Neon Highway is edited by Jane Marsh and Alice Lenkiewicz. Neon Highway was set up in 2002 as a non profit making little poetry/arts magazine
POETRY and ART
Neon Highway is available bi-annually, with 2 issues costing £5.50, or a single Issue available at £3.00. Order your next issue by sending a cheque made out to Alice Lenkiewicz at 37, Grinshill Close, Liverpool, L8 8LD
The Jane Marsh Chronicles
Dear readers, welcome to Neon Highway issue seventeen. We have some fabulous poets
in this issue. I have been well, thank you very much but I will tell you a little story.
Yesterday, I walked up to a stranger in the street and I said, “Will you marry me?” I know this was very naughty of me but something just made me want to do it. I can’t explain why.
Society can sometimes be so mundane. Thank god we live in our heads. I can’t think of anything worse than ‘newspeak’. You can despise certain things around you but at least you can enjoy the fact that you still have your own thoughts and ideas. Anyway, as I was saying, I walked up to this man. He was carrying a briefcase to work and wearing one of those smart suits and a bowler hat. I haven’t seen a bowler hat in a long time.
I saw him walking across the bridge towards the embankment along the River Thames..
I kind of followed him. I know that is terrible. I don’t usually do that sort of thing but you see, he reminded me of someone I used to like years ago and I thought, wouldn’t it be strange if it really was him but obviously it could not have been, after-all this man I had liked had lived in Prague. We had met on the other side of Charles Bridge for coffee. It isn’t that often that you bump into someone from Prague from the past as you are walking out of the tube station from Superdrug, after buying some shampoo and conditioner.
So there I was following him along the embankment in my new nineteen twenties outfit bought from my secret retro store on Brick Lane when all of a sudden he turns around and stares at me. We just stood there gazing at each other like we are in some kind of surreal trance and you know what? I could not believe it. If seeing and hearing is believing, he said “Jane, what are you doing here?” It was just so amazing. His name I remember is Antonio and we are meeting for a drink tomorrow night to catch up on all our adventures.
Isn’t life just such a wonderful blessing at times? X
In the mean time, may the wondrous force of beauty and the exotic and demure mysterious imagination of nature be bestowed upon you all and don’t forget I am now giving a spotlight to first collections of poetry and prose.
Readings have involved people published in and outside Neon Highway Magazine. The aim being to bring together local as well as guest writers from further afield.
Readings have taken place throughout a variety of venues around Liverpool such as Central Library in the Hornby Room, 33-45 Club, Bluecoat, The Planetarium and The Walker Art Gallery. Details listed below.
Neon Highway poetry readings
Thursday July 8th
Sex Drugs and Rock and Roll
Matt Fallaize: Featured poet
August Thursday 19th
Postmodernism and Urban Life
Bill Griffiths: Featured poet
September Friday 17th
Dreams Myth and Magic
David Greygoose: featured poet
Thursday October 14th
Secrets and Diaries
John Hall: featured poet
Jane Darcy Lewis
A Text Performance by Robert Sheppard.
An alternative guide to the art collection at Sudley House, Liverpool.
To be performed in Sudley house itself by the author.
6th and 12th November 2004
2pm and 3pm
Robert will be reading his text performance as a guided tour.
Supported by the Learning Department of National Museums: Hosted by Neon Highway.
November Friday 19th
Journeys Near and Far/Health and identity
Sam Smith: featured poet
George Wallace: featured poet
Poetry in the City
Capital of Culture.
April 10th, 2005
The Walker Art Gallery
William Brown Street
Poets from the Edge Hill Poetics Research Group will also be reading their work.
Robert Sheppard, Scott Thurston, Angela Keaton, Cliff Yates, Andrew Taylor, Alice Lenkiewicz and Matt Fallaize.
World Museum Liverpool
Saturday 29th April 2006
Philip Davenport with Tony Trehy and Ben Gwilliam:
performances and versions
A poetry event
at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool
Saturday 13th May
2.30pm - 4.30pm
Neon Highway Poetry Magazine presents CRUNCH
Readings from The Fifth Floor
Sunday 25 January 2009, 16.30–17.50
Performance and reading. Jane Marsh (Editor of Neon Highway) and The Public Service Announcer played by Alice Lenkiewicz and Nigel Harrison, read poems influenced by text and thoughts concerning The Wall Street Crash of 1929. Their poems will be a response to artists and their work throughout The Fifth Floor project concerning the credit crunch and present day Liverpool. Listen to poets and writers reading their poems and prose in response to this theme, and musician Duncan Stuart will be performing.
Performance curated by Alice Lenkiewicz. Music composed by Duncan Stuart.
Performance will take place on the fourth floor as part of International Festival.
Tate Liverpool Fourth floor galleries
Free, no bookings taken
This event is related to the The Fifth Floor: Ideas Taking Space exhibition
02 September · 18:30 - 21:00
Location Blackburne House. MAIN HALL
Blackburne House Blackburne Place Off Hope Street Liverpool L8 7PE
Liverpool, United Kingdom
JOURNEYS is a poetry reading and art preview.
Guest Poets: Andrew Taylor, Cath Nichols, Janine Pinion, Robert Sheppard, Patricia Farrell, Tom George, Ursula Hurley and further poets will be reading their works.
Artwork on display by Alice Lenkiewicz.
Books and pamphlets will be for sale.
...Come and join in our evening, listen to some poetry and enjoy a glass of wine.
Cath’s poetry collection My Glamorous Assistant (Headland Press) came out at the end of 2007, after the pamphlet Tales of Boy Nancy, in 2005. She has undertaken commissions for Lancaster litfest and had work broadcast on BBC radio. Cath is currently completing a poetry PhD supervised by Paul Farley. Her first (short) play, The Price of Legs, was produced in Nottingham for the Trilteral Stage Play Festival this year.
'Patricia Farrell is a poet and visual artist who has had work published
in a number of magazines over the years and is featured in the Reality
Street 4-Pack collection "New Tonal Language"'.
