Azimuth and Digression: Selerie interview session 1, 19 November 2011
Andrew Duncan interviewed Gavin Selerie for Angel Exhaust between November 2011 and January 2013.
(Gavin has written commentaries on his work of which one is available at http://www.southampton.ac.uk/~bepc/ , and a very long commentary on 'Roxy' has circulated in a limited edition.)
brief chronology. Azimuth (1984). Puzzle Canon (1986). Strip Signals (1986). Elizabethan Overhang (1989). Southam Street. (1991). Tilting Square (1992). Roxy (1996). Danse Macabre (collaborative work; 1997). Days of '49 (with Alan Halsey; 1999). Le Fanu’s Ghost (2006). The Canting Academy (collaboration; 2008). Music's Duel (2009) is a selected poems. Double Harriott is in progress.
AD: I thought for the very first question I’d ask you to comment on the last poem in Le Fanu’s Ghost. The whole thing may be a riddle or it may be composed of seven separate riddles.
GS: Do you know I think that might have been the first poem I wrote, or one of the first, for this book. It is indeed a series of riddles. Why I’m floundering a bit is that, I haven't read this probably since very early days. Maybe not since the book was published. ‘When you know the answer you still forget’ is not just applicable to Gothic literature, it’s like the experience of watching Macbeth. It’s part of the wonders of revisiting something that a work of art still comes alive. But maybe beyond that, also, There is always more than one answer. These specific images, the secret in the green chamber, the deed in the red box, moving behind stamped leather, maybe the flower, but certainly speaking French from a spire of hair. All of these are motifs, maybe actually specific episodes, from Le Fanu’s works. Now I see the penultimate line, 'is there a devil in deverell', that suggests to me that it all came, in one sense, possibly came out of Le Fanu’s novel Guy Deverell, which I’ve got on the shelves up there, in the Dover edition. Yeah, I think the point of putting this at the end was to keep the book open-ended, but also to remind the reader of the procedures involved in suspense literature. And my whole quest for these patterns which keep recurring in the writings of these mainly Anglo-Irish, but not exclusively, writers, many of whom were linked by family, linked by blood. I think that's probably as specific as I can be. I think I liked the riddle format which I used a fair bit in the book. That may well go back to my, obviously I enjoyed riddles as a child, but I did teach a course of nonsense poetry for Birkbeck, I suspect in the 1990s, and I think some of the procedures in the book come out of that. I’m very fond of Hugh Houghton's anthology of nonsense verse. He arrived at York, I think, the term after I left. That was where I did my post-graduate work. He’s someone I've only met once but whom I respect very much, as audience. And I do recommend that anthology.
AE: ‘Jackety Jiggit‘, it does sound like the title of a nonsense rhyme, perhaps a counting-out rhyme. Is that what it is?
GS: I think perhaps it is. And I’ve got a number of much earlier anthologies of nonsense verse and I may well have picked that phase out of such a text. What did it suggest to you without comment by me? Did it perplex you?
AD: The last time I looked at it I had this functional reaction, which is, Aha, this needs comment and would benefit from comment. I can see these are questions which are in the middle of a Gothic plot, where the plot is driven by the fact that the questions are unanswered and the narrative answers them. As the last poem in a long book, it’s provocative.
GS: I’m quite attracted to the ancient Greek idea of a short comic piece at the end of a tragedy. And indeed this happened a good deal in 18th C and 19th C theatre where usually there were two plays on the bill. It’s an interesting revival of that structure of presenting drama.
AE: So there might be a lack of laughs in Gothic?
GS: I think one of the theses of this book, if I can dare to use that word, is that Le Fanu, rather unusually among Gothic books and stories, does involve a good deal of comedy, but it’s very subtle. Perhaps comedy is too extreme a word, but there's a great deal of irony which I think he inherits from his great-uncle Sheridan. I think he was probably conscious of that.
AD (does sound test)
GS: One thing I forgot to say is that there is an illustration opposite which obviously was created after that poem but looking at it now I think it illuminates it.
AE: So it shows some rather crafty and dubious-looking individuals around a gaming table, probably? Inside a spade from a playing-card. So they’re gambling, and the spade does tend to mean bad luck, actually. One of them has an eye-patch.
GS: Yes, they’re dissolute and reckless characters, as you say, bending over a gaming-table. The images used in the illustrations, they’re obviously collages by Alan Halsey. I supplied him with the images and he selected images to create collages for each section of the book. So it’s another example of our collaboration. I can't remember which book that comes from. It might even be a Harrison Ainsworth book, The Spendthrift, rather than a Le Fanu book. Le Fanu does write a fair bit about gambling, it’s obviously a common motif in the literature of that period or of that genre but I allowed myself to incorporate some more extraneous material. It may be by Cruickshank, which would create a link with Le Fanu. Or it may be by Phiz. I know their styles are very different but sometimes it’s hard to recognize one from the other. I might mention that Harrison Ainsworth was a passion of mine as a boy, for instance Guy Fawkes, a passion which I shared with Eric Mottram. I had a conversation with Eric, he said, no one reads Ainsworth any more, do they, and I said I did.
