Azimuth and Digression: Gavin Selerie interview, part 2.
AE: Am I not right in thinking that the essential feature of the sonnet sequence was that it was amazingly egocentric and that was part of a Renaissance revolution which was, I suppose, minimising the power of religion. There was no earlier equivalent for extensive poetic works with that degree of egocentricity.
GS: It was highly subjective in terms of romantic experience but that is distanced somewhat by convention, isn’t it, as the tropes of Petrarch are recycled endlessly. But Wyatt did something very individual in the sonnet. However dependent he is on Italian sources, and maybe in some poems French sources there's an absolutely unique forging of language there and a refusal to be limited by convention.
AE: You could say that being revolutionary was linked to being individualist...
GS: We are back with the Romantic and the Augustan. You might think there is a generalising tendency in Augustan verse as against Romantic but once you start rereading the work you find those assumptions are only true to a point. I should put it on record that there was a third book of sonnets which I never finished. I think four of them appear in Music's Duel. I have other poems from that third sequence but I was never quite happy with it and I didn't finish it. It is something I've worked at quite a bit over the years. Although those three books were written in close succession actually, even the third one dates from the 1990s. In a way there's an attempt to do it again in a sequence I started writing which involved what I call the blues sonnet. 'Short Takes', that's what I called it, but having written about four of them I decided to draw a line. It wasn't quite working.
AE: Four examples isn't bad for a new genre.
GS: In Music's Duel page 294. Robert Hampson asked for poems for an issue of Purge to mark the passing of the Blair era and I sent him these two poems but I don't think that issue was ever published.
AE: No. People found it hard writing about Blair because he was so slippery he was barely there.
GS: So they're kind of blues sonnets. I decided really that they were rather convoluted. But I didn't want to disown them so they're here. But they might mystify people because there's so much piled in there. It might be fun one day to do a detailed explication of them because they're very dense indeed.
AE: 'Policy Blues'. Does the policy refer to Blair?
GS: At the political level, yes. But as the note at the bottom says ..."Policy: a daily lottery in which participants bet that certain numbers will be drawn from a lottery wheel."
AE: Hence numbers runners.
GS 'Policy Blues' is the title of a blues song. As well as being very interested in folk song, I am heavily into the blues. [lurches over to a shelf containing rare and weighty books] I am the proud possessor of this amazing series. They are in fact the transcribed lyrics of blues songs as collected and put out on Document Records.
AE: Exhibit. Large Bible-like cloth volumes.
GS: There are about ten or twelve volumes I think. I was in correspondence with this chap. Unfortunately he never finished. Robert Macleod.
AE: Robert 'Honeyboy' Macleod.
GS: He was based in Edinburgh and the transcriptions of songs are more accurate than other versions. These Macleod volumes are the real Macleod. As well as being heavily influenced by listening to LPs and the CDs of blues music, I also have recourse to these marvellous transcriptions. He reckoned he'd located a way of slowing down the listening experience so that words which were sung very fast became clearer. It was some kind of Heath Robinson device.
AE: So he could vary the speed of the motor on the turntable? I'm wondering if this is linked to other Scottish folklore projects like Hamish Henderson.
AE: You said to me, I've lost the details because it was in the pub, but you pointed out that you had a link to the 1940s which wasn’t in my book about the links between the Forties and the Sixties.
GS: And I didn't say what it was?
AE: You did but I've forgotten.
GS: Anyway, to go back to those sonnets, I was using the blues idiom to analyse or describe a cultural era. There is reference to the Millennium Dome, which was a Heseltine/Major project before being taken up by Blair & Co. It’s a rather emblematic overlap of grandiose fluff, faith in a hollow shell.
AE: One of the important themes we have to tackle this afternoon is the cultural scene in York in the 70s.
GS: This brings me to theatre and the intersection between the various arts in the 1960s and 1970s. I moved up to York in, I think it must have been, 73 and was there until the end of the summer in 78. It was an interesting period in terms of my Oxford education, encountering a department almost entirely populated by ex-Cambridge people. In fact I used to refer to it as 'Cambridge in the North'. But that isn't what you were asking me about, I suspect. In terms of poetry... I mentioned theatre because, I had two girlfriends in my time in York, the second one was Jill and she accompanied me back to London in 1978.
Jill knew Richard Drain very well. Richard Drain was a lecturer whose main specialism was modern drama, everything right through to Robert Wilson and Living Theatre and so on. Richard directed various plays in which Jill appeared. Some of them involved jazz musicians as well. Jill had been taught by Frances Horovitz, Michael Horovitz's wife and poet, and through that network I got to meet people like Lol Coxhill and Jeff Nuttall, whom I'd probably encountered reading prior to that, but this was more of a revelatory encounter, particularly a gig they did at Theatre Royal, York, after which they came back and stayed at a big communal house I had in a village four miles outside York, Haxby. The house was called Ash Tree House and it was famous for miles around. It was one of a number of communes throughout the country which were linked on the grapevine, where people would come and stay and vice versa. That encounter was enormously fruitful even though it was short-lived, it was a 24 hour encounter in fact. We talked a great deal about poetry and music. I think that fed into my visits to London. I think I first went to Compendium way back, around the time it started, which is where I picked up Archaeologist of Morning for instance. Maybe 1970? I'm a bit hazy on dates. It was perhaps through some of those contacts at York that I went forward in my pursuit of what was happening over here and re-engaged with Barry MacSweeney and so on. But there's an Olson connection because Tony Ward was one of the lecturers at York at that time. I got on extremely well with him and also Nicole Ward Jouve, his wife. He lent me tapes of Olson reading at Berkeley and Vancouver. The Berkeley tape featured readings by Duncan and Spicer and so on as well. And this was an enormous revelation to me. These reel to reel tapes which came from the copies held at Essex University. Tony obviously had contacts with Essex University. I transferred them, I borrowed a reel to reel recorder and did a link and transferred them to cassette. And not only did these tapes prove absolutely revelatory to me in terms of the voicing of words on the page and bringing that poetry alive to me, but it created links for me in terms of other people in the decade following that. I got hold of those tapes in 1974 or possibly 75. And I used to sit on the floor in the middle of, I had the biggest room in the house, it went from the front of the house to the back in a very large farmhouse, I used to sit on the floor with headphones on listening to these things, and I became the laughing-stock of the household. although I'm sure people were appreciative in a way. But subsequently this opened up a network, I met people who didn't have these tape, and did copies for them, and this enabled me more easily to mesh with the London scene that I immersed myself in when I came back to London in autumn 1978, and rapidly became involved with. The King’s College scene and SubVoicive and the rest is history.
