Azimuth and Digression, part 3: Gavin Selerie interview 28 January 2012
AD: Tell us about the Riverside interviews.
GS: As I recall this came out of going to poetry events at the Riverside Studios. There was a woman there whose name I forget, the literary director? manager? What would the term be? Anyway she was in charge of putting on the poetry readings and she was extremely helpful not only in terms of my getting access but also stocked the books after I’d published and indeed the few other Binnacle publications I did. Initially it was just hearing the poets but then I would follow that up and it became a rolling program. It [title] was not just the studios but had for me a blues connotation. There was I think a blues label. Blues/jazz label. I forget the exact sequence but I think initially I did the Beat poets. I did Lawrence Ferlinghetti who complimented me by saying it was the best interview with him that had ever been done. A slight exaggeration I think. I did interviews with Ginsberg, massive lengthy session with Ginsberg. I think quite a bit of that recorded in Miles’ house near the Post Office Tower. We did various follow-up sessions. I did Gregory Corso. Now that was done at Jay Landesman’s house in Islington, lovely terrace near the canal. I went across one evening and Corso was there listening to Lully, some piece of wonderful baroque, on a ghetto blaster at full blast and then we got on to doing the interview. Then either he or I suggested going to the pub called The Bluecoat Boy. He after a few drinks got increasingly aggressive and quarrelsome and pulled the tape recorder from my bag and tried to confiscate it. We came to blows but I eventually got the tape back from him. And then I had to deal with the people at New Directions. A lovely woman called Griselda O something. She acted as an intermediary in getting the text sorted out further. When he finally received the book he claimed not to have had final say over the contents. But it was well received. I also interviewed Ed Dorn. It was potentially the most successful of them but it never came out. He wanted to revise it and continue it by post. I don’t know. There were various delays. I got very busy and after another couple of Riverside volumes I ran out of money and space and the series collapsed. But it finally is going to come out in a book I’ve edited with Justin Katko, from shearsman. I did a lengthy introduction explaining where I think the interview would have gone, basing that not just on my memories but what Dorn said to me. And checking various things with Jenny Dunbar Dorn, his widow. Of all the people I interviewed the person I had most kinship with was Dorn. One of the biggest regrets I have that it never turned into a book of the length of the Ginsberg one, or the Tom McGrath book. The Dorn book and my introduction to it are germane to what we were talking about, the Cambridge empathy with that American poetry and development of those procedures. I have quite a bit to say there about Donald Davie. With luck that will all come out in the next year. Did you see I gave you a copy of my Olson paper? I became friendly with George Butterick in I suppose 1980 and he was very supportive of my project. He certainly helped me gain access to the archive in Connecticut where they were already gathering material. (They held material on?) Tom Raworth. Obviously a huge amount of Olson stuff. University of Connecticut at Storrs. They’ve got a mass of Black Mountain material there. They’ve got all Prynne’s letters to Olson. Butterick lived in Willimantic. He and his wife Colette were very supportive of what I was doing. The bookshop in Willimantic, Ziesing Brothers, were very helpful. The Ziesing brothers actually published my first book, which some of the poems in Azimuth come from. Playground for the Working Line.
I did a very long interview with Ted Ensslin whose work I was very interested in then although I confess I can only appreciate the shorter lyrics these days. I still admire the ambition of Ranger and Synthesis and so on. I went up to where he was living, up in Maine nearly on the Canadian border. We did the interview in bizarre circumstances because there was a power cut and we had to use oil lamps. He was very much a back to the land person. The battery on my tape recorder was getting slower and slower. I did capture a huge amount though. That has never come out and I don’t have the time to deal with that now. A part of the tapes has been transcribed. I do want to get those onto some digital medium and likewise I did a fairly long interview with Cid Corman and I think that is quite important as the record of what went down, particularly in terms of Corman’s relationship with Olson. I must say that Corman is one of the most unpleasant people I’ve ever met. Despite being a very interesting poet.
AD: I’ve got mixed feelings about delving into that.
GS: I must say he did come up with the goods in term of discussing his work. He was very self-centred in his perspective but nevertheless was willing to talk at length about his literary contacts. Obviously I was very interested in the magazine Origin and he talked at some length about editing Origin. He also talked about his own poetry and living in Japan and so on. His wife was running this Japanese restaurant in Boston. It’s like those stories about Wyndham Lewis and Froanna only appearing at the hatch to serve meals. I think Froanna was by no mean as downtrodden as those apocryphal stories suggest. The last Riverside book which came out and which broke my project was the Tom McGrath book. Tom I had known for quite a while through Michael Horovitz’s circle and through Barry Miles, Tom having been editor of IT and at the centre of so much that was going on in London even though he was a Glaswegian. He was an interesting poet himself as well as a playwright. His play 'The Hard Man' had been a big success. I interviewed him over a two-year period, first in London at the ICA and elsewhere, then in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Some phone conversations also fed into the final text. This became a book of 300 pages, including a critical introduction and illustrations. I’d consulted Tom about many points of detail, trying to get everything right. We were committed to a ‘deep soak’ approach. Then he freaked out when he saw the book, which seemed to him too revealing. I laid it all out. Even though I thought I’d made it plain for him that I wanted all the detail. He had a kind of breakdown at the time. I don’t know how much it had to do with my book. It probably wasn’t primarily to do with the book. But he pulled out of a launch in Edinburgh. I’d printed a thousand copies or something partly because of the restaging of ‘Animal’ at the National Theatre and of course it was quite hard to sell the book and I had masses stored and it was quite depressing actually. I had a grant from the Arts Council that was meant to cover the printing costs. But the book came out bigger than envisaged so it didn’t even cover the printing costs. I was quite pleased with the book because of its circuitous progress through various aspects of the arts, theatre film dance poetry. And Tom talked quite a bit about Scottish poetry. And Scottish literature in general. That was a nightmare for me, that book. I overreached myself completely. I was also trying to finish Azimuth which I think came out the year after that.