AE: Windsor Forest. I’ve just been reading scenes from Eric’s poem [The Book of Herne] where he uses that. But we’d better not get into that. I will jump something in here - I was going to ask a question about West House Books because among other things it’s remarkable that you were collaborating with them at the time of Azimuth and still are. It’s rather a long history. I wanted to talk about that. I guess West House books is Alan Halsey?
GS: Yes that’s true. Initially based in Hay-on-Wye and subsequently in Sheffield. I think quite a number of the writers published by West House are in some way friends and acquaintances of Alan. That might be very common in the small press world and perhaps always has been, but in this case I think it’s particularly meaningful in terms of possible connections. For example David Annwn is someone published by that press who I feel things in common with. I think there’s an overlap in terms of mythological themes and also use of Celtic patterns of language. I think the writing comes out of some common matrix there, different though we all are. Martin Corless-Smith is another writer I admire very much. About to make one of his rare re-appearances in this country.
AE: I think one of the reasons why West House is distinctive is the length of the books. It does seem to me that the 70s were the great era of the long poem, that there was a whole political and cultural milieu which called for them. Azimuth is a bit late in that cycle and by that time very few book-length poems were being published. So West House was a good home for this kind of thing.
GS: Azimuth is a Binnacle book, that was before West House was set up. Roxy is my first West House book.
AE: I must have mis-read a credits list!
GS: But what you were saying goes for Roxy, Roxy is a long poem, my second long poem. And is a long poem in a more conventional sense in that it is in numbered sections which I think are entirely left-margin based, so there is an overall coherence, whereas in Azimuth and Le Fanu’s Ghost I was trying to be more eclectic and maybe consciously striving for different moods of writing within an overall text. But what you say about the 1970s is true, I remember being so excited by the long poems I was reading. Obviously Olson's Maximus, I realise that the first volume comes from earlier but I’m talking about my own deep immersion in that work. Also Allen Fisher’s Place, obviously. A work that I witnessed as it were being put together, mainly through hearing him read it. But I was late coming to Allen Fisher really, I only came across him in 1978 when I came back to London, but I very quickly got enthused about what he was doing, obviously. I ought to make just one other factual point. Azimuth although published in 1984 was begin in 1972. At least, I didn’t have the idea of a long poem at that point but the earliest texts go back to 1972. In fact, there are lines incorporated in that text which go back to the 1960s, from notebooks. I stole lines from poems which I would now disown.
AE: Oxford has produced the lion's share of prominent conventional poets, but has been denied a share in the history of the Underground. I understand you have a slightly different view of this. Can you talk about the modernist current in Oxford poetry and what was happening in Oxford poetry at the end of the Sixties?
GS: You're right, I do have a different view of this. Oxford does tend to be written out of this and people do tend to think of it as the base for Craig Raine, now Tom Paulin, and of course people think of that OUP list of poets most of whom other than Roy Fisher and Basil Bunting were not adventurous in the way we desire and approve of. But it’s interesting to compare Oxford with Cambridge. As you imply I did my first degree at Oxford. I went up in the autumn of 1968 after spending almost a year in North America, what would now be called a gap year. And I spent three years studying. It was an extremely heady time when the walls were coming down. Literally there were slogans from Blake’s poems sprayed on these mediaeval walls, which stays on my mind. I was much involved with radical Oxford politics. Christopher Hitchens and Tariq Ali used to come back quite a bit, that was part of the mix. Music, too. Poetry, yes. Obviously Sally Purcell was publishing some of the early Carcanet books. I think Carcanet started in Cambridge but didn’t stay there for very long and by 68 it was definitely based in Oxford. In a village outside Oxford, I can't remember which one. So that provided a base of sorts, although of course she was publishing older writers like Smart and quite a number of the Elizabethans. A selection of George Peele’s work [...] But in terms of contemporary work there were quite a few interesting readings at the Oxford Poetry Society. My friend and indeed publisher Glen Storhaug was involved with the Poetry Society. I didn’t actively recognise him at the time although we worked out that we must have been at events together. Certainly we were both involved in the campaign to instate Barry MacSweeney as poetry professor, in that chair. Barry subsequently completely disowned the campaign and the whole impetus of it.
AE: Barry disowned everything at one time or another.
GS: He argued that he was put up for it by the publishing director at Hutchinson. This may be true, that they seized the main chance there. But for undergraduates, students who were interested in more experimental poetry, there was great excitement in having Barry come to read. I think I remember distributing leaflets at a rally, although my memory is rather hazy. The reading that Barry gave would probably have been in the pub up Walton Street in Jericho. As well as live readings, and I can't remember who else I heard in Oxford around that point, Parker's bookshop, which was very close to my college, had all of the Fulcrum books.
AE: Cape Goliard?
GS: Yes. One of which I have pulled out for your perusal.
AE: Subject pulls out Object from pile.