I might mention in passing because I've mentioned drama and the connection we felt at the time between all these activities, and how they were interlinked, in a way that I don't think is true now. The other thing I should mention is that I did a week's series of workshops with the Living Theatre in London in I think it was 1978, when we did for instance a restaging of Prometheus at the Winter Palace, which was a reworking of the original Living Theatre Storming of the Winter Palace but with an added dimension. As well as doing these workshops at the Roundhouse, we went to all night vigil cum poetry events, poetry drama events outside Holloway and Pentonville prisons. Walking along the streets of London and staging happenings. In summoning back my York days, I still haven’t said a lot about contacts in the British poetry world but my goodness they came in a very intense and energised way in 1978 and I feel maybe I lived my life backwards for a time, but I was discovering things, and discovering when and where things happened, and I filled in all the slots. Some of the Fulcrum and Trigram books by British poets that I'd acquired in the 1970s, in 1978 I was able to feel my way back to them, almost imagine that I'd been in certain places with them. I remember Indica bookshop and Better Books, but I didn't go to many events there, not most of the things that people talk about, in the 70s and late 60s, but I feel almost ... I don’t know.
AE: Sort of an injection of memory? a DNA transfer? This does seem to be the classic thing on the British poetry scene. Apart from the ones who were already there, in say 1965, people coming along later have had this kind of flashback, backstory, catching up, so that there is a shared history even though they weren’t really there. This was certainly true for me, seems to be true for people much younger than me. There should be a word for it.
GS: There is a word for it... which I can’t remember. Absolutely, my experience is yours in that respect. I think I was writing in something of a vacuum in the 1970s, when I was in York. A lot of the poems that went into Azimuth of course come from that date. some of them were rewritten and some of them were created retrospectively. The poem for Alan Halsey within the book comes earlier than '78. I met Alan for the first time at the Whitechapel Book Fair. It was in the building next door to Whitechapel Art Gallery. Perhaps it was the library next door. And there's a poem in Azimuth for Alan, which deals with 17th C Dissenter activity, Diggers and Ranters, and references St George's Hill. I think that poem probably existed in an earlier form but it was rewritten with a dedication to Alan, further investigation of that territory, the Ranter-Digger activity, which Alan and I both shared an enthusiasm for. The other filler I wanted to insert, my experience of poetry other than traditional, in the 1960s. When I went to boarding school I discovered a small core of people who had a kind of secret knowledge of blues and folk music. Also Bob Dylan, actually. I went to boarding school in 1962 and started listening to Leadbelly and Dylan and so on, comparatively early compared to other people I know. I came back to the Leadbelly thing in Days of '49. In terms of my experience of alternative poetry, or a different kind of tradition, there was a whole paradox about being at this very militaristic school, Haileybury, which had the CCF tradition and sports tradition, and so on.
AE: Combined Cadet Force.
GS: Some of the activities were very scary. I was injured for life playing rugby, was nearly paralysed in fact by a kick in the spine, and I've had back problems ever since. The assault courses and the expeditions we went on in Northumberland for instance, were extremely arduous. But the school had a strong classical tradition, musical tradition, that was where I first heard madrigal. It also had an extremely good classics department. My first Headteacher there was a classics teacher who wrote me an extraordinary letter when I got the scholarship. Within this maverick tradition were particular maverick figures. There was this English teacher I had for three years, which was until the end of O-level, called Basil Edwards. I think Basil says it all really! Who encouraged us from a very early age to go and see Continental films in London, at the Academy ...
AE: Oxford Street.
GS: Bergman, Antonioni, and so forth, but also encouraged us to get into Beat poetry. Maybe it came through my interest in Bob Dylan, but anyway it says here, it says in 1966, I acquired this little book called Beat Poets published by Studio Vista, and amazingly it features Ed Dorn. Not a very representative selection of poems or poems by, but nonetheless an eye-opener. Let's see, what does it include. There is 'A fate of unannounced years' and 'When the fairies', which begins 'When the fairies come to Santa Fe, they sit in dark caverns, called taverns'.
AE: He may have been right about that!
GS: Which sense was he using the word fairies? I probably might not have known. There's Paul Carroll here... but also Leroi Jones, Kerouac. It was through this that I got 'Mexico City Blues'. Although it's a tiny book, it's a very all-encompassing short take. I was very energised by that.
In 1967 I was given the second prize, the Le Fanu History Prize. This is one of the paperbacks I was buying. Penguin Modern Poets 5. Corso Ferlinghetti Ginsberg. One of the other ones was the Liverpool Poets. I can't find that one so I may have sold it. I shouldn’t have done that really but it's no longer one of my priorities. And progressed from that volume to acquiring a bit later on the David Gascoyne, WS Graham, Kathleen Raine volume, that's PMP 17. I think that may have been published a little bit later, it's got a glossy cover for instance. 1970, this is, and it was the Graham stuff which appealed to me in this volume. There's just so much here. ‘Malcolm Mooney's Land‘, ‘The Constructed Space‘. ‘The Voyages of Alfred Wallace‘. ‘The Thermal Stair‘, almost my favourite poem.