I’d forgotten Jerome Rothenberg. It was Eric Mottram who introduced me to Jerry. I intersected with Jerry in various contexts. Through Eric, who was enthusiastic about ethnopoetics and that whole project that Rothenberg had, but also through various performances that Rothenberg did, probably at the instigation of Bob Cobbing, at places like the London Musicians’ Collective. What happened with the Rothenberg interview was that, again it was a case of misfortune for me. Initially. I turned up at Kings College for the interview and I’d been teaching through the day and I had the most terrible migraine so I didn’t feel able to contribute very much. But actually everything worked out because Jerry and I agreed to do a further separate interview and we later continued the interview, possibly by post, I can’t remember. So there are two parts to the book. And I have nothing but praise for Jerry in supporting me, he was the complete reverse of some of the others I’ve mentioned. He was a consummate professional in editing and revising and insisting that certain things be done. I should acknowledge that Ginsberg was as well. Actually, a little bit as I was saying about Michael Horovitz, against what people might assume Ginsberg was extremely precise in his editorial methods, and indeed eloquent about poetry, going way back. I should acknowledge that Ginsberg and Rothenberg were supportive to the nth degree. And I interviewed Joseph Chaykin at Riverside Studios, where we spoke for an hour or maybe more and there was something wrong either with my head or with the equipment and neither side had recorded. And he very generously agreed to do it again. I don’t think it was as comprehensive second time around. But the same day he continued and I did capture that. That is on tape but again I haven’t got it out. I must get this stuff transferred digitally. I don’t have the resources to publish that kind of thing now. After my experience doing the Dorn book last year, I don’t have the time or the inclination, it’s shameful, but it was extremely time-consuming and it took me away from my own writing, the creative writing.
AD: It strikes me that you were chronicling American poets of the 1950s. When I first heard about the series I thought it would be English poets of the 1970s because that was what I most wanted. There is a great lack of source interviews for those people. I think it’s right to get people a certain way into their career, you capture much more that way.
GS: You’ve put your finger on another major regret, that I didn’t do an equivalent number of interviews with British poets in whom I was at least equally interested. I did ask Tom Raworth whether he would do a book-length interview but he very kindly declined, saying that he’d said everything necessary in the interview with Barry Alpert in Vort, but this was further down the line, he would have had other things to say. I can remember him doing things at SubVoicive which enthused me. This was a long way after the Vort interview which admittedly does cover the Olson and Dorn connection quite well. I found in talking to Dorn that things would come out that weren’t in equivalent interviews. Justin Katko has confirmed that he believes there is stuff in there not covered anywhere else.
AD: Pretty irritating to do someone densely interviewed, they’ve already done it for someone else.
GS: I tried to persuade Basil Bunting to do a book-length interview, and Tom Pickard was a helpful link person there. But that never happened. Tom Pickard himself I wanted to do. Lee Harwood I wanted to do. I don’t know that I was even in touch with Lee other than seeing him at the odd reading. Who else... of course Barry MacSweeney I would have loved to have done.
AD: My bet is that it would never have seen the light of day, whatever you did. Barry wanted to control how he seemed to the outside world, but every time he spoke at length he said things he couldn’t control.
GS: Have you ever heard that reading followed by discussion with comments by Barry which was recorded at...a college in South London. I can dig it out for you a bit later and tell you what’s on it. What struck me about it was the precision of Barry’s comments about the poetic art.
AD: He must have been sober. It had to be the right time of day. I spent three days interviewing Barry once and he nixed the whole thing.
GS: It is a risky business doing interviews. It’s regrettable for instance that Sidney Graham wasn’t interviewed at length. But you can imagine what might have happened.
AD: If you have someone so finicky about words then the need for control isn’t going to just switch off when they turn to prose. The likelihood is that they either want to rewrite it and that gets very complex, it turns into poems and you never get it back, effectively. Or they realise that they really want to write poetry and talking prose is just not how they want to be seen and listened to.
GS: I did one with Robert Creeley in the company of Peter Middleton and Tom Pickard.