GS: This is Gary Snyder's A Range of Poems in the Fulcrum edition. In brown parcel paper covers, with script that's almost Chinese but it's using our letters. This is something I bought at Parker’s at a time when I could ill afford it. I exchanged my meal tickets for cash. The college food was appalling and my girlfriend and I used to cook on a little stove in my room instead and eat healthier food I thought, but some of that money I saved went on books such as this. 42 shillings, there we are. I already knew a good deal about Gary Snyder and some of the other American poets published by Fulcrum from The New American Poetry, which I picked up during my year in America. It says inside it ‘Chicago 1968’ and I bought it at Oak Street Bookstore in Oldtown, which at that time was full of brownstone buildings, and it was the Bohemian restaurant. I’d love to talk about that if there’s time.
AE: Was it actual Czechs?
GS: I was using it in a loose sense. I did work in this restaurant called Jacques’, a French restaurant, and I had to dodge curfew to get to, which was during the riots.
AE: The Democratic Convention?
GS: No, this was the riots after the shooting of Martin Luther King.
GS: I used to spend a lot of my time when I wasn’t working watching underground films in a cinema in Oldtown and browsing in this bookshop.
[[end of file 2]]
I’m flicking through this anthology, I knew the Beats and various other people from the mid-sixties, but I discovered Charles Olson in this anthology. I think it would have been March 68 when I bought this anthology. ‘The Kingfishers’ hit me particularly. Snyder must be in here somewhere. ‘Riprap’ is in here and ‘Myths and Texts’. ‘A poem for Robin’, I haven't read it for years. It has that staggered line with, it’s almost a caesura, as in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Also while I was at Oxford I acquired Duncan, The Years as Catches. This was the first book of Duncan's that I got heavily into, I didn’t actually acquire those Fulcrum books until later on. I actually got quite a few of my Fulcrum books from Stuart and Deirdre Montgomery, after they’d closed the press. I’d picked up others along the way before that. Catches was a book that strongly aroused my interest, also Ginsberg’s Angkor Wat with Lawrence photos which I now understand are not from Angkor Wat but from some other temple, quite nearby. This was my prize possession, October 1969, Pound’s Cantos, in the marvellous black cloth edition with a black dust jacket. I read this very intensively and I think everything I’ve done since has been greatly influenced by the Cantos. I don’t think I’d heard Pound read at that point. But fairly soon afterwards I acquired a record of him reading from, I think it was the Spoleto Festival. Obviously after that I discovered other recordings. Don't you think that hearing a poet read their work is part of the way in? Are you of the other persuasion in that point? Do you think that gets in the way?
AE: If you’re selling books, and if you’re trying to tell someone in the deep provinces, like where I grew up, that it’s in the book, this will deliver whatever it is that culture has to deliver, then you do believe in books. I think most poets write poems to be printed, as I do. On the other hand, if you hear someone read, and it’s a real poet, you hear their voice inside the poems forever after. Actually it does change an awful lot in ways I can’t define. I’m afraid that’s rather exclusive for people who live, as most people do, away from big cultural centres.
GS: Maybe Pound isn’t a particularly good example of someone whose voice provides a way in. After all he did change his reading style, several times. But Olson would be a very good example. I think hearing tapes of Olson read, which I became absolutely obsessed by during my years in Yorkshire, that provided much more of a way into his work than the 'Projective Verse' essay or any of the essays in Human Universe. The obvious bookmark in the Cantos is Canto 16 which is one of the Hell Cantos. I like the blakean imagery here, and he actually refers to ‘the running form naked Blake shouting whirling his arms’. Glad day, really, but maybe more literal than that. And Canto 80 which I’ve written an essay about, 15 lines from Canto 80. They’re both poems which involve looking back at London and the first two decades of the 20th century. And the other book I wanted to mention from that time, Robert Creeley’s Poems 1950-65. This is still my preferred way of reading Creeley. Bought July 1969, after hearing him read at the International Poetry Festival, 21st July. I knew his work from The New American Poetry, that's only the year before that I acquired that. Hearing him read and almost breaking down and recovering, as he often did, with all those hesitations and that gradual re-finding of a text in performance. That struck me - very much in contrast to Auden who read, at the same Festival, it must have been the same evening. Who was stony in his manner. And I remember particularly offended me by saying that he could no longer rely on an audience knowing the classical references. Which I was a little indignant about since I’d certainly studied the classical texts and learnt Latin in depth.
AE: This is what people think of when they think of Oxford. Arrogance, really, and a creativity which has stopped somewhere in the past, perhaps in the 1950s or perhaps in the 1660s. I want to divert this slightly, you're talking about American poets and not about Oxford as a scene. I'm attempting to rewrite history to say that poetry happened everywhere not just where successful self-confident people decided it belonged to them. You mentioned Sally Purcell. Her poetry isn't very good, really. We can leave out Sally Purcell.
GS: I think all I can say about that is that certainly I heard other visiting poets, besides Barry MacSweeney, who represented a more experimental approach. It wasn't until the 1970s that I became more aware of exactly what was going down. Certainly Cambridge was way in advance of Oxford in its awareness of those alternatives and this obviously goes way back, to the Thirties and before that I suppose. Thirties or Forties, certainly. But it's interesting that you asked me to think of Oxford in relation to Cambridge... did you say that?