AE: About Peter Lanyon?
GS: Yes. ‘Hilton Abstract‘. ‘The Fifteen Devices‘. ‘Clusters Travelling Out‘. That's where he was getting very heavily involved in the analysis of language, even though that had always been a theme of his. What appealed to me so much about 'Thermal Stair' was the direct address, almost disembodied, 'I called today Peter and you were away', yes because he was dead. It's such a beautifully casual opening. It's so poignant. I could cry about this poem. It reminds me about people I care about and who are no longer here, especially painters and poets. The image of the thermal which was literally the gliding activity that Peter Lanyon was involved with and then used as a device in his painting, or a way of approaching painting. This just bowled me over, and Graham is still a big person for me. Funnily enough in the kitchen at the moment I've got a tape which Kelvin Corcoran gave me of Graham reading. I understand there are a number of bootleg tapes in circulation. This is just Graham and his wife, Nessie Dunsmuir, and I think Ronnie whose surname escapes me, someone who did interviews with him. It's a very moving tape. He does 'Approaches to How They Behave' which is still I think one of the most extraordinary investigations of language and how you get from your perceptions to recording and adventuring in language. After that he reads, is it 'To Bryan Wynter', which I think is also an elegy in the sense of direct address. 'Lines on Roger Hilton's Watch'. And I think it's after the Bryan Wynter poem that Graham suddenly has anxieties about it being too much of a performance and says No, it was too emotional, too rhetorical. And Nessie responds by saying, No, it was true to your feeling. It's kind of massaging him, calming him, no, you did it in a way that is true. Graham hit me very early on and then I came back to him in the 1980s when he was getting quite fashionable again, partly through Tony Lopez's book. Presumably it was Jeremy Prynne who suggested the subject to him.
AE: I'd forgotten. Yes it's Edinburgh University Press, but Tony did his thesis at Caius, actually. I imagine he turned up with a thesis subject all ready.
GS: I don’t want to give someone credit if they're not due it.
AE: This raises the possibility that the Forties British poets are the generation before the Beats.
GS: In terms of Fitzrovia especially. But obviously you meant it in a further sense...
AE: Would the Beats have happened without Dylan Thomas? I don’t think so.
GS: You mean Dylan Thomas in New York in particular, rather than Fitzrovia?
AE: Dylan Thomas roaming the countryside drinking a great deal and reaching big audiences.
GS: I'd love to talk about the 1940s in more detail. You just said to me over lunch that there was some connection with the 1940s in my life which I told you about... and which I've forgotten. This probably isn’t it, but my father was in the Eighth Army with Keith Douglas and read Douglas and even had the biography by Desmond somebody. I still have a fair amount of time for Keith Douglas even though he's not typical of the 40s. I've felt for years and years that the war poetry of the Forties is more successful than the poetry written at the front during the First World War. Having defended rhetoric an hour ago, I would qualify that now by saying that Wilfred Owen for me is too rhetorical, even though they're great poems in their way. And I can understand why Yeats left Owen out of his Oxford Anthology of Modern Verse. It was an oversight. He shouldn't have put in all the minor poets that he did, instead.
AE: It's a crazy book, it's a personal statement but it doesn't really have that solidity of chronicling what was really happening.
GS: I like the comparative quietness of the Second World War poetry and the greater feeling of the ephemeral. it just seems much les forced. That's more a Cambridge than an Oxford tradition, going back to what we were saying. Keith Douglas. 'The Behaviour of Fish in an Egyptian Tea-garden' is a poem I love. It's a highly organised poem. The way he uses enjambment here. The way he progresses from the first stanza to the second. 'Wily red lip on the spoon// slips in a morsel of ice-cream.' It's an exercise, types of person as fishes or fishes as types of person. Carefully observed, I think. Because my father had served there, I could vicariously identify with it, I could identify with it. I am handling the Robin Skelton anthology Poetry of the Forties. For me this is a much more satisfactory anthology than the Thirties one, although they're both skilfully constructed. I'm looking at this poem, 'London Before Invasion, 1940', by JF Hendry:
Walls and buildings stand here still like shells
Hold them to the ear
Other than Graham who I've mentioned, all sorts of people interest me here. These are people who I might normally rule out of my Parnassus of important figures. Alun Lewis. Did he write this when he was with Lynette Roberts, I wonder? When I say with, I mean illicitly so.
Of those people who've written about boats, I think Bernard Spencer wrote interestingly about boats. I was born in the Forties but I was born in 1949 and, do I have a memory of 1949? no not in the literal sense. My earliest memories are from age three, probably. But I can’t really remember them, although you could say vicariously I can. This is what Alan and I did in Days of ‘49, we re-investigated the decade that we were the product of, with the important qualification or you could call it an extension, that we were looking through the lens both ways. We would look back... I suppose we began writing the book in 1997 or 98, we were looking back, but also we were very aware of the position we were in to get that insight, we were thinking about all the things that had happened in between, in writing about the Forties. It was a time when my mother was in London, during the war, a time when my father was abroad in the Eighth Army and subsequently in the Normandy invasions and so on. But it’s also a time of romanticism as well as of hard turmoil. It’s a curious paradox of writing from that war period. There was the assault from without and the sense of being besieged, civilisation disappearing and culture being eclipsed, and then on the other hand the glorious celebration of that culture: core aspects of landscape and custom. It’s a defensive reaction, involving recovery of potential, and this continues in altered form for a few years after the war. Of course the poetry dovetails with the art of the period, people like John Minton, Michael Ayrton... Sutherland to a degree. That exhibition 'A Paradise Lost?' which I saw at the Barbican At Gallery. (brings out catalogue)
AE: It could be Lesley Hurry? the backdrop to the Hamlet ballet that Helpmann did?
