ – ‘the work and the tradition of living in the worker’ – stuck with me throughout my reading. It reminded me of Juliana Spahr’s great poem ‘Tradition’ [2015], where she wonders whether the self-you-pass-on (as a mother, as a producer of waste) is ‘really’ you. Tradition helps us ritualize life, but life in these poems is costly, destroyed, bruised and broken. I kept wondering whether you, like Spahr, somehow want to rescue tradition – the things that, as Spahr says, ‘explain us to us’?

HP That is such a wonderful poem. Spahr, like another poet I read a lot, Lisa Robertson, pushes me to consider history in the context of the body: its violent, literary and personal heritages. ‘The Work and its Record’ was written from notes taken after a few days I spent (labouring, writing, reading, weeping) in an archive of papers documenting reproductive rights and abortion protest movements in The Glasgow Women’s Library in Scotland. There is so much of this repeated work recorded there – gruelling, repetitive, un-glamourous activism. I got a sense of the effort and the interminability of this work from all the admin and files, but also the care and the revolutionary spirit, which I think has something in common with Spahr’s ‘tradition’. 

AD Your book is fixated on the struggle of daily life. What I admired so much about it was how the poems protest and refuse the conditions that capitalism places on us – rent, ownership, consumption, etc. ‘This is the monument and tide of a life. / At what point is this a life?’ you ask in ‘Thirty-Six’. But then, toward the end of the book, in ‘Villette’, you write:

She instead / I instead ecstatically ritualise her poverty / my poverty, and her otherness / my otherness to ownership of objects, and evacuate the self into love.

I puzzled over these lines – they seem to provide a different vantage on struggle, wherein love might offer (mild) reprieve. It’s the first moment, for me, where love isn’t posed as a question, or a flinty assurance, as it is in ‘Act 2’, or an insufficiency. Here, it’s almost a way out … 

HP I’m so glad to know there is some hope in love to be found in this book because I feel that much more now than I did when I wrote it. But I was reading Simone Weil at the time, whose concept of ‘decreation’ I find so rich and life-giving, where to be in love is to occupy a space without ego or self. So, it is a turn, you’re right, from an unpropertied subject who can’t love or have a self, to one who can only love without property as a condition of that love. For Weil, it’s God; for Charlotte Brontë in Villette [1853], it’s a big, gothic, passionate other; for me, in this book, it’s something more like banal survival. Love is a personal and radical resource. 

AD In these poems, I feel as if I experience you as a reader just as much as I do you as a writer. I kept hearing various voices – Marx, of course, Brontë, but also Samuel Beckett in your poem ‘Digs’. In one poem, you talk about the ‘underneath-knowledge’, which is a phrase I’ve now become obsessed with. I wonder who else was lurking under the poems?

HP There is so much fandom in this book. The line you quote is from a poem that is a fan letter to the archive of the poet Hannah Weiner. (Another archive! Is that the underneath-knowledge?) So, Weiner’s there, as is Virginia Woolf’s Orlando [1928] and Bernadette Mayer’s Works and Days [2016], which I read at the beginning of putting the book together, along with Elaine Kahn, a poet who is always there. Then there’s Marilyn Monroe, John Osborne’s The Entertainer [1957], Baruch Spinoza, camping equipment names, my Mum, UK poets and writers I write with and out of (Emma Bennett, Vahni Capildeo, Luke Kennard, Maggie O’Sullivan, Roy Potter, Nat Raha, Nisha Ramayya and Verity Spott), Gelsomina from Federico Fellini’s La Strada [1954], some sheep that scared me on a residency (who I think were reincarnations of mediocre troubadours), my editor and extraordinary poet, Rachael Allen. 

AD Can we end on a poem?

HP Here’s ‘Are You Writing About Love?’: 

No farming practices

O the industry around love

If we diversify our farming we will manoeuvre

our love out of the desert

Different types of dairy? 

Different beasts and handling of beasts will produce new love

Love has always moved with farming

Yes love has always moved forward with farming

Every sexuality has a knowledge and technology and every new way

to move beasts from one create to another produces a metaphor 

distinct to a loving gesture rooted in historical economic

packed-full machines –

methods for milking and experimental love poems or cheese


Main image: Holly Pester. 

Andrew Durbin is the editor-in-chief of frieze. His book The Wonderful World That Almost Was is forthcoming from FSG in 2025.