Robert Sheppard's recent poetry publications include Warrant Error
(Shearsman), an extended response to the War on Terror and The Given
(Knives Forks and Spoons), a fractured autobiography. He is Professor of
Poetry and Poetics at Edge Hill University and edits a blogzine at
Janine Pinion is based in Wirral, Merseyside. She moved to Liverpool from Belfast in the late 1970s to study at Liverpool College of Art, and has been involved in the arts since then, both as a poet and artist. She has exhibited in the North West and in Ireland and founded the Acorn Gallery (now The Egg) in Liverpool in 1984. She has been published in magazines and anthologies, involved in collaborative projects, and broadcast on radio. Her first pamphlet was published in 2003.
Ursula Hurley is a nature poet whose work appears internationally in journals and anthologies. Her first chapbook, Tree, was recently published by Erbacce Press, and was described by Heather Leach, author of Everything You Need to Know About Creative Writing (Continuum, 2007) as ‘celebrating both the elemental and modern: water, trees, earth, sky, interact beautifully, cleverly with wheelie bins, mobile phones and traffic.’
Liverpool based poet and co-editor of erbacce and erbacce-press.
Author of eight collections of poetry, the latest 'The Sound of Light Aircraft' is published by Knives, Forks and Spoons Press.
Founder member of the Edge Hill University Poetry and Poetics Research Group. PhD in Poetry and Poetics.
Tom George has built up a reputation for innovative live shows that often incorporate music and visuals alongside his witty, rhythmic and impassioned poetry.
Winner of the Dead Good Poets’ Society slam in 2008, the subject matter of Tom’s poems ranges from the secret lives of insects to biting satires on contemporary culture.
“Tom is a gifted performer, and his poems - so good on the printed page - really come to life when performed; witty, amusing and melancholy by turns, or simultaneously.”
- Black and White magazine
Tom is a prolific event organiser, staging open mike poetry and music gigs as well as more ambitious multi-disciplinary events. A series of one-man shows at Liverpool’s Unity Theatre, saw the artist’s poetry and songs combined with drama, monologue and the skills of multi-media artist TV Lux.
“He never fails to uplift and enrich the listener, a more charismatic and engaging performer you are unlikely to encounter…” – Wirral Ode Show
Tom has performed throughout the UK, in Europe and Africa, while his work has featured in several collections and websites.
His self-published poetry collection, How Now is available at gigs and from FACT bookshop in Liverpool (£2)
Alice Lenkiewicz, artist and editor of Neon Highway poetry magazine has had two collections of poetry published. She will be exhibitng her images and text in the main hall as a story exhibition, 'Journey of the Bride' until the end of September.
Jane Marsh interviews the poet, Robert Sheppard.
Robert Sheppard has published many books, including The Lores (Reality
Street, 2003) and Tin Pan Arcadia (Salt, 2004), both parts of the
Twentieth Century Blues project. He has two critical books forthcoming,
and was the editor of Pages poetry magazine.
1. Could you describe the kind of poetry that interests you and why this is? Where do you situate yourself in terms of contemporary poetry?
If you mean ‘kinds’ of poetry, not kind, then let’s say that I am interested in all kinds of poetry. Poetry’s delight is its variety across space and through time, rather than its supposed universality. Its particularity: Ovid to Ulli Freer, Basho to Pope, Petrach to Klebnikov, Herbert to Celan. (Which is why I am so antagonistic towards the Movement Orthodoxy in Britain, and its narrow notions of what poetry might be.) One is adrift in the imaginary museum as a reader, while one is still positioned in terms of the current field of literary production as a writer, to borrow the terminology of Bourdieu. For example, I appear in the Tuma Anthology of Twentieth Century British and Irish Poetry as a representative of British ‘linguistically innovative poetry’, which I suppose will suffice, although I’ve been as much responsible (as a commentator and publisher) for that cumbersome term’s currency as I have been its passive recipient. But then in certain moods, I feel I don’t fit this or that label, or that there are qualities in the work that are simply not recognised or recognisable by the act of being situated in such a field. Is that another way of saying that it is not entirely in the writer’s control where he or she is pigeonholed? Don’t my Empty Diaries have more in common with Tom Paulin’s The Invasion Handbook than with many books in ‘our’ corner of the field?
2. Why do you think it is that innovative poetry has not caught on with the education system? Why do some children study Simon Armitage and not Allen Fisher for instance?
That children – or adults, for that matter – are allowed to study poetry (or literature) at all in an increasingly instrumentalist education system is semi-miraculous. Though perhaps it is best not to enquire too deeply about what good it is supposed to do. Why some poets are taught, while others aren’t, has to do with the inherent ‘teachability’ of certain writing practices, and I suspect that some writers actively produce work in collusion with the way it is consumed in the classroom and examination hall. Other writing practices (those you dub ‘innovative’) do not fit so well in this paradigm, indeed actively counter commonly taught reading practices. As such they do not appeal to over-worked teachers who are often themselves not readers of poetry in any sense other than the classroom. That some of us who teach take on those writers is a different issue, of course. And the teaching of writing adds another dimension, one where I think innovative practice needs defining and defending.
3. What are your views on the contemporary education of poetry? How would you define the difference between experimental and non experimental poetry?
Teachers are scared of poetry and they all too often pass this fear on to their students. I can’t answer your unrelated question about the difference you perceive, because your terms are partly not ones I would use. I would counter a poetry of saying, which attempts to avoid thematisation and stasis, and achieve something like ethical openness, with a poetry of the said, which risks inertia and immediate naturalisation (which is the demand of every exam question, of course). At most, it is an ethical issue about making a text maximally open to the reader, while recognising the impossibility of the act, because the saying as an ethical gesture must always be concretised in an actual fixed text. Raworth’s Eternal Sections seem about as near as we’ll get to it. It is also to recognise, with Vološinov and Bakhtin, that language use, even in heavily distanciated and defamiliarised forms, remains dialogic. But that’s a book length argument in a couple of sentences: bits of Levinas rubbing shoulders with Veronica Forrest-Thomson.