GS: Other figures that we didn't mention. Craxton. The Craxton family lived around here when my mother's family were based here. My mother was great friends with the Craxtons.
(discussion of Hurry painting pinned up in Selerie kitchen) (looking at catalogue of David Mellors' exhibition at the Barbican)
GS: It's that one, the self-portrait. I know this painting so well. It's Hamlet, disguised, with that hand out of proportion looking up at that female figure. No, it's a couple. An entwined couple, almost like limbs, like a third pair of hands. And there's that poster there for 'Dead of Night' that Hurry did.
AE: He was mainly a stage designer.
GS: So many painters were involved in stage design.
Commentator: inaudible cultural processes taking place here.
GS: It's almost got... these are like roots emerging from roots that turn into limbs and branches. and there's a hand going up the side. Is this the kind of deus ex machina at the side? (talking about Hurry's backdrop for Hamlet). Ah, there’s that hand again, with a dagger. The arms emerge like columns. You have this sense of twining forms arising from roots, and there’s a kind of energy current running across the picture, one thing turning into another. So typical of Forties imagery. The eye is led towards a fireplace, doorway or a proscenium stage on the right. It’s actually a parallel form to the arm-columns on the left. There's a fireplace... or is it a proscenium stage.
AE: It must be where the actors came on stage.
GS: So it is a proscenium stage. It has all those associations for me. I tend to see always more than one thing in an image I'm presented with. Does that go back to my experience of acid?
AE: I was just thinking about that!
GS: How do you feel about the 1940s decade as a time of producing poetry?
AE: Giving it an acceptable cultural weight is very difficult because it produces so much arguing which I find very tiring. A lot of it's very important.
GS: Do you like Lynette Roberts' work?
GS: She seems to be coming into her own again. They even had a TV programme about her. Not that it was very good - I could hardly bear to watch it. You didn't miss much. The fact that more of her work is out there and is able to come through with its quiet procedures. Interesting the way South American themes influence her work. [...] There are poems from that third volume that are very powerful.
She's so different from Kathleen Raine for instance from the same period [...] and also she has that, rather fatal in her case, Neoplatonic take on things. Actually I think Neo-Platonism is extraordinary and I've derived a great deal from it, but it can lead to an empty generalisation, a too abstract take on things.
AE: I think it led to her successes as well as her failures.
GS: It was interesting the way some 1940s work was recovered in a new context for Iain Sinclair’s anthology Conductors of Chaos. The implication being that, whether conscious or incidental, contemporary poets have drawn on that earlier phase of activity.
AE: I don’t really see it. It was crucial to that anthology but did one really go from David Jones to Andrew Crozier and think Aha, there’s a continuation here. I don’t think there was.
GS: Well, some poets must have been more conscious of this heritage than others. Crozier must have thought about it because it was one of his areas of interest. [...] That looser flowing line came through to the 1960s, or returned in the 1960s. Some of that 1940s poetry would have been read by Robert Duncan.
AE: Yes, he was involved with Phoenix in the late 1940s. He was certainly aware of British New Romantic poetry.
GS: Gael Turnbull was a very important link man in the dialogue between British and American poetry. Particularly some of those Black Mountain poets, British publishing contexts. Telling them about what had been going on here. OK, this is later on. 59 or whenever, I'm talking about. To an extent there was a two-way stream. Robert Duncan was certainly very alert to the possibilities.
AE: It's difficult to relate your work to British poetry as it was in the 1950s and 1960s. Connection with poets of the 1970s and especially those working in long poems is easier. I wanted to talk about the discontinuity in British poetry. There are various versions of this - the 'mid-century death', the unexpected and inspiring flourishing of American poetry in the 1950s, the unprecedented innovation of the decade after 1965, the return to experiment after an era which forbade it...
GS: I think all those theories are tenable really in terms of explaining that. Certainly in British poetry publishing there was a failure of nerve, wasn’t there, that forced people to work outside the mainstream. But you could say, twas ever thus. Perhaps the 1940s were unusual in that respect - those publishing editions may have been generated by the war as much as by anything else. With regard to how I fit into that, I would readily concede that for a long period I was working in a vacuum as a writer, in the Seventies. Writing poems alongside writing a thesis was a bizarre thing. On the other hand, I had models on the page, so I wasn’t entirely isolated. But I have remained my own man, or to put it a different way I've been reluctant to identify myself with any particular grouping within the British scene. I'm most obviously a London poet, but I spent five key years in Yorkshire in the 1970s, I spent a year in Sussex -which was deeply influential as well. Geographically I am primarily a London poet and I got to know Allen Fisher and Bill Griffiths and people very well. Griffiths came from Kingsbury which is just north-west of here. I visited him there [...] He was fiddling with some bizarre bit of equipment- I can’t remember what it was now. Robert Sheppard- I was close to both Sheppard and Patricia Farrell, Gilbert Adair I knew. Bob Cobbing. Eric Mottram. Mottram was a great source of support to me after I had the falling-out with my supervisor at York and never submitted my thesis. Which was a major crisis in my life, I'd spent five years writing this thing. Eric understood where I was coming from in terms of trying to write an interdisciplinary thesis. He was a great source of consolation but also an important link-man in terms of doing the Riverside interviews, enabling me to make contact with various poets, and just providing that forum at King's College. I heard so many wonderful people there. It seems that I heard just about everybody there.