GS: Maybe I twisted that. There is something I might put down on record about that which is the different educational experiences. One of the people I heard at Oxford was Northrop Frye, who lectured on Blake, obviously, for two terms and the lectures were absolutely packed out. And he referred to the Oxford literature course as a guided tour of English literature. And that was so in that you were meant to cover each period in a way that I don't think people tended to at Cambridge. I may be wrong. It was expansive and obviously the risk was of a kind of thinned-down access to literature. But if you were of an adventurous disposition you would home in on particulars. I spent a whole term on Blake, with the permission of my tutor. Working my way through the standard Oxford edition of Blake's writings. So the Oxford education actually stood me in good stead. in giving me a broad base from which I could home in on the things I wanted to, and I'm including in that contemporary literature, contemporary poetry. The native British poets I discovered in a more important way in the 1970s. Actually another figure I did see at Oxford was Pete Brown, who of course did lyrics for Cream. He had this group The Battered Ornaments. I was always interested in song, mediaeval or Elizabethan and folk songs later. Quite a bit of my access to poetry would have been through Poetry And Jazz events, or even rock events that involved a degree of poetry.
Incidentally I think Oxford is still a centre of experimental jazz which marks it out as having a tradition that is not in the bracket of Craig Raine. I know I'm sliding from music to poetry there. It's maintained its avant garde pursuit in the medium of jazz.
AE: So in Cambridge in the late 60s and 70s there was a group environment, a whole swarm of people writing very modern poetry and if you didn't write this poetry you were just not tolerated. If I'm looking for that in Oxford it sounds as if it just isn't there. You did have people reading this fabulous American stuff, and it's in the bookshops, but if undergraduates are writing poetry they are more in the 1950s styles, probably even Larkin.
GS: Michael Horovitz’s Poetry of the Underground. Horovitz had already left Oxford by the time I’m speaking of, I think, but some of the people such as Pete Brown featured in Children of Albion, and this again (subject picks it up) has a date in it of ‘October 1969’. So these would have been some of the people I heard either in Oxford or in London. Obviously I was going down to London quite a fair bit. Neil Oram I think I heard in a kind of arts centre, or could it have been Indica. I don't know. Certainly I was aware of all these things but you’re right I didn’t feel myself part of a group within my university which was engaged in [?]. I did in terms of music but not in terms of poetry.
AE: Bang goes another attempt to rewrite history!
GS: I read this thing cover to cover. This is where I first encountered David Chaloner, on the page, and of course Crozier is in here as well. But it’s a shame that Michael Horovitz didn’t include more of that band of writers as opposed to Bernard Kops or Herbert Lomax.
(end of file)
[... missing words] Gael Turnbull. So it was just a matter of time before I found a base really to mesh with people in a poetry group. So that didn’t happen until my return to London in 1978 but then it happened in a big way.
AE: Gosh. That’s quite late really. I’m going to load up with a Question which I don't know if you can answer, which is why Oxford having dominated high-quality English poetry then lost it. I think that’s going to remain a mystery really.
GS: Obviously there are writers who are products of Oxford who went about things in a more adventurous way, but I do think there is a residual conservatism in Oxford. My years there were an absolute blip. It may sound extreme of me to say this but I used to visit Cambridge in my years in Oxford and I didn’t see the same kind of radicalism on the streets.
AE: I think that’s really extraordinary. [cut]
GS: I think that was an absolute blip. I went back in about 1974 and it had entirely reverted to a more staid atmosphere. I would willingly concede that there was this extraordinary poetic activity going on in Cambridge at the time which I was largely unaware of and which I have relished ever since. I have enjoyed going to the various Cambridge Poetry Conferences and so on and I have many more poetry links with people who have emerged from Cambridge. I think one needs to acknowledge that maybe a looser way of being emerged in Cambridge maybe in the Thirties. Maybe it’s a more Wordsworthian tradition maybe Oxford is more Coleridgean somehow. Leavis was one of the people I heard at York. He used to come up once a week, run about the huge artificial lake to get fit and give a lecture. Maybe that whole trust in natural patterns of speech which Wordsworth argued for in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads was more taken up by Cambridge. I would associate Oxford more with Gerard Manley Hopkins and that highly textured verse, experimental though it is, and actually partly going against an oral tradition.
AE: If people have been imitating him they haven’t been very successful. Maybe religion is the problem. He was a sort of classic High Anglican. It’s been a religious vortex rather than a poetic one.
GS: I think it would be a mistake to imitate Hopkins these days, but he remains a marker for what can be done in craft particularly in terms of poetic diction, in terms of vigorous sounds and just reclaiming words that some people would regard as ink-horn terms but become very active and of the moment in Hopkins. I imagine Geraldine Monk has been very influenced by Hopkins in terms of sound patterns,
AE: Good grief!
GS: and maybe Maggie O’Sullivan too.
AE: All I can remember is Peter Levi saying in an interview that it was natural for an English Catholic poet to wrote like Hopkins and then not explaining very clearly why he didn’t. He was very aware of being 100% non-Hopkins. I suppose they were both Jesuits. English Jesuits aren’t really all that numerous, are they?