AD: You had a mike that would pick up four voices?
GS: We were sitting on a rug in a garden somewhere in north-east London, Dalston or somewhere. I think it came out perfectly clearly. Most of the interviewing was done by me or Peter. Who is a good friend of mine. He was still living in London at that point.
AD: I just get more excited about the English end.
GS: Roy Fisher is someone else I would have loved to have done. There are some very useful interviews with Roy. So I don’t think that was quite as crucial as Barry or Tom Raworth. Roy Fisher reading ‘paraphrases’. To remind us for later on.
AD: I think we’re going to talk quite a lot about the London School.
GS: Before we get to that, could I just add a PS on the Riverside interviews? I wouldn’t want the reader to think that there isn’t quite extensive coverage of the English scene at certain moments in the series, where it dovetails with the American scene, and the Tom McGrath interview definitely has quite a lot within the sphere of what you were defining just now.
I was quite keen on combining live interview with written revision/addition. Which could well have parallels with my method of composition in Azimuth. I was quite keen on a composite method that had the spark of live conversation but also had deeper quiet rumination, so that you had a balance between spontaneity of expression and precision of thought. I was keen on doing that with Ed Dorn but through the vagaries of communication and so on it never came about.
AD: There is quite a casualty rate, isn’t there? It’s quite ambitious. OK. Die Londoner Schule. (reads from a paper)
I wanted to acquire more info on the London School. I am sure that if we look at the scene in 1968 1978 1988 1998 and 2008 we see totally different cultural objects, but the lack of documentation makes this very difficult. Writers Forum supposedly began in 1963, and is still going, but most of that history is very hard to recover. The London scene is like a bus station, open on all sides. People blow in and out the whole time. So several hundred people could claim to be members of it. I found that most people offering wares there pretty much had a cardboard sign round their necks saying SCHMUCK. So identifying with all of them was unthinkable. Being there is quite different from identifying. I realised recently that whenever I was taking part in events there there was at least one person who invisibly had decided that four or five people were The London School and everyone else, notably me, wasn't registering and, in their memories, wouldn't appear. It was hard to avoid concluding that really the whole scene did not belong to them, and to plan memories in which they didn't appear except disguised as waste paper baskets or pillars. So, even if you define the London School as a tacitly shared sensibility, it seems more like a set of four or five sensibilities which linked different knots of people and excluded others. So I wondered what you felt about the silently shared ideals.
To get concrete, I wondered if we could locate followers of Olson, mainly via Mottram, and followers of Cobbing, and find that they have nothing in common. Perhaps the tensions in the public moments were due to a kind of gang warfare.
GS: I think gang warfare is putting it too extremely unless you want to go back to the Poetry Society wars. Certainly there were different coteries. But my abiding memory is of the intersection of scenes rather than of demarcation in the hostile sense. There were different groupings, and veiled and open tension or hostilities, but I really found that it was like a continual series of doors that opened, a bit like that cardboard thing where...
AD: Advent calendars?
GS: No... no. I don’t know what I’m thinking of
AD: I think you’ve just invented something!
GS: lt was like a series of windows or doors. The way in which one meeting would lead on to another.
I think you’re right that there were a group of people who were predominantly into Olson rather than into Continental European sound poetry at the other end. Those were two poles. On the other hand, Eric Mottram, who I suppose for most people would typify a consciousness that displays the influence of Pound and Olson but is remoulding that in a British context, he represents that, but Cobbing equally drew on American models. Allen was saying to me after the paper I gave at that conference in the University of Kent ...
AD: The Olson conference?
GS: Yeah in November 2010.
I just wonder maybe I could say a couple of things about Strip Signals. We got onto that somewhere.
AD: What is the title Strip Signals?
GS: It refers primarily to a German term, I think it's Wellensalat. Wave salad. It’s a technical term, a radio term referring to the crossing of stations. As you twist the dial on the radio so you’ve got intermediate stations. I love that term ‘wave salad’. Strip signals has so many association, it obviously conjures up fragmentary experience, but also suggests a sinister technology whereby through chips or whatever your life is being monitored and controlled. Actually I have on the cover of the book a bar code symbol to indicate the recording of a transaction or of the existence of an artefact. Also it’s reflective of the juxtaposition of different kinds of writing in that text, which is a loose personal experience on the one hand, not necessarily my experience, and analytical technical language on the other. A lot of that is about finance initiatives and at that time, I wrote it in 1985, a lot of that was still fantasy, like accounts of going to the Moon before the moon landing. A lot of that has actually come true. We don’t yet have barcodes on our wrists but it won’t be long. They are talking about doing away with plastic card technology and doing it through your skin or fingerprints or something.
AD: Or your retina.
GS: So Strip Signals, the first performance just had a couple of other participants beside myself. The more elaborate performance was the year afterwards, 1986. We had just done one rehearsal before and one or maybe two of the people there hadn’t been at that rehearsal. So it was pretty improvised and not pre-planned. I selected texts for that performance. This performance has now come out on a 2-CD set. There were two master tapes from different parts of the audience and the engineer had to marry those two tapes.