The techniques that one uses to achieve this aim may vary. It certainly isn’t a question of pursuing stylistic brinkpersonship (‘experiment’, if you like) for its own sake. Some ‘experimental’ work can be bogged down in the said.
4. How do you think these differences are portrayed to and perceived by the public?
Since I partly refute your premise, this is difficult to answer. What the public perceives at all about poetry I couldn’t say. The ‘Romantic’ paradigm of self-expression prevails, it seems to me. While a small minority will recognise Armitage from their schooldays, nearly nobody would recognise Allen Fisher as a name, or even necessarily recognise what Fisher produces as poetry. Which is, to come back to an earlier question from a different angle, why education is crucial here. And I do my bit as a poet, academic, teacher and big-mouth.
5. What would you say to someone who said, “I can’t understand ‘experimental’ poetry. It doesn’t seem to make any sense.”
‘Sign up for private tutorials at £38 an hour!?’ You would then get that person to analyse every noun and verb in his or her statement (especially ‘experimental’). If he or she did say ‘seem’, by the way, you’d be in with a chance, wouldn’t you? You are more likely to hear something completely dismissive, i.e., ‘It doesn’t make sense’. So: what does ‘making sense’ mean? And who makes sense in the aesthetic relations between text and reader? All these questions open up the issues. Then you can go back to particular poems.
6. How would you describe your own process of writing poetry?
I don’t think I have a single process. I have used various techniques of accelerated collage, which I call ‘creative linkage’, at certain times. More recently I’ve been writing kinds of shadow ‘texts or commentaries’ based on other texts, in an act of intertextual critique. I have written strictly neo-formalist works (using word count) as well as writing a kind of free prose, or lineated prose. I’m playing a lot with sentence boundaries at the moment, stretching or collapsing syntax. I seem to swing from one extreme to the other, but the common factor is to generate works that are different. That was almost a working principle of ‘Twentieth Century Blues’, but is less so now. There is no separation of acts of writing and editing for me.
It’s probably not for me to decide whether I achieve a poetry of saying, but that’s the aim.
7. What would you say to the budding writer/poet to encourage and inspire them
with their work? What books would you recommend them to read?
Read. A writer is a reader who writes. Reflect. Develop a poetics.
8. Can you list five poets before the 20th century that you admire?
Can you list five poets during the 20th and 21st century that you admire?
Milton Marvell Rochester Byron Blake. George Oppen, Roy Fisher, William Carlos Williams, Bob Cobbing, Robert Creeley. Whoops, I’ve run out of names.
9. How would you define ‘good’ poetry versus ‘bad’ poetry.
These are morally inflected terms, aren’t they? Better to think in terms of adequacy to the perceived necessary poetics of the time. So Williams was adequate to his age, whilst WE Henley wasn’t, we could say (or not, depending on our standards of adequacy).
10. You are well known for your interest in writings on poetics. Why do you feel poetics are important? How would you define poetics in your own words?
Whether or not I’m well-known for this interest or not, I define poetics, quite precisely, as: the products of the process of reflection upon writings, and upon the act of writing, gathering from the past and from others, speculatively casting into the future. Poetics is a discipline, though a flexible one, but more importantly it is a discourse, though an intermittent mercurial one. (The unwritten history of the discourse suggests this.) In the pedagogic sense, poetics is a writer-centred, student-centred, self-organising activity. It is a way of letting writers question what they think they know, a way of allowing creative writing dialogue with itself, beyond the monologic of commentary or reflection. Poetics exists for oneself and for others, to produce, to quote Rachel Blau DuPlessis, in the best definition: “a permission to continue”.
11. Do you have any forthcoming publications?
Yes: Tin Pan Arcadia from Salt, a large collection from my long time-based project ‘Twentieth Century Blues’, which spans the years of its composition from December 1989 to 2000, from its ‘Preface’, ‘Melting Borders’, through various other strands – some ‘Empty Diaries’, some ‘Killing Boxes’ – through to the final ‘The Push Up Combat Bikini’, which is also the last ‘Empty Diary’. Creative work produced since then, the ‘texts or commentaries’ that take on a set of deliberately distant materials – Anne Sexton’s drafts, Bernhard Schlink’s novel, Charlotte Saloman’s visual opera, Jiri Kolar, Marvell, Sephardic songs, none of these particularly associated with ‘me’ – will appear from Stride as Hymns to the God in which my Typewriter Believes. That book also contains a writing through of my own journals written in the aftermath of September 11, the September 12 we are all living through. That suggests another collection, unwritten as yet, just a few poems that follow on from the ‘Killing Boxes’ strand of ‘Twentieth Century Blues’, and a free prose essay that answers Adrian Clarke’s reading of my poetics, ‘Rattling the Bones’. I teeter on the precipice of launching into a pre-determined sequence of 96 poems to accompany them, the sort of mad formalism I’ve avoided since completing ‘Twentieth Century Blues’.
Recently I’ve been doing some writing as visiting researcher to Sudley House in Liverpool, and that should see the light of day as both performance and text. Then there’s a short story about the Esperanto writer F Tropp. I’d like to write something connected with jazz. I’m fascinated by the close connection between poetry and jazz. Weird things: like Charlie Parker carrying a copy of the Rubáiyát around with him! I had plans to write a critical work on this relation but I’m not sure I’ve got the musicological knowledge to pursue it as an academic study, but I’ve amassed all this material and perhaps will extend the ‘text or commentary’ technique of Hymns to these materials: texts, recordings, anecdotes.