For some reason I was thinking of a performance I saw by Paul Buck and Glenda George involving a piece of matting I think. It was very performative. I heard Iain Sinclair read parts of Suicide Bridge there and that was another great reading. And the Subvoicive scene I was even more involved with, and read there many times, and I think that precipitated the writing of certain texts as well. Even though I’m heavily immersed in London and its various layers of history and its poetry scene or scenes, I've always retained my own independent take and not wanted to get too restricted by being part of a card-carrying group.
AE: It does seem to me after being involved with all this for thirty years that there is a sort of gang culture in London. There is a line of division so that there is one group who really think they are the London School. The fact that you have been writing experimental poetry for several decades doesn’t make you part of that group unless you write the same way that they do. This has caused quite a few problems of perception. So I think it's worth underlining that in London, apart from the sort of hardcore Cobbingites, you also have you and John Seed and me for example, and many other people. As you say, we're not card-carrying.
GS: I was always very drawn to people who were considered part of other scenes. David Chaloner, who is associated with the Cambridge School but lived for much longer in London, in North London. John Welch, who is a good friend of mine and whose work I respect. My view of London poetry would be less exclusive than the normal definition and would embrace all kinds of other poetries. During my time in Ladbroke Grove I was close to Michael Horovitz, for example, who most people would write off.
AE: Good heavens, yes.
GS: When I say 'write off' I mean would see him as a kind of organising force. A mad kazoo player. But I've had deep conversations with Michael. He is well informed. When you get him talking about Jeff Nuttall's work, or almost anyone, he is good company and he is well informed. You shouldn’t just write him off as some sort of Poetry Olympics, mad, pay a ticket and get in, person. I'm interested by his links with Stan Tracey, for example.
AE: There are these almost mnemonic rhymes- people find it easy to remember a classical Cambridge line or a classical London line, and several hundred other people who are slightly more differentiated or more compromised, whichever it is, just don't feature in the folklore.
GS: (unfolds map of northwest London showing personal associations somewhat like Gloucester Mass.)
AE: Cricklewood isn't actually at the centre.
GS: You have 184 Wardour Street where my grandfather's restaurant was- Seleri's Oriental Restaurant. But it was an Italian restaurant. Any kind of cuisine in those days, other than British, was called oriental.
(exposé of north west London history, omitted)
I get teased about this, I hate main roads and always go by back routes to places I’m going to. Anyway my father taught me the backstreets of London as a child, so I’ve got a very in-depth knowledge of back roads, and maybe this fits in with my love of marginalia, footnotes, glossaries, and accounts for some of the digressions in my work?
AE: Down those mean streets a poet must go!
(mentions the Musicians’ Co-Op and going to see the building being demolished)
GS: I went to so many interesting events there. And also used to go to the Film-makers’ Co-Op next door. I met various people involved with the underground film movement through City Limits. It goes back way beyond that to the New Cinema Club and things. Jo Comino is a name that comes to mind.
So as well as voyaging at sea I’m also a considerable voyager on foot and am very interested in maps and alignments, including mystical aspects, although I would now put more of a fence between myself and that whole mystical way of looking at things. I don’t know whether you noticed but there’s a poem in Music’s Duel which I left out of Azimuth, about Arthur Machen. Machen lived in Clarendon Road ...It’s called ‘Dreads and Drolls’ which is the title of one of Machen’s lesser known books
AE: (reading) A room at the top, a very small room, not even a monastic cell.
GS: The point of my referencing Arthur Machen there was that we were discussing the potential for literary use of mystical thought. Actually I’m probably most interested in Machen because of the structure of the language, these days. But obviously he did see the landscape in a highly mystical way. Hill of Dreams - which is Wales, obviously, but is also Notting Hill.
AE: Notting Hill of Dreams? There’s quite a lot of stuff related to ley lines, flying saucers and so on in Azimuth. It’s embedded in the structure of the book. For me it evokes the time, it’s part of the idealism of the time, and it evokes Ladbroke Grove as well, I guess. You seem to have moved a long way from that in the interim.
GS: It was still the Counter-Culture in those days. It was part of the Sixties. It’s a truism, I think, that the 1960s lasted from 1964 to 1974, really. You know, when the miners’ strike and so on really caused a major shift. Although I don’t things really changed until 1979, it was Thatcher who changed things. I’m evoking that Counter-Culture in which the ideas of John Michell, for instance, were considered of major validity. You mentioned just now Alfred Watkins and the Old Straight Track. During that period I was more committed to believing in it literally than I am now. Maybe this is the reason why I’m no longer writing about stone rings and things. Although I could. We are creatures of our time and I think, even though I regard myself as independent to a degree, inevitably I’m influenced by the era and the larger culture we live in and that mystical take on things doesn’t seem so possible now, not so urgently relevant. I suspect Iain Sinclair would agree with that.
AE: It’s very big in Allen Fisher’s poetry of the 1970s, too. It’s quite an odd thing. I guess there is a rhyme between Azimuth and Place and Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge. It’s a cluster. I’m interested in this partly because all that has disappeared so thoroughly and so the need for explanations, to get over to someone around today what it was all about.
GS: There are revisitings I suspect in my work but I would need to think about what those are. There is a section in Roxy where I am talking about the house as the head. The kind of emblem of the house as consciousness. I think that involves a degree of a more mystical approach to things. I suspect that I can kind of latch back into that world a bit. It is a different poetic climate, a different cultural climate.
AE: That is part of what gives Azimuth its flavour. It was extremely open to currents in a wider specialised community.