GS: Unless you go back to the Renaissance. A person that I’d heard about in Cambridge although I didn’t meet her at the time was Elaine Feinstein. She was clearly a key figure on that scene. Being in touch with Charles Olson and organising events, editing that magazine with Prynne and others.
AE: Prospect. Back to Olson. I wanted to ask about azimuth and binnacle and whether the navigation theme had to do with Olson.
GS: I’ve always been a great reader of voyage literature, Hakluyt for example, and always loved going by sea. I went to North America at the beginning of 68 by a cargo ship from Liverpool to Boston, and as a boy I used to go mackerel fishing in Cornwall and all kinds of water expeditions and I am incidentally a water sign. And also I got quite fascinated with aspects of navigation. So it’s the history of moving around from place to place by water and the ways in which people navigate it. Like Olson I suppose I took that as an emblem. In my title I’m more firm about it. I’m sure I did know about the word azimuth, probably from physics, but I may have first come across it in an in-depth way with the Pink Floyd. When I went to a concert of theirs on the South Bank, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, I can’t remember which, they used something called an ‘azimuth projector’, as a way of distributing sound around the hall.
AE: So it wasn’t realistic stereo, it was deliberately altered and directed?
GS: I was never a lover of quadraphonic systems, but I think in a hall there are strong arguments for doing something like that. So I must have read in NME or maybe IT, Frendz, about the Azimuth Co-ordinator. Probably Roger Waters would have been holding forth about it. So I think they were still using it when I went to see them in Dark Side of the Moon at the Rainbow at the beginning of 72. I wanted to make the point that nowadays people regard things like Tommy and Dark Side of the Moon as extremely cliched and programmatic in a dull predictable way, but at the time those pieces came out they were tremendously exciting. If I talk about that Dark concert it was six months before the album came out. I suppose I’m mainly interested in earlier Floyd stuff. The timbre of sound at that Rainbow show, in that setting, was extraordinary, and obviously the light show etcetera. So maybe I absorbed something of a contemporary sound context for Azimuth from the Floyd’s Azimuth Co-ordinator. But also I didn’t decide on the title for that book although by 1978 it had already become a project for a long poem, until I went to visit John Robinson, of Joe Soap’s Canoe, in I think Southgate where he was living, and he played me this LP...
AE: an exhibit here [LP called ‘Azimuth' by Azimuth with a photo of the ocean on its cover]
GS: ... which had just come out. Which initially I thought was just called ’Azimuth’, but it’s truer to say this is a group called Azimuth. I’ll say a little bit about this. It’s chamber jazz music. it’s just a trio. John Taylor on piano and synthesizer, Norma Winstone on voice and Kenny Wheeler the great Canadian trumpeter on trumpet and flugelhorn. It says released in March 1977 but I know I couldn’t have heard this until 78. Has a lighthouse on the cover, and a lot of these pieces seemed to have the sea or direction connotation. "Siren’s Song" opens it and then O, or nought. The Tunnel, Greek Triangle, Naked. When John played me this not only was I mesmerised to find a song already called Azimuth, but also I already knew two of the musicians. I knew them on record and particularly Norma Winstone. Her first album Edge of Time influenced my sense of possible structure a lot because it proceeds from chaos to a sort of lullaby at the end and it showed me how furor could be joined with a more settled melodic quietness. Edge of Time I would think was about 1972. The thing about Norma Winstone and this happens on the Joe Harriot album Hum Dono, which would be something like 69, she sings as an instrument - as the equivalent of a saxophone or whatever. Norma Winstone is one of my great enthusiasms and I’ve stayed with her over the years. She’s also on Labyrinth, the Nucleus album, on which she sings, which I heard many times. I heard them in Oxford among other places. She sings the part of Ariadne in this suite which is based on the Theseus and the Minotaur story. With this striking cover.
AE: Not really in keeping. Were they on Vertigo? They were trying to sell that kind of thing to a pop audience. Interjecting for the new reader, Norma Winstone was I believe a free jazz vocalist, so completely different from vocalists like Billie Holiday. I guess part of this was to do with producing an English jazz style, it had to purge an awful lot to cease being American at one remove. So improvisation was a big part of it. Most modern poetry comes out of music and this is most obvious with rather banal poetry, it’s oriented towards pop song lyrics, people are so used to that. The banality of the lyrics becomes the banality of the poetry. But modern-style poetry hasn’t really escaped from music, as a welcoming warm and liberated environment. But modern-style poetry has a home in very modern-style music, of which English free jazz and chamber jazz are examples.
GS: There is a poem towards the end called ‘Azimuth’ which is dedicated to Norma Winstone. I didn’t reprint this in my Selected because it didn’t seem to work fully now, but I think I still stand by it.
This I know to be my way
plotted first by the wind-rose and the stars
then by arcs of declination intersected
It’s about four, five poems from the end.