Critical works forthcoming include The Poetry of Saying: British Poetry and its Discontents 1950-2000 – its title is self-explanatory, and its thesis I’ve outlined above. Indeed, your oppositional pair, Armitage and Fisher, are both treated in that work, Armitage appearing as a soft version of the persistence of the Movement Orthodoxy, and Fisher being one of the discontents, who approximates the poetry of saying in his work Gravity as a Consequence of Shape. And at the moment I’m working on a short monograph on the poetry, fiction, and non-fiction of Iain Sinclair. Articles on Sinclair and Maggie O’Sullivan. I need to write something extended on poetics. And probably publish or make available a rather different kind of creative writing manual, working with Scott Thurston.
But my primary focus is on the creative work.
12. Finally, Are there any questions you feel I should have asked you and didn’t?
Jane Marsh speaks to A. C. Evans
I would imagine you would appreciate this room, A.C. On the wall there are paintings by Klimt and Duchamp. My gramophone over there plays music by Liszt and Wagner.
The CD player plays music such as The Stones and The Velvet underground.
The weather is just wonderful. We are now in Mid winter so it is cold and icy outside. The trees are bare and there is some frost and ice on the ground. On the bookshelf you may find some collections by Plath, Byron, Baudelaire and Swinburne. There are also two recent reviews of yours on Lee Harwood’s Chanson Dada. Selected Poems by Tristan Tzara and Symbolism by Rodolphe Rapetti. Now if you just seat yourself down I would like to ask you a few questions to someone whose writing style it seems has been described as ‘macabre, hermetic minimalism’.
Your work has been around for a long time and first published in the British alternative press in 1977. However it has been said that your work was more driven towards “ modern occultism” rather than the conventional ‘literary’ small press. Could you explain what it was that pulled you in this direction?
Gosh, Jane! You are looking very vampish this afternoon…. And you have gone to so much trouble. It is very much appreciated and very nice to talk… But, to answer your questions: My first ‘publication’ was, in fact, 1968 when I was lucky to land a tiny contract for greetings cards. A few designs were distributed through high street shops at the height of the ‘Beardsley craze’ during the Art Nouveau Revival… Also, under the umbrella of the Convulsionists, I managed to issue some mass-produced prints and get things into the school magazine. This was all in the late nineteen sixties. After a break I started submitting material to little magazines in the mid nineteen seventies, hence the reference to ‘alternative press….’. The first magazine to take some pictures was called Sothis. I soon found acceptance with other editors in the ‘occult’ scene. There were mags with titles like The Daath Papers, Illuminatus Monthly and Nox: A Magazine of The Abyss. I was instinctively drawn to this kind of subculture: it seemed more attuned to the disruptive, paraxial fantasy I was trying to achieve than the rather staid literary scene. In any case – despite my Aestheticism – I didn’t really see my work as a narrowly ‘artistic’ enterprise – like the Surrealists I was aiming at some kind of transformational paradigm outside mainstream definitions of art/poetry. There were clear affinities between Surrealism and ‘occultism’ (a vague, dodgy term I should say) and, at the time, one felt ‘occultists’ to be more ‘alternative’ than most exponents of the counter-culture who played at being hippies at weekends. The Surrealist ‘angle’ on the occult was, of course, non-mystical – unlike the Crowleyites, or the Alexandrians, for instance, I did not view the occult as an alternative religion. It was more to do with ‘reclaiming the imagination for anarchy and nihilism,’ formulating tactics to disconnect creativity from the hegemony of ‘the establishment’. Gothic Romanticism, Baudelaire’s ‘Satanism’ and Rimbaud’s use of alchemy provided historical parallels, while Jung’s psychology pointed to an ‘interior model’ for the ‘occult image’.
Could you tell me a little about your work?
The work develops on two fronts: the written and the visual. Within these two spheres I operate on a narrow spectrum of formats. The written works fall into non-fiction and ‘literary’, the visual works are black and white line drawings in either pen or pencil, collages (mainly photomontages) and, more recently digital-photo images of various kinds. Regarding the literary work I would subdivide it into poetry/experimental prose, fiction (short stories) and poetry translations from the French. In both literary and visual work I often rely on automatism and chance elements. Automatism means a kind of immersion in the unconscious process, guided intuitively. I have often regarded ‘automatic’ line work as rather like calligraphy, hovering on the borderline between pictorial representation and writing. All artistic activity is supported by the non-fiction work ranging from short review notices to extensive feature-length articles/essays like Angels Of Rancid Glamour (1998). Baudelaire said artists should also be critics – it is vital to maintain a sense of focus and context, and to engage with the history of ideas.
Who were the first presses to support you?
Well, apart from the occult ‘zines mentioned the first art-poetry press to support my work was Stride edited by Rupert Loydell. Throughout the nineteen eighties Stride maintained a policy of openness to diverse approaches that was – and still is – exemplary. Stride published my first small collection Exosphere in 1984 and I contributed reviews, artwork and poetry to the magazine. Today Stride is one of the best independent presses on the UK scene. I should also mention Phlebas and Tabor who published the mini collections Chimaera Obscura and Dream Vortex.
Can you tell me a little about your poem Space Opera?
Space Opera was short sequence of prose-poems first published in Stride’s Serendipity Caper anthology. It was subsequently re-issued as an illustrated booklet with an intro by Steve Sneyd. Written in a kind of techno-reportage style the sequence evoked a universe where there is no distinction between inner and outer space and all communication is subject to widespread disruption from indeterminate forces. The general setting was onboard a clapped-out star-ship on a mission to investigate the mysterious planet NeoGaea, a kind of parallel Earth, but millions of light years from home. It was an attempt to fuse lowbrow and highbrow by taking a simple space adventure scenario and filtering through a mannered poetic style – the cognoscenti define this sort of thing as ‘speculative poetry’…
Your work has been described as ‘artistic’ meeting ‘magical’. What would you say is your driving influence?