GS: Even though I subscribed to that mystical mode of thought more at that time, as I think you say in your review of Azimuth the texts have their own space, their own validity within their local situation in the book. I think you say that things stand in opposition to each other or exist as separate units with a validity that it’s up to the reader to determine. I would agree with you, and say again I hold Keats’ idea of negative capability as very important. I think it’s very relevant to a playwright because almost inevitably you have to write different points of view through different characters and letters and monologues. Even Krapp’s Last Tape has a degree of negative capability I would think. Letting things stand with their own validity rather than imposing some unity from above. Tom McGrath kept on saying to me in that long interview he did with me, the interview-book, one of the Riverside interviews, that what he learnt from Olson was how to live in contradiction.
AE: If you have a poet who is hanging out with hippies and anarchists and so on, and that poet is reading The Economist every day and just not believing a word they say, that poet might well have few things where they’re proven wrong, but they’re not writing poetry. I think the political record of modern poets may not be very good, but it is poetic politics and not predicting the swing at the next election.
AE: Alan Halsey?
GS: I wanted to say a little bit more about Alan Halsey in relation to the poetry scene I‘ve moved in. and in terms of the development of my craft if you like. It's been a two-way thing over the years but Alan is so well-informed about many aspects of literature and literally at the book face, dealing with literature. Reading things that came into the shop. And no doubt many of those were chance discoveries. We talked a lot about Pound from the beginning, discovering that we both had an enthusiasm for Pound, both the early lyric work but also particularly the Cantos. I feel that we both learnt a great deal about the fitting-together of words, things that work and don’t work, from Pound. Pound's Selected Letters. I think I learnt more about poetry from this than from ABC of Reading or other more formal books that Pound wrote which involved the craft of poetry. The inside back cover has a little index constituted by me in addition to the actual index. Here we have 'poetry, style etc.' Pages 48-50, letters to Harriet Monroe, 'Poetry must be as well written as prose.' 'No tennysonian mess of speech'. Although Pound was equivocal about that. He gave his treasured copy of Tennyson to one of his grandchildren. I’ve got in brackets here 'pentameter starting anew and retouching' 'be loose as often as you can'. The fabric of poetic language, obviously I learnt from reading Pound and seeing what worked and what didn't work in his earlier poetry. Another writer that Alan and I talked about a great deal was Charles Doughty. There's a trunk at Gonville and Caius, isn’t there, containing Doughty's notes on philology. It's a bit like the chits, the cards that were used initially for building the OED, which were in these huge wooden sheds off the house in Banbury Road. Cards or pieces of paper with definitions of words and maybe selections of words, groupings, they're in this huge chest. [...] told me about this. Jeremy Prynne had shown them. Nobody can work out how to arrange it and nobody has tried to edit it. I think Prynne's a little reluctant to let anyone get going with it. It would need an expert to get his trust.
AE: Maybe all Prynne's poetry is really written from what's in the trunk.
GS: These word notes connect with Doughty's poetry, A Dawn in Britain and so on, and also Arabia Deserta. I think Alan and I learnt from Doughty for instance the power of the Anglo-Saxon. Like you I studied Anglo-Saxon as an undergraduate and that’s rubbed off on me. Let's think of an example. Ring-road has such force as a noun. If you wanted to be adventurous, but probably mistakenly adventurous, you could use the noun circumferential. It is a noun as well. But it's an awkward word, it's long and abstract and it's hard to handle in a line and as a single word in a poem. There might be a place for it. I might go out on a limb now and say I don’t see enough care for language in a lot of the work I hear these days, and that craft is important. Obviously it can become too stultifying. The use of the letter S, and I say this as someone whose surname begins with s, is the most tricky letter in the alphabet in terms of sound. I always try to avoid plurals in my work. Even though in the broader sense I encourage plurals, in terms of multi-layers, multiplicity of perspective. I hate it on the radio now when the announcer says the Tubes rather than the Tube. It's quite a noticeable development, it's as if younger people don't understand that you can use the singular to be collective. So I've always been very conscious of using S in a restrained way, and that’s possibly something I learnt from either Pound or Doughty. I used to sit at the back of Alan Halsey's house with him after they closed the shop, or while Bridget or Rosy were running the bookshop, giving him a break. We would talk at great length about the fabric of the language, being adventurous but not crazily awkward. Gothic words, strange words. I suspect that, in fact I know that Bunting is on record in his interviews as dissuading poets from using unusual words. But if you look at his poetry it's full of unusual words. This idea of sifting everything down to basics. I like using unusual words, I like recovering bizarre words. Another person I learnt a lot from is Geoffrey Grigson. I've long been an admirer of his poetry. I mainly like the poetry from the 1930s and the early 1940s. I think his poems and Bernard Spencer's are the strongest in that Poetry of the Forties anthology. Beside the poetry there is The Private Art which I believe is the favourite book of Peter Riley. On the one hand it's terribly conservative, and intolerant of, for instance, Charles Olson. He's always saying what you can do and what you can’t do. I suspect he breaks those rules himself. But here’s one reflection: ‘Poems do depend on the unpoetic. The poetic, in the sense of the decayed popular matter of a previous mode, gets in the way, though there are cunning poets who use it in a slightly disguised form.’so actually that's quite relevant. I think that's full of wisdom. I love this book. It's got a great picture of Grigson on the front.
AE: The bleaching or overexposure works very well. He was very good at writing about poetry but he didn’t really like anything that came along after 1938.
GS: This is the paradox. I say I love reading him and have learnt a lot from him but I have to take it all with a grain of salt because he's so intolerant of much of the stuff that I find fascinating. He writes off Blake’s "Prophetic Poems", for instance, which have been hugely influential on my writing.