GS: (explains how he came to London in 1978) I worked for the extra-mural department of Birkbeck for all those years and they were very unsupportive of poetry. John Muckle was another key figure, he was the main force behind the Paladin poetry series, he should get the credit for that much more than Iain Sinclair.
AD: Let’s just pause on that. John was working for Paladin, to do with editing horror novels I think. He told them, do some contemporary poetry. It was completely his idea, they failed to say no, I think that was about the size of it. John set up the Paladin new british poetry thing and devised the four categories of what the mainstream didn’t like. But then he moved on from the job and that is why Iain was managing it when it actually came out.
GS: I didn’t mean to be critical of Iain. His input later was important. I had a little bit of input into that anthology. John was unhappy in a couple of cases about material that had been selected and I acted, to suggest some other material, and managed to get that accepted by Eric.
AD: That was a milestone of a book.
GS: It’s a curious anthology. The women’s poetry section which was edited by my friend Gillian Allnutt is a lot more conservative formally but I’m glad it’s there nonetheless. It could have been different, it could have been better perhaps. That’s probably the way those things had to be presented then.
AD: I think it was a trailblazer, I don’t think there was a model. It’s sad it wasn’t followed up more. You could point to it and say, here it is, here’s what we are talking about. Whereas quite a few influential people were denying that that kind of poetry actually existed. They were saying, yes, there’s a theory that you could do this kind of poetry but no-one’s actually ever done it. When you have a book with 88 poets in it it saves that kind of argument.
GS: I suppose the (Paladin) series of three poets is a kind of successor to the tnbp anthology, and if that series had continued many other people from that anthology and indeed other poets would have received further exposure. The great thing about those books, at a time when most of the publication for the poets we’re talking about was A4 stapled booklets they were being presented in a way which meant they could potentially have been received in a more serious way with more serious attention. Although that didn’t really happen even with the smarter format.
AD: OK, it’s like a radical government that’s in power for six weeks. I think it did move things on. It’s surprising how many people picked up those books before they were pulped.
GS: There were several individual volumes, weren’t there. Lee Harwood.
AD: Across the Frozen River?
GS: There was a John Ashbery.
AD: I am still wondering about the people who go to poetry events at the Royal Festival Hall. How to explain to them why they would want to go to SubVoicive or whatever.
GS: It has to do with integrity of space. I don’t mean clinging to territory. A poet feeling they can read experimental work and be tolerated. And an audience which is receptive to that. I think on the whole the less formal the nature of the venue the more powerful the performance will be. Poetry readings in the Queen Elizabeth Hall will always seem staged.
AD: I’ve never bothered to go along to them.
GS: Pound used to mix with half the people he was castigating. I don’t think it would happen now. I think that’s one of the things that’s changed. I can’t imagine me meeting with Andrew Motion. Not that I ever have. I couldn’t imagine having a drink with... I suppose I could imagine having a drink with Andrew Motion. I could do. But what would I say?
AD: Possibly that’s why the literary divides are so wide.
GS: I could have a decent conversation with Andrew Motion, I’m sure. Comforting in a way.
AD: It’s hard to think about overturning it. It’s easy if you avoid the areas of shared interest. If you’re going to change the map you’re going to have to have an event which explores the differences and tries to reach some kind of agreement.
GS: And the danger of course of mixing with people you find alien, or at least their literary allegiances unsympathetic, is that you just sit in the territory that you do have in common. By talking about areas of shared enthusiasm - with Andrew Motion we could just end up talking about Bob Dylan. I know he’s another fan.
AD: It’s quite easy to have civilised chat about recent films or Wordsworth or something. What I’m talking about is a project, which certainly wasn’t invented by me, for truth and reconciliation. Part of that would be developing some kind of agreement about the shared past. That might involve Andrew Motion reading JH Prynne.
GS: Seriously. With patience.
AD: And JH Prynne reading Peter Levi. And not coming out with simple condemnation - communist subversion or whatever.
GS: Who do they wheel on in these breakfast time Radio 4 debates? They had Iain Sinclair defending Prynne and someone else against him. Was it John Sutherland.
AD: It was indeed John Sutherland. He didn’t know what was going on.
GS: He doesn’t know anything about contemporary poetry, as far as I know.
AD: I actually heard that exchange on the radio. It’s not a very serious hour of the day, you’re buried in toast and marmalade. You want something quite digestible. It wasn’t going to produce anything at all, it wasn’t designed in that way.
GS: It would have to be Night Waves or something to generate any serious discussion.
AD: I feel tantalised about this project. OK I feel guilty about various aspects of the division, that makes me want to contribute to relieve the guilt, but it would be quite hard to set it up so that it succeeded. It would be quite easy to have an event like that where the two sides simply denounced each other and became more polarised by Sunday evening than they were on Friday night.
GS: Frances (Presley) went to an event in Oxford recently to shape a project about John Clare. She was talking with Paul Farley. Found it very difficult to converse with him because their views of poetry were so different.