That’s quite a ‘deep’ question, depending on what you mean by ‘influence’ – influences should be points of departure not destinations, I think. In the nineteenth century from the time of the French Revolution to the First World War one can see a progression of ‘movements’, often referred to as avant-garde – we learn from many figures and themes of those movements and define ‘influences’ that way. That’s a very big subject and the cultural history, from Baudelaire to Beauvoir, is very important. Formative influences (i.e. contemporary, not historical) included Dada/Surrealism, Op and Pop Art, Psychedelia and Nouveau Realisme (e.g. Tinguely) – that’s on the visual side. Contemporary literary influences included Burroughs, Borges, Nabokov, Pynchon, Angela Carter and J G Ballard. As I say this it is clear that none of these were poets in the strict sense, actually they are all prose writers. I had had heard about the 1965 Albert Hall event but we didn’t really take much notice of the poetry scene – the era was defined by Mary Quant not the Children of Albion. My inspirational figures were Aubrey Beardsley, Antonin Artaud and Marcel Duchamp. I think we can return to this a bit later on when we talk about the Convulsionists because, amid this welter of references, I’m thinking about your phrase ‘driving influence’…. And Paul Meunier’s observation (quoted in Rapetti’s Symbolism) that ‘artistic concerns were originally alien to the production of art.’
What kind of poetry or movements in poetry do you particularly dislike and why?
I have always been against any kind of literary theory that downplays or ignores the visceral basis of creativity. The creative imagination is driven by non-verbal, obsessive compulsions that, in the final analysis, are rooted in biological/genetic phenomena. It is obvious that creativity is value-neutral and independent of any particular form of expression, visual, literary or musical. Therefore, I have no positive interest in the kind of fashionable Post Modernism that locates the main theoretical focus of poetry in the domain of ‘language’. I see this trend and similar academic fashions (Social Constructionism or Reader Response Theory) as part of the regrettable inheritance of Wittgenstein – it is clearly reactionary. For example, the current oxymoronic notion of ‘linguistically innovative’ poetry is based, according to its luminaries, on doctrines of Ethical Criticism, specifically the writings of Levinas and Bakhtin. To begin with this is contradictory in that a truly ‘language-centred’ poetry cannot be based on an ethical framework of any kind. In the second place it is intrinsically reactionary as the writings of Levinas, Bakhtin, and the other gurus, are mainly propaganda for orthodoxy dressed-up in the ‘technical’ Newspeak of academia: ‘defamiliarisation’, ‘plurivocity’, ‘dialogism’ ‘sociolect’. The doublethink is the objectionable aspect – projecting a ‘progressive’ and ‘advanced’ image but working to a regressive, conservative agenda. It’s a question of cultural politics, not literary standards, because any art that is neither entertainment nor therapy is spin and propaganda – welcome to IngSoc! The Language Poets of the 1970s de-valued, even denied, the individual voice in the name of anti-Romanticism and in so doing allied themselves, knowingly or not, with the worst kind of literary Puritanism. I don’t really care if a given example of Language Poetry conforms to someone’s idea of ‘good’ poetry, in the end its only radical chic. I would say the same about the British Poetry Revival in its earlier phases: it was an amateur way of latching on to worthless American trends – Black Mountain, Objectivism, Projective Verse and all that frightful stuff. Actually, it was a publicity stunt to promote a generational revolt against the Georgians and – wassisname? – Larkin. They want to write Modern Epics – they take themselves far too seriously – give me Fiona Pitt-Kethley any day!
To what extent has alchemy influenced your work?
The function of art is the transformation of substance into style.
Tell me a little about your creative process.
The ‘creative process’ is a primitive, bio-psychic phenomenon characterised by the interaction of external stimuli, unconscious drives and the neural-endocrine levels of the biological system (physis). These interactions generate the ‘altered states’ intrinsic to creativity. Cultural factors determine how various features or facets of creativity are defined as ‘artistic’. The main impulse for any creative act takes the form of an obsessive compulsion or drive-demand, often referred to as ‘inspiration’: the production of a given work of art, and its dreamlike characteristics, can be explained from the psychoanalytic perspective. Composer Toru Takemitsu said his work Quotations of a Dream (1991) was ‘fragmental’ and episodic, reflecting the ‘shapes of dreams’. He observed that a work can be vivid in detail but may describe ‘an extremely ambiguous structure when viewed as a whole’. Following both Freud and Takemitsu, I would say that poetic form should resemble that of a dream where, for instance, details may be clearly defined while their disposition is determined by the ‘fortuities’ of a ‘self-propelling narrative’. For me the attraction of collage – and other modes of juxtaposition – derive from conformity with the Freudian ‘dream-work’ and the laws of the unconscious – the two main properties of dream-work being compression and displacement. The law of compression determines the fragmental and condensed format of all my work in any medium. The law of displacement encourages an allusive approach to ‘mood’ or ‘atmosphere’ akin to Mallarme’s adage ‘paint not the thing but the effect it produces’. Displacement of psychic intensities ensures that the least important features of the work are given more prominence than the most significant, leading (with luck) to a somewhat ‘hermetic’ or enigmatic effect…. I must add that chance plays a key role in everything…
If you could go anywhere in reality that somehow was created from your imagination where would it be and what would it be like?
It might be like a neglected pleasure pier on the North Sea coast. During the day there would be howling gales and isolated rainstorms, at night the sea would be like purple glass – the moon would look huge. From the shore would float the distant, scratchy sound of an old 1940s Benny Goodman/Peggy Lee recording of ‘Blues in The Night’.
You have said that Surrealism has been a strong influence in your work.
If you were to exhibit your work in a gallery these days what kind of show do you think you would focus on?
Dark Energy – Dark Energy comprises seventy percent of the universe and provides the repulsive force necessary to power the ever-accelerating expansion of the galaxies. Just as the existence of the unconscious can be inferred from Freudian Slips, so Dark Energy can be detected indirectly from the effects of virtual particles on the orbits of electrons. I like the idea that seventy percent of the universe is ‘dark’, just as seventy percent of the mind is ‘dark’ and seventy percent of human prehistory is ‘dark’. So my exhibition would be based around Three Zones Of Darkness. To the side there might be shrines dedicated to some modern goddesses: Veronica Lake, Caterina Valente, Julie London, Donyale Luna and P J Harvey. I think the décor would look rather like Martin Hibbert’s Burnt Out Hotel. Oh, I might exhibit some collages and drawings as well! At lunchtimes there would be tasteful piano recitals and in the evenings there would be poetry readings – in the dark, obviously…
You say you enjoy the work of Louise Nevelson. I do also. I read a book about her work a while back and I was fascinated by her assemblages made from found objects and painted gold. I just thought I would mention that to you.