AE: If we're talking about the mid-century death, and how the people who ran poetry publishing and reviewing at least up until 1980, prolonged it, Grigson had a lot to do with that. He embodied it. It's like, every time something brilliant came along, he said "No, no, no. Five years in jail for that." He was just so intolerant and brutal. Actually he was a gifted guy, I'm saying this in the cause of reconciliation. In the Counter-Culture you have people who have terrific gifts and also glaring faults, who treat other people badly and so forth. If you read someone like Grigson, if you look at what he liked as opposed to what he failed to like, it's very interesting. He loved poetry.
GS: Grigson did the Centaur Press edition of Landor's verse. It shows a much more open side to Grigson. (digression on Landor) Landor had an influence on Pound, they were both backward-looking historians who wanted to be new. Digression. Aha! I talked about them earlier. I'm always hammering on about that (pulls weighty book off shelves) (digression about Arber's An English Garner) This is grist to my mill in terms of going down back-streets, and side-avenues, I love miscellanies. [...] That’s probably relevant to what Alan and I were doing in Days of '49. Aberrations really. When I was studying for my thesis I read a mass of fugitive material including Du Bartas’ Divine Week, translated by Sylvester.
(digression about Du Bartas)
I would want to resist any kind of commentary which put an impediment in the way of someone’s interpreting something, but I love having another text to read beside.
AE: This does relate to memorising all the backstreets.
GS: The danger of writing in that way is you get quite scattered. Maybe I was getting quite close to the edge with Le Fanu’s Ghost. I decided I wanted to write each text in a different way. There is no repetition in terms of form. Each text is different. Also I had this huge area to deal with. But I find that all of those texts work well, so they’re not just bookish cupboard texts, they seem to lend themselves to performance.
I’ve been talking a great deal about poetry from past eras but, for me, it’s all potentially in the present. Even where I’m using texts with old spelling, as in parts of Hariot Double, the distance is part of an immediate effect—or at least intended to be so. But the current work is less exhaustive, perhaps in reaction to what I did before. What my books have in common is the habit of working simultaneously across a span: I mean a text that appears early or in the middle may have been produced alongside something that appears much later on. You could see this as part of an Azimuth co-ordinator effect. The connections are as much random as planned.
I wish I could comment more on your main line of inquiry. I can see that it hasn’t been satisfactorily explained or described. It’s something that by implication comes into Peter Barry’s Poetry Wars. By implication for what happened later on, and why the shutdown of the more experimental poetry stuff happened. It must be part of residual conservatism that existed from a previous phase.
AE: The poetry Eric was promoting really pissed a lot of people off. I think it’s very difficult going deeper. Like saying why English poetry went into such a flat and uncreative condition in mid-century. I’m not sure an explanation is available.
GS: That’s what I meant by your main level of inquiry.
AE: I’m looking for a witness who would say, No, it didn't die off in that way, there was no breach of continuity. But everyone I speak to says the same thing.
GS: You did a very interesting interview with Seymour-Smith but I can’t remember if you got him commenting on that phenomenon.
AE: No, because he was on the wrong side really. He really didn’t like the literary establishment very much but he never read what we think of as modern poetry. When he saw Angel Exhaust and began to read some of it he really liked it, it was exciting. It was even more striking that he could be a professional critic from sometime in the 1950s to 1995, when he died, and never have encountered what we think of as modern poetry. It wasn't Trade. He was never going to be asked to review it because it wasn't seen as commercial. It wasn’t in the High Street shops. He reviewed probably thousands of books, that’s not an exaggeration, but he was never asked to review Prynne or Allen Fisher or anybody.
GS: In conversations with Nathaniel Tarn years ago, I would complain to him. This was often when he came back to London from, was it Princeton he taught at, and I would complain about the block to the dissemination of experimental poetry, whatever you call it, the Faber and Faber wall and there were other walls, particularly with the reviewing system, the TLS post-1970s. Nathaniel would say, 'twas ever thus, even in the heady days. First of all he would talk about publishing at Cape Goliard and say that was never accepted as much as one might assume. But also he would refer back to his youth, and he would argue that it was just a continual series of blocks. Something leaks out which is interesting and then gets clamped down again. Is it true that Pete Townshend saved Faber from folding? I think he injected a lot of money into them. That was around the time when an even more conservative editorial policy of poetry emerged. They were becoming more relentlessly commercial. You are determining the reception of things by publishing certain things. You are partly determining what is going to be considered useful and valuable.
AE: The problem with Tarn saying that is that it removes the possibility of choice by editors inside the machine, so that they are absolved from guilt but also they don’t achieve anything. So it’s simply an inevitable process, like a huge building with no windows that just looks at you. I don’t really buy that. For me some editors have achieved great things. I’m thinking of Lucie-Smith and George here, and Penguin Modern Poets, and Eric at Poetry Review, and Potts and Herd at Poetry Review. Then again there are the actions of someone like Grigson as a reviewer from about 1938 on, which I think were unacceptable and in fact criminal. I see this huge difference between different editors. So I don't really believe it’s all one homogeneous thing.
GS: It does perhaps come back to a contradiction at the heart of English culture, in the sense that England is a nation of shopkeepers and has that very material engine. It’s different in America. Is that to do with an anti-intellectual and a materialist streak in the culture, that privileging of a kind of residual conservatism in writing?
AE: People involved in culture in Britain have an antibody to that. So many people in Britain have written terrific poetry although surrounded by people who were very suspicious of that.
GS: It is interesting just how many poets have had to publish their own first books. Byron did for instance. Shelley I think. The way in which the productions reflected so well the content, if you think of those early Allen works. I would include Unpolished Mirrors [the A4 serials] in that. There was a sense of getting it on the hoof, at times primitive but there was an integrity to it. Asa Benveniste was a much better typesetter than whoever Stuart Montgomery employed. Trigram books are ultimately more satisfying than Fulcrum. The projection of the poetry in print.