AD: I read one of his books. It wasn’t altogether bad but I wasn’t very enthused by it. I did read it to the end. Do you want to get into a particular poem?
GS: I’ve thought of something that would be relevant to our discussion of poetry scenes. It’s a long poem that I wrote between 2007 and 2008 and in Music’s Duel it starts on page 300.
AD: ‘Proxy Features’?
GS: This is a verse letter to Alan Halsey. It started with just some jottings I made in the Tube on after going to one of the London venues in December, and thinking of the very line of venues and scenes which we’ve been discussing today, and on the way it turned into a poem about poets and poetry. There are some specific references poets here, and a lot of general musing on what’s involved in a poetry world. And it involves other aspects of cultural and artistic endeavour. What I had in mind as a model once I really got going on it was poems which deal with the subject of poetry and the poetry scene such as Drayton’s “Epistle to Henry Reynolds” and Suckling’s 'A Session of the Poets". There’s also Jonson’s “At the Mermaid Tavern” and a poem by Herrick, possibly two poems by Herrick, that deal with the world of poets, or maybe in that case it would be a coterie. So rather like a Sydney Graham verse letter it starts dear Alan, and I’m saying that all the poets are wearing t-shirts and trainers and this in December. That’s partly about global warming isn’t it, but it’s also to do with choice of dress and there is a certain connection between dress and voice which I think I addressed in Roxy, and the whole debate about style. Does it matter if you wear a jacket or a cardigan to a poetry event, especially if you’re reading?
AD: Did you get dragged up? No we just wore casuals.
GS: This is just internal debate. I haven’t prejudged any situation. But I do think there has been a loss of style in masculine dress over the past decade, maybe 15 years. There is a fashion for rather ugly casual wear including sports wear, which I find rather alienating.
AD: Men are getting less vain possibly.
GS: At what cost! I’m not saying that if you’re giving a reading you should necessarily dress formally.
AD: It's like folk singers dressing differently to rock singers.
GS: As well as global warming I am addressing the way people present themselves for an evening at a poetry reading. It strikes me that particularly in the North people still dress up to go out on a Saturday evening. They don’t do that so much down here.
AD: In Nottingham on Saturday night you get vast numbers of people all wearing the same fancy dress. It’s quite intimidating actually.
GS: I can see that this is quite provocative on my part to even raise the question of dress.
AD: The scene is completely unselfcritical so you have to be critical in some way. What are proxy features?
GS: I’m not sure I can remember!
AD: (aware of his rights as an interviewer) You selected this poem!
GS: It could be things that stand in for other things. I think it might be a pun on Roxy. Also you see faces reproduced which are just a cartoon version of a face or a mesh of dots. So maybe I was thinking of features which are interestingly different from what you normally see. I shall have to think about this title more. Maybe even go back to my notebook. There are aspects of the grumpy old man about this. I go on to talk about Rob Cowan who is my current bete noire. He is that dreadful presenter who has too jolly a voice for that time of day and who chooses very middlebrow music to play, often too up-tempo. He’s a bit like John Carey, who always has to consult the ordinary man to determine the correct position. So from Rob Cowan I reference Radio 3 30 years before with Francis Wilford-Smith’s Aspects of the Blues, which was a tremendous analysis of blues music in about 8 episodes. Francis Wilford Smith ran Magpie Records, a great blues label based on the South Coast. Cormac Rigby was a presenter. He became a Catholic priest eventually. I don’t know if you remember him?
AD: I think he might appear in a poem by Nigel Wheale.
GS: He had a wonderful voice. Quite theatrical, not really camp but old-style BBC. He had a very discriminating sense of what is interesting and worthy in music. He presented the programme “Byrd at Ingatestone”, a concert of consort music at Ingatestone Hall. So I talk about them speaking ‘in the crevice’ or back time. I then combine blues imagery with consideration of William Byrd. Byrd I think did a setting of Southwell’s ‘Burning Babe’, so I’m combining Ingatestone Hall and the song there.
AD: Booker is?
GS: Bukka White.
AD: It’s not normally spelt that way.
GS: These are external references which I want to make central. They are as it were detachable references but I want to make them part of the argument. Or dialectic because I see these as emblematic of a BBC which still retains something of the Reith ethos. A time for the BBC which maybe was too autocratic and organising but which was also more highbrow. By highbrow that is including blues music. Now you have Late Junction which is fine but...
AD: That’s a late night, non-classical music programme on Radio 3.
GS: You might get blues music on that but you would never get a serious analysis of blues music on Radio 3 now. Not a documentary. Thinking about ways in which the poetry world has become more casual leads me to think about other cultural references there. That leads me back to what must be a particular moment in the reading I’d just been to. 'Someone checks his mobile, another pings away to get a picture.' ‘The buttons I see /get smaller’. I’m quite fond of that play on words there because it could either be as you get a bit older your eyesight deteriorates, but also the Japanese do seem to make smaller machines. Take this recorder compared with my previous recorder, they promise so much in terms of extra capacity and extra operations but actually they are far more awkward to handle and fraught with danger. When my recorder cut out twice during the last session, I didn’t notice it had cut out. It didn’t give me any alarm. Quiet. I was talking a lot about poetic craft before and the linebreak here is an example of this.