Yes! The Tate Gallery has a couple of her things. There was one called Black Wall (1959) and another called An American Tribute To The British People (1960-1964). I thought the Black Wall was fantastically sinister… There are Sky Cathedrals, Royal Games, Rain Gardens and Night Scapes, all very intricate and painted uniformly in either white, black or gold… there are echoes of Nevelson in some of my drawings…
Can we build an assemblage together? I’ll collect a few objects and you put them together how you want. Here we are, some old boxes, feathers, a doll, picture frames, books, string, a glass case, medicine bottles, paper, broken mirror, pieces of rusty engine, glossy magazines, shoes, a mannequin, lots of old china plates and a few cans of spray paint. What do you reckon? I’ll come back in an hour and see what you produced.
OK, I have added an empty window frame and a battered wig-maker’s white polystyrene artificial head called ‘Ultima’ to this assemblage. ‘Ultima’ is an important totem. In the glass case will be several old sepia photos and the diary of a bibliomaniac. The broken mirror must be at the centre of the installation. You can just take a photo and add it here if you wish?
Now I just want to show you the chamber. This is the deepest room in the house way below the ground and the steps are a little creaky. Hope you’re not too tired, it’s quite a way down.
Hope you like my spiral staircase. Here we are at last.
Please step inside. Okay please do sit down. You can use that old gravestone if you wish?
Jane, this is such a friendly way to conduct an interview – thank you, this gravestone is quite comfortable – what does the inscription say? I can’t quite make it out as it is covered in yellow and black lichen. What a gloriously spooky wrought iron spiral staircase that was – I can almost taste the rust.
Could you tell me about the group you formed called The Neo-Surrealist Convulsionist Group?
t is tempting to say we were just a group of alienated teenagers…! We formed the thing around 1968 and it only lasted until around 1971 or 1972. There were about five or six participants based in Chelmsford, Essex. Other places included Colchester, Ipswich and Witham… people used to meet in coffee bars after school – we were all sixth formers doing art or literature, mainly as a way of avoiding sport. The associations continued after everyone left school and tried to get jobs. Some poetry was written and experimental prose cut-up; atonal electronic music was composed and lots of paintings and collages produced. There were occasional expeditions or ‘pilgrimages’ to ‘displaced destinations’ such as the old Hungerford Bridge, the Victoria Embankment Gardens (for the Sullivan Memorial – very ‘convulsive’), The Atlantis Bookshop, or the Dashwood Mausoleum and Hell Fire Caves at West Wycombe. But mainly there was a lot of loafing around, drinking coffee and snogging – or going to see Hammer Horror films and German Expressionist movies at the NFT. There was one exhibition at Hylands House – the exhibition was for all the school leavers but we managed to commandeer a room – as the Convulsionists were the general organisers of the show it was quite easy to get the space! We came up with the term ‘Convulsionism’ after the phrase ‘Beauty will be convulsive…’ (from Breton’s Amour Fou). I felt it implied the ‘visceral’ idea - my ideal work of art was to be a meaningless allegory generated by a kind of neurological spasm or frisson that could be transmitted to the viewer – well, if it gave me a frisson it might give you one as well. One old policy document from my archive says: “CONVULSION IS CONCERNED WITH THE BEAUTY OF PURE IMAGINATION AND FANTASY AND IS VIOLENTLY OPPOSED TO CONTRAPTON IN ANY FORM” (Convulsively Produced Notes On Convulsion, 1968). Earlier, I mentioned some key influences… I should add the Lost Generation to the list – the Francophile ‘Yellow Nineties’ Decadent poets and artists (Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson et al) and, also, the ultra-Symbolist absurdism (as we saw it) of Laforgue and Alfred Jarry – we were quite keen on ‘Pataphysics as I recall… There was some empathy with English Pop Art, so we rather revelled in the Mass Media – Pop Music (The Doors, Brian Auger), Jazz (Indo Jazz Fusions, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis), Science Fiction and ‘cult TV’. It was ironic that the real Surrealists had disbanded themselves in 1966 so we settled for being Neo-Surrealists!
What are you working on at present?
I am continually revising my ‘personal aesthetic’ (which is not a literary ‘poetic’) and have found this has absorbed much of my time in recent months. In our present situation when, for various reasons, free artistic expression is coming under threat as never before, I have been driven to ‘sharpen up’ my thoughts on such issues… On a more practical level I am revising and digitizing some non-fiction from the back-catalogue – various reviews and articles that I feel I have neglected and must revisit. I have an ongoing programme of computerisation that is quite time-consuming – some examples appear on the Tangents website. Publication-wise there are various poems accepted by magazines including Fire. Recent appearances have included ‘Vespula Vanishes’ a poem for Tori Amos (Inclement), ‘Danger (Midnight Street)’ (Pulsar), ‘Beautiful Chaos’ and ‘Dadar Radar’ (Fragments), and another piece called ‘Not The Cloudy Sky’ (Harlequin). Forthcoming, among other items, is a short story ‘Vikki Verso’ from Atlantean Publications who have taken a number of texts and drawings over the last couple of years. A recent collage, called ‘In the Beginning’ is on the cover (designed by Neil Annat) of a new Stride publication – Peter Redgrove’s A Speaker For The Silver Goddess (2006).
Thank you for answering my questions A.C.
And, thank you, Jane, for a fascinating conversation…
I’ll go and get you a glass of wine from the cellar
Be careful how you go – mind all those cobwebs!