AE: Could I interject there, this is a guess, that the interest of navigational terms for free jazz was not to do with getting from a known place to a known place. It was actually about being in the middle of the ocean, and you invent your own geography, and your own course, and the point is not losing confidence in what you’re doing. Could I suggest that in Azimuth the relation with the Pink Floyd sound projection thing is to get away from point and towards an area, Azimuth is a very complicated poem and you could say it has a centre in a dozen different places.
GS: I’m glad you brought things back to the aleatory and the non-predictable, because that is my orientation. I got distracted by the concept and the programmatic. I think dislocation, not knowing where you are and having to find your way by whatever means are available, and plotting a course that goes in a circuitous way, away that includes mishaps and mistakes. That is what I was interested in. Although I learnt so much from Olson, it is true that the long poem traditionally includes digression. The long poem not just the modernist long poem, always has this
... separate elements that are more fluid, the chance elements. But Olson I think was an inspiration for me in showing how you could utilise diverse materials within a longer text. If you think of the variousness of The Maximus Poems, the use of Algonquin mythology, Jung, along with actual voyage journals and narratives. That combination of historical texts with maybe oral legends. Of course it’s also the combination of text and observations -walking the streets, walking Gloucester, Gravelly Hill. I think indeterminacy is vital. I think I mentioned in my email to you that remark of Keats to Reynolds. “We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us and if we do not agree seems to put its hand in its britches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle or amaze it with itself but with its subject.” And then a little bit later on he says ‘I do not mean to deny Wordsworth’s grandeur, [...] but I mean to say we need not be teased with grandeur and merit when we can have them uncontaminated and unobtrusive.” I suppose Keats is out of fashion these days. So that palpable design, I suppose it’s a truism of Romanticism really, that you don’t trust what has come down as a blueprint, you forge your own path, your own meaning. That said obviously all poets do use design, however free they are. You can’t get completely away from design.
AE: So improvisation has its intent. But its outcome may be something that has genuinely shed all genre rules, and a whole tier of consciously known rules, perhaps not all rules of language ever memorised or internalised but a significant part of them. The converse of this is the claim often made that the audience can’t understand modern poetry, which in a sneaky way does prove that poetry has gone beyond. Got away from itself.
GS: This may not be directly responding to what you just said, but I think you just raised something I’m very interested in was procedure that moves beyond semantics or which contains a pure sound dimension. I’m interested in this because I’m on the one hand fascinated by commentary and critical interpretations of texts and the other hand always wanting to return to the text in a purer way. I remember Peter Riley saying in his essay in Poets on Writing, he says something to the effect that the poem says what it means darkly and the reader is left with that. Anyway he says something that poetry says what it says in stark isolation leaving the reader to make sense of it. What I think getting away from any appendages and insisting that the reader finds their way through it without a crutch, other interpretative props and I think that’s a well made point even though I’m fascinated by commentaries such as you get in Sandys’ 17th century translation of Ovid where you get marginal glosses and annotation at the end of each book. Even though I’m fascinated by that and always have been, I love footnotes and always have done. Ultimately you get back to the fabric of the text and it goes beyond meaning in any detachable sense. The content is in the form as I think Olson said to Creeley, I think Creeley quotes Olson as having said. Form is always a logical extension of content. The intertwining of the two. We have to negotiate the fabric of the language, ah we’re back to Azimuth, in grappling with time and coming to a sense of what it means. More so I think in prose. In fact there is a very interesting passage in Puttenham’s The Art of English Poesie in which he contrasts the art of prose and poetry, and...
‘The utterance in prose is not of so great efficacy because not only is it daily used and by that occasion the ear is over-glutted with it, but is also not so voluble and slipper upon the tongue, being wide and loose and nothing numerous, not contrived into measures and sounded with so gallant and harmonical an action, nor in fine allowed that figurative conveyance nor so great licence in choice of words and phrases as metre is.”
Metre there suggests a very arranged or stress-based form of poetry but I think he is suggesting there that poetry has the capacity at least to move onto a purer level of language because it’s not so worn. Would you say Andrew this is opposite to Wordsworth’s emphasis on...
AE: It’s not quite symmetrical. He is talking about freedom, and I have to say that modern prose doesn’t have quite the qualities he attributes to it, as 16th C prose did, also not all poetry fits into that scheme although it’s a very beautiful idea. I think the Objectivists were pretty much marching in the opposite direction.
GS: It’s important to bear in mind the historical development of these genres, and Melville’s prose for instance is poetry at some level, isn’t it. Maybe I’ve reverted to talking about arrangement as opposed to spontaneity and regularity. But I do think there is a level at which poetry transcends meaning and I don’t think you get that so much in prose although you could argue that any passage of Joyce and Beckett, and goodness, you could even say Iain Sinclair now, it moves beyond ... Sound poetry. All poetry is sound poetry at some level even though the term tends to be used to apply to an extreme of that.
AE: We seem to have defined freedom there, which is very satisfying. I’d like to say that it’s not just the poet who enjoys the feeling of freedom and lack of constraint, but the reader as well. The reader is either adrift in this sea of language or swimming, buoyed up by it like a fish in water. I think that’s the idea of... I suppose it’s not the rules of prose which are restrictive, it’s the attitude of some readers.