AE: Something did come to an end in round about 1980. People living through that divide led their lives in a continuous way, so they weren‘t aware of it as a divide. Which brings us to what the nature of the era is.
GS: I think some poets solved the situation for themselves by moving out of London. Obviously there was lots of activity going on outside London before that, I’m well aware of that. A core of counter-culture poets living in the capital did disperse. But I think there was obviously a national malaise and a shift of priorities. I had a bit of a disagreement with Michael Haslam at the Grace Lake memorial reading, as we left he was just dismissing London as tinsel. I said, You have to remember there are other things beside Oxford Street. There are pockets of tremendous activity. I went to a lovely private view of an art exhibition off Brick Lane the other day. A painter called Irma Irsara. There was a real feeling that this was a pocket of other endeavour. There are still lots of those around London. It would be wrong to write off London as totally destroyed by consumerism and Thatcherist values.
AE: I just can’t agree with Michael for ten seconds there.
GS: He probably felt overwhelmed and weighed down coming out of the Anna Mendelsson event. Maybe it was to do with what had gone on earlier in the day with him. I think he was just very happy to get back to Hebden Bridge and some residual core of creativity going on there.
AE: Can you say more about Du Bartas?
GS: He was a Calvinist who tried to base religious conviction on science or what was taken as such. He’s mainly memorable for The Divine Weeks, an encyclopedic history of the world, unfinished. I was intrigued by the structure of Weeks, with its condensing of history into segments, and used this as an inspiration for Roxy which has 52 sections of, as it were, current history and aesthetic debate from classical times to the present.
Annex Email containing more material possibly of interest Reply |Gavin Selerie firstname.lastname@example.org to me show details 6 Nov (2011)
Many thanks. I've just got back from a film fair (part of my endless pursuit of mainly British B films from the 30s through to the 60s). Can't resist saying that I finally got my hands on the British original 'They Drive By Night' (1938) which is usually ignored in favour of the later American noir.
Your essay, which I've quickly scanned, contains much which we could discuss. Including the 'stiffening' in Tilting Square. Perhaps Elizabethan Overhang, the first book of sonnets, somewhat avoids this. But it was part of the cultural landscape of that 80s decade, stretching a little in the 90s.
A thing that might surprise you: I keep on finding that many of the texts in Le Fanu's Ghost are very performable.
Where did this essay appear then?
Coincidentally, yesterday I tracked down the origin of that quote re. Azimuth. It's from your review of Days of '49 in Terrible Work.
On the question of music, I'd like to speak about the influence of various genres on my whole attitude to writing and the structure of books. I took on board what Bunting said about the musical structural analogy for Briggflatts. I had a fondness for what would now be called Early Music, down to early 18th century. And understood what he suggested about the sonata form in particular. But alongside that I was very influenced by what is now often dismissed as the concept album. E.g. I appreciated the Who's sequence 'A Quick One' (1966), sometimes regarded as a precursor of Sergeant Pepper, and then zanier things like Jefferson Airplane, After Bathing at Baxter's. But also Jazz suites and the whole fluency that you get in, say,
Coltrane's performances at the Village Vanguard. Also very relevant to Azimuth: the climate in which one night you would go to Cousins (Les Cousins) in Greek Street to hear Bert Jansch and then the next night go to hear John Mayall, with Clapton and later Peter Green, at Klook's Kleek in West Hampstead. Then another week to Tiles in Oxford Street to hear Steampacket (Long John Baldry with all kinds of people that later became famous such as Rod Stewart) or Geno Washington and the Ram Jam Band, the Yardbirds at the Marquee, and then another night some jazz or blues at the Flamingo. I saw John Surman, who I still listen to frequently. I saw Joe Harriott with John Mayer (Indo-Jazz Fusion) at the Isle of wight Festival, the afternoon before Dylan came on, in the rain. Oh and lest I forget many female performers such as Sandy Denny, Anne Briggs, Jo Ann Kelly—I mean at venues around the country.
One record I played to death was Anthems in Eden, the Shirley & Dolly Collins album, where they collaborated with David Munrow, Christopher Hogwood, the Skeapings etc. This had an enormous influence on me.
And, dare I say it, as a Floyd fan from the beginning (67 at least), I went to one of the 1972 Rainbow concerts where they unveiled Dark Side of the Moon, much more fluid as I recall than the album released 6 months later. Which has become such a cliche. Frances says she remembers it as the album always put on in bed! Or, as she puts it, music to make out to. By which to make out. But there was ambition there in making that sequence and some interesting bits of happenstance. Tape loops and people wondering in and putting stuff down. Anecdotes, confessions. Abbey Road where I spent the first five years of my life (literally).
How to sort that alongside my devotion to more genuinely experimental work by Soft Machine and Kevin Ayers/David Bedford. The LATE David Bedford much missed. Ian Carr's Nucleus, Lol Coxhill, who stayed in my big communal house in Yorkshire after a gig. Pete Brown's Battered Ornaments. Mike Taylor, who also collaborated on Cream stuff. Almost forgot Jack Bruce, who I saw on numerous occasions, one of which at Oxford Town Hall with Tony Williams's Lifetime, nearly destroyed my hearing.
This was all part of the mix in thinking about writing, or at least doing it. The point here: not just the music as music but as a way of being/working, making sense of the world. A moment when all kinds of artistic endeavour were linked. Have you read J. Maclaren-Ross's film reviews? Quite revealing, I think, but he was thinking a little more in a vacuum. Fitzrovia anticipates the 60s explosion??
Well, I better stop.
I'll probably see you next Saturday at the book fair. I think it would be good to talk both days for the weekend of the projected interview. Frances seems reconciled to just seeing me on Saturday night!