AD: The ‘see’ functions in two different ways?
GS: It throws the emphasis onto ‘see’ doesn’t it. I could just make a general point about the form of this poem. It’s quite carefully crafted and possibly is a bit stiff as a result of that. On the other hand I felt like doing that at the time so I think that’s justification enough. I’ve written in much looser modes at other moments. I’m very aware that people tend to imitate others sometimes in a very slavish way. So I think there’s satire of that in what follows. People who feel they need to do something because it seems the way to go.
AD: Which lines are we looking at?
GS: ‘There’s only one speedo on the scene holds his heart and why be him’. That’s specifically Tom Raworth.
AD: Because he reads very fast?
GS: I don’t in any way wish to denigrate what he does. I think it’s extraordinary. He’s one of the five or ten major major poets in our time.
AD: ... (inaudible) reads very rapidly and indifferently presumably because he wants to be Tom but actually sounds like he was bored by his own work.
GS: Obviously I’m not just talking about people imitating a single individual. Probably ‘the heart’ would be a clue that I had Raworth in mind.
AD: So ‘the purple heather’... is that a folk tune? Mimi Farina recorded it?
GS: The wild mountain thyme is sometimes known as the purple heather. They are interchangeable, actually. That probably is something that drifted up from the bar downstairs during the reading.
AD: I see. At an upstairs room in a pub.
GS: Then I start talking about memory and the ways memory is preserved, such as readings and music on tape. The ‘little cases’ are cassettes but I didn’t want that word, it’s too literal, I wanted cases to suggest other things as well as cassettes. so I said ’little cases’. All that stuff is quite technical, ‘the oxide print’ on recorded tape.
AD: It’s on metal oxide. Chrome or ferric.
GS: The chinagraph is that instrument that was used to cut or splice tape. There are kind of generalisations about literature or poetry in this poem that might be doctrinaire but I didn’t mean them to be absolute. When I say ‘you remember and expect’ and ‘the one over your shoulder is somewhere ahead’ I didn’t want it to come over too absolute. And then the ‘Martin’ is Martin Corless-Smith who I‘d recently talked to, and heard again this past December. We were talking about Auden and Auden does tend to represent a closed mode that we don’t find useful and which stands in the way of other things. On the other hand he is still a force to be reckoned with and I don’t think he should be left out of any university course. Martin told me he does still teach Auden, when I say a snatch of Auden, maybe one poem of Auden. In this stanza I’m putting forward the possibility that what modernism threw out can now be reclaimed partially. In the slipstream of modernism with less danger of getting stuck, or less danger of oppression. The ‘childword depends’ probably a play on Francis James Childe and also child language.
AD: As if child’s play was the ballads collected by Childe.
GS: It’s very difficult to explain a poem logically, isn’t it. I’m finding it quite difficult. I can give you a general sense but getting down to specific commentary is quite difficult even for me as the writer. It’s probably that I want to let it go. When you’ve finished writing something you want to let it go.
AD: (encourages more commentary) GS: as long as there’s that rider that A, I may not be able to remember what I intended, B I don’t want to close off meanings. In section 2, which starts on p.301, remember this is a verse letter to Alan Halsey and we were both born in 1949, in this part of section 2 talks about a generation of poets born in the 40s, or maybe early 50s as well. You could say between 48 and 54, I don’t know. I’m talking about what it feels like to have come ‘out of war or the next heroic, We bear a dual stamp, doomed to kick against the harsh stead/ that gives us a measure of ease, and driven despite to build a glassy frame which all can climb/ green in lingering dirt.” I think I’m musing there about the way in which if you were born in that period, most of us were brought up very strictly, so we were rebellious, doomed to kick against that, but that we were driven despite that desire for ease to build alternative radical structures, counter-cultural equivalents if you like. The dream of a freer society.
AD: So that’s the glassy frame?
GS: I wonder if that might be a reference to the exhibition of 1951, you know, on the South Bank?
AD: The Festival of Britain?
GS: Or primarily I might be talking about something in the 1960s.
AD: Somehow modern buildings have much more glass and concrete.
GS: Then I’m talking about the process of writing and the conversion to books. ‘our history is walking on the page’, print culture. The wire lines- I think are literally a term to do with paper aren’t they, the semi-invisible criss-cross lines, McKerrow talks about it in his book on printing. Laid paper, where you get them...
AD: It’s the frame you press the pulp into so the frame isn’t part of the page but there would be a trace of it.