GS: Things go back to how you approach it as a reader, how you approach the text as a reader. And of course this is subject to all the variables of experience. You might read something differently on a train, from in the privacy of your own living room, and you might read something differently performing it for reading, I mean in the silent sense. I sent you my statement on poetry which is part of my famous and notorious entry to the British Electronic Poetry Site which got deleted by mistake. In that I was arguing for a reclaiming of rhetoric, on the assumption that rhetoric in the true sense is not deceptive or artificial but is literally the best words in the best order. OK, Cicero and so on may have been thinking mainly of argument but rhetoric also involves description and patterns of, the shaping of phrases within a sentence or beyond a sentence. My defence of rhetoric is I think relevant to my procedures in Roxy, where I’ve got a kind of dialectic going on between the regular, the formulaic, and the dispersal of intention. In that statement I was saying that sometimes nowadays the experimental becomes a kind of mantra, an obsessive mantra whereby the poet is supposed to shed traditional forms and planned arrangements, and I think rhetoric in the sense of recourse to tried and tested patterns, or useful patterns, is still fundamental to poetry - and people don’t want to admit that.
AE: I’d like to say that the academic line which was predominant in the 1950s and came out of close reading tended to make rhetoric a very dirty word and close reading often seemed to be going through the poem and finding all the devices of rhetoric and sort of red circling them and saying no NoNoNo. It does strike me that one part of the experimental line you mentioned is just taking that two steps further. There seems to be a lack of understanding that this comes out of practical criticism and the academic conventions of the Fifties. It’s just an extension of it. You were talking about the aural and performance, and Cicero as a courtroom lawyer and politician was if nothing else delivering orally and performing, and if you like delivering lies. The impulses of performance naturally give rise to rhetoric, I don’t think you can separate the two.
GS: So the rules which he formulated if you like were in the bloodstream from his daily work practice. I feel that we may be getting [...] [tactfully suggests return to the books] In your essay on Azimuth you expressed considerable reservations if not hostility to Tilting Square which was the second book of sonnets I wrote, and I think this could be germane to the area we were just talking about. In that book I am very sensitive to pattern, and I am walking a tight-rope if you like between, I’m on the one hand trying to construct a series of interlinked units, and on the other hand moving literally in reaction to what is happening around me and not being predetermined. Those two books came out of my life at the time. Elizabethan Overhang comes mainly out of a love affair although I am not dealing with just the subjective. I combine fixity with fluid elements. Those two books came out of my life at the time. There are more general poems here that intersect with the directly personal.
That’s still to do with one’s experience. The opening poem, well, That’s much to do with language as well as the expression of feeling within a relationship. ‘First Born’ is to do with being first born, the first in a family. ‘Tundale’ is about the danger of AIDS at one level, and from a heterosexual position. Certainly when I went out to America in 1988 it was a threat to heterosexuals as well. “Delayed release’ this concerns what’s happened to the ideals of the 1960s.
I realise that I was just making a qualification there, wasn’t I, it was saying that both books come out of the personal. Let me grab Tilting Square. This juxtaposes an affair I was having with someone who at the time was still married but who subsequently left her husband, with the death of my father which happened during that. In section 4. And indeed some poems about the rest of my family including my mother. And Tilting Square has a structure based literally on the Tilting Square as the images I drew Jeff. It’s the tip of a pyramid, a drawing, gold on the cover. Different configurations. I suppose the point of that was different configurations within a relationship, or a family, and in society. To some degree this is highly organised and thought out. Those images emerged were in a very general way inspired by some thinking by Paul Klee in ‘The Thinking Eye’. I must get to the point to debate this with you because you reacted adversely to what you saw as a stiffness of language. Obviously I’m using the sonnet here. I think I could stick my neck out and say that in the Reality Street Book of Sonnets mine are among the few which are genuine sonnets. I’m not in any way objecting to the material in that anthology. I think it’s a wonderful anthology. What I was trying to do in both these books was to stay close to the Elizabethan and Jacobean, and extended it through the 17th century and even to the Carolean?
GS: I’m getting mixed upon with Irish composers here. One should certainly extend it to the Carolines. That phase of very intense sonnet-writing, although most of the sequences come from the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. I was trying to find an equivalent to that. The fourteen-line form but in a sequence whereby motifs are picked up, recapitulated and you get that whole interpenetration between different texts. I was trying to retain that but to find a way of doing that afresh. I think I can be detached about it, I can see that I am simply putting too many words into a given text of fourteen lines or into the line. I think Andrew Crozier told me off for doing that, or implied that the lines were too stuffed.
AE: I found it very hard to understand but perhaps a re-reading would have taken care of that. All three of the ones you mentioned seem a lot clearer now. Sorry, who is Tundale?
The Vision of Tundale? Visio Tnugdali in mediaeval Latin?
GS: Yes. Is it 'The Garden of Eternal Delights'? is it in the Prado?
AE: It’s related to the Voyage of Brendan but with a different hero. It is the same voyage. AIDS has to do with paradise lost?