I wish you luck and fortune with your work, as Salomon Trismosin once said:
Study what thou art
Whereof thou art a part.
What thou knowest of this Art,
This is really what thou art,
All that is without thee,
Also is within
All best for now.
Interview with Bill Grifffiths by Jane Marsh.
Bill Griffiths - born London 1948, moved north to Seaham in 1990. Taking a first degree in History, he went on to undertake a PhD in Old English at King's College London in the 1980s. Published primarily as a poet, he also writes in the fields of Old English and local history, northern dialect and some fantasy/fiction. He helps edit 'Northern Review' at the University of Northumbria, Newcastle upon Tyne as well as writing and publishing poetry and devising websites. Recent books 'Spilt Cities' (Etruscan Books), 'Durham and other sequences' (Westhouse Books), 'Tyne Txts' (with Tom Pickard, Amra Imprint). Websites: billygriff.co.uk, story-of-seaham.com, pitmatic.co.uk, the-lollipop.co.uk (little press listing). Has campaigned, with Bruce Kent and others, for appeal hearing for long-serving Liverpool prisoner Ray Gilbert (the subject of several of his poems).
Hello Bill. Your poems were first published by Eric Mottram in the Poetry Review. Do you feel that Poetry Review has maintained the same perspective over the years in terms of the kind of poetry it promotes? I confess, I read it rarely due to so many little magazines coming my way but perhaps you could persuade me otherwise.
Back in 1971 or so, Poetry Review was quite prestigious among the ‘properly’ printed and bound poetry quarterlies. The appointment of Mottram as editor was untypical of The Poetry Society (its publisher) but evinced a glimmer of interest in new types of poetry already appearing in print elsewhere (e.g. Fulcrum Press). Mottram set aside the conventional, worthy sort of contributor and gave prominence to younger poets in this country (plus Bunting and MacDiarmid!) and American poets like Duncan, Rukeyser, Zukofsky, Ginsberg, Snyder. As it became clear that not only Poetry Review but The Poetry Society (beginning to style itself The National Poetry Centre) was changing course, there was a growing resentment from the literary establishment, culminating in the Arts Council of Great Britain (which never interferes in its clients’ artistic policy, by the way) vowing to withold its grant unless the elected council of The Poetry Society unelected itself. That would be 1977 or 1978. Their threat worked, and Poetry Review sank back into its unremarkable old ways.
On the relative merits of Poetry Review with Mottram and Poetry Review without Mottram, you can make up your own mind – copies of the 1970s issues should be available in a good library and are still well worth looking at. That the issue still rankles became clear when Sean O’Brien used Poetry Review to publish a review of Keith Tuma’s UK anthology of 2001 and made unkind references to out “Eric Jealous and E.K.Resentment” - widely assumed to mean Eric Mottram and E.K. Brathwaite. Was anyone seriously objecting to the ‘pollution’ of English poetry by American or Caribbean voices? My feeling is that this elite, exclusive version of ‘England’ is a mythical spot somewhere in the South only mentioned when it is necessary to have something to cudgel peasants and provincials with.
Could you tell me a little about Eric Mottram. What kind of a person was he? Did you ever read his poems? If so how did you respond to them? What kind of response did he have to your work? I notice also in your biography that you spent time cataloguing the Mottram archive bequeathed to Kings College. Could you tell me a little about this archive? If I were to go to Kings College and ask about this archive how would you advise me to start my initial research?
Eric was immensely wide-read and immensely industrious. He had not only all the facts (as it seemed) of the 20th century at his disposal, but made contact with every poet he could who showed a bean of inventiveness. His travels included most Far Eastern countries, with (later) India; Switzerland, Holland, Hungary, etc.; and of course the States. He was immensely generous and constructive with his time, and encouraged a great many poets in their writing, as well as helping on many an academic career. At his best, he went to Court to speak up for Bill Butler and Unicorn Bookshop in Brighton in the 1960s when modern poetry as not immune from prosecution, to be publicly branded unfit to teach at a university by the Magistrates who resented his guidance on literary merit.
Mind, decades of campaigning for a more inclusive culture didn’t improve his temper, and I cannot say I felt comfortable in his presence the way I did with Bob Cobbing, exploring the mysteries of the Gestetner Duplicator. An hour or two with Eric was like having your brain pummelled by a master mind-boxer, though in a positive and usually kindly way.
We did not see eye-to-eye on poetry: the essential regard for word-sound I have was just ‘craftmanship’ to him. His style was rather loose and free-line (“spoken words have sufficient rhythm in themselves” he averred), though he developed some interesting dislocations of syntax in later work. He never tried to get me to write like himself, however; there was a tolerance there as well as a lot of self-assuredness.
I might claim to be one of the few people who have read all his poetry (while cataloguing his archive). You could too, but before turning up at King’s have a look at the online catalogue – it takes some reaching via www.kcl.ac.uk - via academic services…archives…personal papers…Mottram…then the little blue link to the catalogue itself. It’s a fascinating introduction to a great character.
I recently spoke to Lawrence Upton and he said that he and Bob Cobbing had worked on a number of pieces together. What was your relationship with these poets and in what direction did you find your work developing while working with them?
Bob, with a blobby duplicator and a fizzy scanner, ran Writers Forum, a little press (and a workshop) with a definite emphasis on sound poetry, visual poetry and performance poetry. Early associates of Bob were Jeff Nuttall, Keith Musgrove, and ‘Group H’ (for Hendon, Middlesex). Lawrence and I met him at the time WF and The Poetry Society coincided in the 1970s. Most of my publishing in the 1970s (and a fair bit in the 1980s and ‘90s) was done in collaboration with WF – we shared the work, the costs and the final copies. These were poems of mine, but Bob contributed the machinery of printing which was still rare in those far-off days. In other words, he was willing to open his home and facilities to almost anyone with an interesting idea to translate into print. In particular I learnt the importance of unity of content with technique – a unity that extended to format, printing medium, booklet design and – ultimately – performance.