GS: Some of this reminds me of Roxy, actually. The timbre of statement where I’m providing epigrammatic statements about culture which in an 18th century poem might be absolute but I hope in a post-modern poem or whatever, I hate the term post-modern, I was going to say modernist but, a poem of our era has to be treated to a degree as open-ended. They’re maybe in inverted commas, the epigrammatic generalisations. ‘Any marvel drawn up on wire lines has a force to survive.’ That might be equivalent to what I was saying about tape. There’s wear and decay but aspects of survival. Then the next stanza returns to the ecological theme - “can’t get careless in a lane smothered by plastic/ or a thorium-steeped stream’.
AD: The thorium would be radioactive spill from a nuclear waste container or a power station maybe?
GS: I think here I’m suggesting that if you’re writing you must have a moral sense at some level. It’s all very well to dismiss absolutes and pursue a kind of path of adventure. Actually I’m juxtaposing possibilities here, considering shades of endeavour. ‘Don’t like to fix/ what is right for health”, don’t like to lay the line down, but there are things that we have to care about. There’s another generalisation here, there’s a way to behave which allows adventure, and doesn’t tie the lurching spirit - ‘a feel for the scapeless things’. Birds. Scape in the sense of landscape but also scope, seeing, measuring. This is all to do with being of a certain generation, feeling the contradictions, largely between form as an arranged or precise thing and form as discovery. You can say the whole poem is about that, actually. This is a lot about nature isn’t it, a lot about landscape. Was I thinking... No, this would have been before the Olympics site was developed, but maybe such equivalent things happening, the exploitation of land for supposedly grand civic purposes but actually destructive of a certain wilderness. An allowed wilderness.
AD: Do we have a year for this?
GS: I’ve put 2007 to 2008. I actually wrote this in about 3 phases over a year. It was actually begun in December 2007.
GS: Section Three. I’m again talking about form and the nature of words and sounds. And actually I refer to two poets in detail here. Maggie O’Sullivan and Geraldine Monk, both reading in the same room. On separate occasions. I’ve tried to imitate Maggie’s sense of language, but when I say imitate, it’s not at all imitative of her,. I’ve tried in my own way to create a kind of equivalent to describe her use of language. No, it doesn’t look like a Maggie O’Sullivan poem at all, and anyway I’m sticking to a sort of regular, left hand margin throughout this. So the words are not dispersed and behaving like creatures the way she makes them do. And similarly with Geraldine, in my description of Geraldine’s work. This might need explanation. I talked about nursery rhymes last time. The Maggie stanza here draws on nursery rhyme. I thought this might need comment. Geraldine in the same room. Pendle, her text ‘Interregnum’ is based around the Lancashire witch trials which were held in Pendle in Lancashire, so I’m turning that into a verb. Playing on Thelonius Monk, ‘mysterious so’ as in ’Misterioso’, and ‘ivories and vibes jangling talk’. Because the poem is for Alan, I think he had already in a poem made a play on Thelonius and Geraldine.
AD: The two Monks, eh?
GS: So it’s a kind of hommage to Alan as well as Geraldine there. In section Four I get critical again. Can’t tell you who on earth I was thinking of, I literally can’t remember. ‘Now a happy proser pulls the drape, his movie might be adverts’.
AD: So he’s pulling the curtain back before he appears to perform?
GS: Actually performing in a drab uninteresting way. ‘The April scroll’ is Kerouac’s scroll for On the Road. “Wouldn’t wish to smear the April scroll”- wouldn’t want to smear the spontaneous way of writing. ‘To sound like yourself is a strange meander. And yet that’s just/ how the blacktop score evolves’. Er...
AD: The black top would be ‘on the road’? Asphalt...
GS: You see, I need you to prompt me there.
AD: Look, I’m supposed to ask the questions around here!
GS: Now I come back to music because I say, “it’s a good for nothing ear/ that’ll not hear how a dance is done/ before any instrument. Bare instinct/ prods the nerve and bone into play. Later grunts /will tally.” Trusting instinct there. So that actually goes back to Byrd and blues. Renaissance airs and blues music. The poems come slower these days as "a body of years tiered deep/ settles into focus’. Actually that comes out of a conversation I had with Maggie O’Sullivan about the fact that we both seem to write slower than in the past. ‘Inside the Noughties’ this is all about what was going on then, “wars are buried while feel on demand / piles goods into the arena’, the excess of consumer access including print on demand books, there are so many that it disperses one’s attention. It’s great as possibilities but you don’t get time to read it all even if you can afford to buy it. What I’m doing there with that alternate line sequence, the of short and long lines. I must have done it for a couple of lines and then thought, that’s interesting, I’ll continue that, to create some structure. I suppose actually it’s in... Really taking a middle path here suggesting that you need the looseness but also the layers of experience to ... Ah! You know what I forgot to tell you. I started writing this on an envelope and the next day I got an invitation from Rupert Loydell to write something for his manifesto book. [Rupert Loydell edited Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh] By the time I’d finished he’d given up on me and said, I’ll use a section of Roxy instead. As well as it being a verse letter for Alan, I call it an anti-manifesto because it’s a meditation as well, it’s a meditation which implies an agenda.
AD: I’ve read that book.
GS: Well, this should have been in it. We were told we could only submit two pages.