GS: I think perhaps a nightmare journey which confronts you with difficulties. But yes, that would link with some of my poems, particularly the one in Elizabethan Overhang about the 1960s and the effects of that, ‘Delayed release’.
AE: It’s on the facing page.
GS: I’m in the wrong book. It’s on the facing page, there is obviously a degree of intentionality there...
These poems, as well as negotiating that fourteen-line thing, and occasionally using rhyme, they’re an attempt to grapple with and resolve paradoxes. It’s the configuration thing again. The poem ‘Numbers’, this is, it concerns the relative advantages and disadvantages of being in a couple and being single, and just deals with the look of numbers, which are I think very suggestive. One being a straight form rising upwards, and two being a curved form which may go down and end flatly, or rise up into a curve.
GS: In the first stanza.
AE: ‘One stands up and two leans back...’
GS: I think I’m wrestling with ethical problems, with physiological problems, with... These poems were driven by a need to make sense of what was happening at a philosophical level. Maybe a part of the piled-up language comes from the fact that I was pressurised but also from this need to think things out in that pressurised situation. The philosophical implications.of emotional business. Poems that concern the act of writing (‘Make-Up’, ‘Business and Origin’) juxtapose two levels of effort or involvement, and those that deal with the position of the poet (‘Parnassus’ and ‘Utility’) contrast or draw parallels between the professional and domestic. Longing, attainment, dislodgement.
AE: I think what caused me problems was wondering whether it was a sonnet sequence about one situation with the same two people in so that there is a carry-over of meaning between the different poems. Or whether they were really separate. I think they are quite separate from each other so the problem was perhaps imaginary.
GS: But they are cumulative in terms of theme and effect. As with my long poems the sequences here involve many connections. Some of them would be chance connections obviously. I went through a long period of listening very intensively to Renaissance airs, particularly, madrigals too, and using Renaissance song-books, the anthologies of sonnets.
AE: So we’re back with music again!
GS: These do come out of a long period of listening to people like Michael East, “You meaner beauties of the night’, and maybe sung by Emma Kirkby. But also the male singers who were current. I listened to a great deal on Radio Three in the 1970s, and taped a lot of it. Unlike most songs the language is almost clotted, it’s very dense. Whereas with true songs you’re getting more of a lyric simplicity.
AE: I think all modern poets were going through something like this in the 1980s. There seemed to be this fetish of titling something ‘song‘, Denise does that, when you couldn't possibly sing it. If it were going to be in a song it would already be there in a song by Campion or Lawes or whoever. The whole point of being a modern poet is that you have been locked out of that paradise and you succeed if you accept that state. So we’ve got that very exciting new music of the 1960s which has ebbed rather decisively. We’ve got free jazz, which is almost not there, it‘s the taste of freedom, out in the ocean. And we’ve got the Renaissance. None of those actually gives you a way of writing poetry. You have to write it as poetry.
GS: I’ve got two reactions to what you’ve just said. But winding back to what we were saying a little earlier, taking forms beyond what they were in their literal context. You mentioned Denise Riley. Coleridge would be a good example here with 'The Ancient Mariner' in terms of his use of the ballad.
AE: You couldn’t possibly sing that. There is that spooky quality with Coleridge. Then there’s 'Christabel' which you could sing. As pastiche it’s impossibly good. Incredible. But he couldn't do it consistently, we’re talking about two poems in the whole of his lifetime.
GS: In terms of utilising the original form in a new way. He is faithful to the sound pattern, the line pattern of the ballad and to its usual subject context. He is faithful to both of those but does a vast expansion. In the second edition with the marginal gloss as well. So that's one example I wanted to flag up and put "the successful expansion of an old form". When I look at Tilting Square now and this piled-up language. Let’s say, dense. It does seem to me that people like Tony Lopez were doing similar things then in terms of density of language, it must have been something to do with the British cultural climate, but maybe also the influence of LANGUAGE poetry. Getting away from the oral in a strict sense, what Charles Bernstein has associated with Olson. What is his phrase, I’ve lost it. I suppose Prynne’s redefinition of the lyric mode was particularly crucial for British poets at this time. Well, you said ‘You have to write it as poetry’. I agree, but isn’t it still a negotiation with aspects of music, even if it’s dissonant and fragmented? I’ve referred to a complexity of interlocking ideas and images that take these sonnets away from what is typical in song. [...] The melodic line offers fluency with a degree of breakage. This stuff is in my bloodstream and, while I don’t wish to repeat what’s been practised to death, I like using a model to bounce off. You can set up contrary impulses and conflicting rhythms within a tightly knit or restricted form. It creates tension between the predictable and the uncertain. Going back to the LANGUAGE poetry quarrel with directly oral discourse, this seems to have been part of a reaction against the assumed subject position—the beak of the ego which Olson tried to get away from, with middle voice and so on. I’m slightly eliding the dogmatic with the subjective here. Anyway, Perelman and Bernstein found many of the Olson generation or tradition still culpable in this respect. So you get a shift away from what is, in some ways, still a lyric voice. There is more emphasis on the construction of personality.