Bob’s workshop was a great means of making new contacts and expanding verbal horizons – there was Lawrence of course, but also Clive Fencott, Sean O Huigin, cris cheek, Peter Mayer, Jeremy Adler, an occasional Dom Sylvester Houèdard ruffling the hair of a young Alaric Sumner, plus Betty Radin with her visual fables… Geraldine Monk and Maggie O’Sullivan were soon to feature as WF authors, but not quite that early on.
What instigated your ambition to study Old English at Kings College London?
In what way did Old English influence your work?
After The Poetry Society debacle, I manage to survive for some time on a few prestigious performances with Bob Cobbing and Paula Claire (as Konkrete Canticle), but increasingly found myself needed to look after my aging parents – not an onerous task, but one that seemed ideal combined with part-time study. About 1974 I had been introduced to Old Welsh by Peter Finch; the side-step to the great literature of Old English was unavoidable. Part-time MA courses were then remarkably good bargains (late 1980s), and I did well enough at that to proceed to a PhD.
Old English has an alliterative pattern to the line; it has certainly boosted my awareness of alliteration; but the rhythm of the line is relatively free (did G. M. Hopkins’ draw his ‘sprung-line’ rhythm from OE rather than Old Greek or Old Welsh?) I like that rhythmic indeterminacy; I think old literatures and languages are an important route to innovation in current culture – think of the impact of Jerry Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred.
The idea of place and dialect I have noticed interests you. Could you expand a little on why this interests you?
Dialect is a descent of Middle English. Place is somewhere to live, an important consideration for every nomadic soul. In the 1980s I was able to secure a houseboat near Uxbridge on the Grand Union, but when the moorings went up from £200 p.a. to £1000 p.a., I retired with good grace to Seaham in Co.Durham (4 hours by train from Liverpool). Having always admired the North-East – its cities and coast, its sense of community, its dark humour (and its Anglo-Saxon speech). The community has taken a battering in the 1990s, but still compares well with the daily warfare of London.
I am fascinated by the fact that you can translate and write in old English.
Could you tell me a little on how old English sounds compared to how it is written?
It sounds odd to the modern ear. ‘g’ was often ‘y’ (giese is our yes), c was often ch (cyrice is our church), sc was always sh (sceotan is our shoot), cg was always dg (brycg is our bridge). The vocabulary was both similar and contained many extra unfamiliar words that were jettisoned in the later Middle Ages in favour of French- and Latin-based introductions. Try my website www.billygriff.co.uk… go to Old English… to ‘Cuthbert and the seals’ for a text and a sound file.
What is your favourite old English text?
Can you translate this?
Jane Marsh is nothing but a figment of Alice’s imagination.
Jane Mersc is nawuht ac swefn Alice modes.
(Where swefn is ‘dream or invention’ and mod is the root of our word ‘mood’ but then meant the stronger qualities of the mind. Neither Jane nor Alice are OE names by the way, unlike Hilda or Edith.)
I have heard you were once a Hell’s Angel. Could you tell me a little about this episode in your life?
Do you feel it affected your writing? If so, in what way?
A belting twinge in one shoulder muscle where I once catapulted over the handlebars of a bike is one lasting effect. It is strange, looking back, how big and grand outlaws in their early 20s seemed to me as a teenager; now I think of 20-year-olds as mere bairns, no more dangerous than a playground slide.
Culturally speaking, it convinced me I was not cut out to be a hero; so that I paused and thought about what I could really hope to do well at or be useful in (which was poetry); it gave me an underlying sense of the nothing behind our society, which is a resource of a kind; and an enduring respect for relationships of equality.
Of course a decent bike now costs over £10,000 (as against £30 for my Royal Enfield in 1966), so it isn’t really an option as a career any more.
You recently attended one of Alice’s poetry readings in Liverpool. In what way did you feel it was successful and what ways was it unsuccessful. What would you have done differently?
I would have given the reader his or her own bottle of wine approx. 50 minutes before they were due on. Before even that, shift the coffins to one side and put up a few balloons and some bunting. (I mean, the room is imposing, but you have to fight against it somewhat.)
You have been campaigning for a long time for the release of the Liverpool prisoner Ray Gilbert. Could you tell me a little as to what instigated your campaign? Are you and Ray still in touch?
I was wondering through Durham Market Place one morning with well-known poetry figure Nicholas Johnson when I came on a stall manned by the bright sparks of the North-East ABC. Not thinking my guest was likely to want to stop and chat with them, I took some leaflets instead, one of which was an appeal on behalf of Ray Gilbert, then in Durham Jail. I visited him twice there before he was moved away and was impressed by his resilience and commonsense in an environment a degree hotter than Hell. His claim to innocence is not easily summarised: there is a website
www.ray-gilbert.co.uk, with notes on his case by Bruce Kent, if you want more.
Finally, could you tell me what you are presently working on in terms of your poetry and any forthcoming publications you have coming out.
Currently completing a book on the Northern Sinfonia (Newcastle’s orchestra) and a dictionary of North-East dialect past and present. Both due out from Northumbria University. A selected poems is being finalised with SALT (look out for this in 2005). There is a good batch of longer poems meriting reprinting. Online, www.opalcoast.co.uk has recently been completed, and work started on www.ochrecoast.co.uk (collaborative ventures of verse, prose, visual, sound). After that, some new poetic adventure will surely turn up…'The Mud Fort' from Salt Publishing, 2004: Basically it's shorter poems 1984-2004, selected and collected together.
Thank you very much for your time, Bill.
Neon Highway issue 19
(This will be published in January 2011, later than expected, prior to Spring issue.
Apologies for this late issue due to unforeseen circumstances)
However, just to update you, issue 19 will be published shortly.
(This will be published in January 2011, later than expected, prior to Spring issue.
Apologies for this late issue due to unforeseen circumstances)
However, just to update you, issue 19 will be published shortly.