AD: It’s hard for an editor to turn something down that they really like. He invited a very large number of people and if they’d all done ten pages it would have been a millstone.
GS: So it was partly written for an anthology titled ‘Manifestos’. But it’s a manifesto that debates. I call it an anti-manifesto. Rather as in Roxy, when I make an absolute statement it’s then undercut by something else. Section 5 has a lot of detail about pub readings. ‘A beer-ring on the table shows how writers relate.’ I’m talking about people playing billiards or pool here. ‘Good company’s a baize surface where balls shoot into the net.” I’m talking about comradeship here but also competition. That persists inevitably in the poetry world, going back to those 17th C times.
I may be referencing something there. I think it may also be adapted from an image that Byron uses in Don Juan. I can’t remember what that is. Because Don Juan has a great deal about the poetry world, doesn’t it. And Don Juan is a text I taught at Birkbeck. So I know it quite well, not well enough to quote you the exact line, but I think that might be adapted from. Maybe at some moments Byron would be a guide for my mode of writing. But equally those Renaissance figures I was talking about are not primarily satirical. Not Drayton. But they’re more affectionate examinations of the social world of poetry. I come back to winter here, ‘So much is staked’. It was an incredibly mild winter. A poet might become fraught with anxiety, they might not want to relate anything to the world, like a brave peeking bud that gets a nip. ‘Worlds on a pinhead’. To mix metaphors, that kind of tightrope walk to get things right. Butchers Row, there’s a reference there, John Florio. I think it might be the French Ambassador’s residence. “There’s a fleur de lys on Butcher’s Row. Every banjaxed ink-slinger will hug an impish figure.”
AD: Every writer who’s been hit by something will hug the devil?
GS: Or even the person who’s criticised them at some stage.
AD: So the banjaxing is someone criticising your immortal work? When you’ve drunk enough you embrace them?
GS: I say in a more positive and gracious way, ‘What lyric feasts have gone down’.
GS: It’s gabble. Kind of crowded talk. This is relevant to what we were saying before about SubVoicive... "So often we’ve ventured the newest fare,/ breathed, warmed, ignited. Given or bartered etc."
AD: So it hasn’t been printed yet?
GS: I was definitely thinking of reading unpublished material there, passing things round. The last section, as it says ‘It’s time to sign off.’ Obviously there’s a play on fit ‘stanza’ and fit ‘things that fit’. And then I start talking about ways in which craft and associations are passed on almost without one realising it through personal contact. ‘beaming through generations.’ Graves, that’s Robert Graves who met Swinburne. He must have met Swinburne on Wimbledon Common when he was very young.
AD: Johnson. Was he alive when Queen Anne was on the throne?
GS: Johnson Landor Swinburne Graves. Then I refer to ACS, Swinburne again, meeting Wordsworth at Rydal Mount, and Wordsworth grudgingly admitting that he had written some decent stuff.
Most of the rest of this last section refers to Alan Halsey’s Lives of the Poets, having heard parts of it, before it was published. It seemed likely it would be published by Five Seasons Press, that’s why it’s ‘crave a fifth season of store’. But remember the poem begins in winter.
‘I’ll clear the stockpile now and just say/ Spirits coming up the stairs like bees’. I know that’s from a book by Aubrey, not Brief Lives, one of his miscellaneous pieces.
AD: There’s a book called ‘Miscellanies’. It’s about X-files, really, inexplicable events. So there would be spirits in it.
GS: And I almost end by saying “no truck with any -ite or -doxy”.
AD: Like ortho-doxy?
GS: Talking to Alan, who’s such an old friend, and I think he believes this as well, that one shouldn’t align with any group, or indeed absolute perspective on poetry. And then the last stanza returns to the question of costume.
AD: "Staves the range" is like “don’t fence me in”?
GS: The language here is quite Metaphysical. Like those 17th century poets. And indeed Martin Corless-Smith, who writes in a quite similar mode I think to the 17th century. So right at the end of this poem I come back to the aspect of manifesto. But it’s tentative rather than absolute with the image of a poetic agent whispering in the glass of red, wine obviously. 'Over and out.' Maybe this is a ‘proxy’ manifesto, not a real manifesto, standing in. but I don’t think it can be, because I’m putting my heart into it, in layers of experience and shared...
AD: I got the general drift of the poem when I read it but I didn’t get the title at all. I think it’s about 250 lines long. Quite complex.
GS: Do you think it could have fitted into Rupert’s anthology?.
AD Oh, sure. It would have... The book didn’t come off all that well. The people who wanted to contribute didn’t... they were a bunch of people I hadn’t heard of, to be quite honest. I don’t think he tried hard enough, if you want to produce a good book you have to fight with people who are reluctant to commit themselves. If you get a bunch of people who are under-publicised that’s a symptom of something, unfortunately. So this would have been quite an asset for that book.
GS: I think it’s fairly unusual in the world we inhabit for someone to produce a formal discussion of poetry in that way.
AD: What people tend to do is wheel on theory instead, pulled down from canonical texts. Deeply evasive.