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Maintenant #107 – Robert Sheppard

An interview with Robert Sheppard by SJ Fowler.

3:AM: I’m going to start with a selfish question! When I started writing poetry I sought out poets and writers whom I felt had somehow perhaps walked a path I might walk, who might shed some light on what it would be like to spend most of my adult life writing complex literature, with all that brings, or doesn’t bring, in England, specifically. My friendships with writers like Tom Raworth, Iain Sinclair, Anselm Hollo, if I can claim them friendships, began in this pursuit. So the first set of questions are about your life writing, following the bio you have on your site, which I found inspiring.

You’ve been writing pretty consistently since the late 70s, you know something about motivation. Do you have a distinct relationship with why you write, or have written?

Robert Sheppard: I have an indistinct relationship with a necessity to write that I cannot place in terms of origin (some early predisposition towards language or rhythm perhaps, though I can’t prove that either). My friend and collaborator, the painter Pete Clarke, was a runner-up for the John Moores Prize, and the Walker video-interviewed all the winning artists. They were asked why they painted and, whereas all the younger painters gave answers in terms of form or in terms of content, Pete said, rather disarmingly, ‘Because I’m no good at anything else!’ While I don’t think I’d actually answer that, there is a truth there, relating to continued artistic practice. I am given to making things out of language, sound, visual disposition, and to performing them as an event on page or on a (often metaphorical) stage. I can give an answer that is about all the things that I think writing can do, but that wouldn’t answer your fundamental question, which has touched the exposed nerve of a mystery.

3:AM: I find this interesting, because I’m not sure I’ve developed a similar sense. I write a lot, as I believe you do, but I can’t feel this sense of urge. I’m just doing it, often. This sense of being given to it, has this ebbed and flowed through the years? Has it been constant? Have you had a relationship to it too, or just taken it as is? Ie have you tried to up the ebb at times?

RS: I’ve been re-reading my diaries (a lockdown activity, I’m sure) and it is clear that the ‘urge’, in your word, has waxed and waned, that there have been moments of wanting to chuck it all in, of ‘fatigue and disgust’ (I think I called it at one point), but they were few and far between – and in the past. I don’t completely rule out a Patrick Kavanagh moment; as he put it, he ‘innocently dabbles in words and rhymes and finds it is his life’ for decades on end, and then suddenly loses ‘his messianic compulsion. I sat on the bank of the Grand Canal … My purpose in life was to have no purpose.’ But the diaries also show me I wasn’t completely fortified by inner strength alone. A series of unofficial conversations at UEA, with tutors Helen McNeil, Victor Sage and Lorna Sage in my final year, 1977, taught me to self-identify as a writer, and to engage in constant activity. People in the poetry world, Lee Harwood or Bob Cobbing, kind of assumed that already, I think. ‘Upping the ebb’ sounds dangerous. With the ‘English Strain’ series of poems I am writing at the moment, I know that it’s a mistake to write one too soon after the last: it blocks the flow.

3:AM: Do you think your work has been overlooked or appreciated? This is relative, but it’s interesting to ask if it’s not rude to.

RS: With the publication of The Sheppard Companion, edited by James Byrne and Christopher Madden, in 2019, it was difficult not to feel appreciated. All eyes were upon the work. And yet, how do most writers habitually feel? As Alan Halsey writes in Winterreisen:

The poets shuffle out, bloody-eyed,
back to their caves in the anthologies
half a mile north of Neglect,
watched by Eng. Lit. lads on CCTV.

It’s a professional hazard from which I’m trying to disengage. The shady caves of an anthology or two or the surveillance of critics doesn’t seem to assuage the effects of internal exile, even from Neglect! When I started out, I expected the road to be difficult. Coming to non-mainstream poetry at roughly the point where the 1960s had ended (or was ending, that is, the mid-70s), I recognised that exclusion from mainstream culture was absolute. I prepared myself for this, with expectations of penury, and with a haughty disregard of that mainstream, which seemed irrelevant in all sorts of ways, anti-modernist, and actively belligerent to the poetry I thought the most vital. I’m talking about before I thought to engage, via literary criticism, with that orthodoxy. I found an extraordinary passage in my diary where I stated, in my early twenties, that ‘success’ had to be about the success of the writing, not about my position as a writer. (I probably got that from Lee Harwood, who was very purist in that way, an antidote to the professionalism of the UEA Creative Writing MA.)

And yet, do I wish that more people had read my book of prose, Unfinish, published by Veer? Do I wish I had more invitations to talk and read? Do I resent not being mentioned at all in (some) guides to contemporary poetry? Yes, of course. Does it matter? A bit, yes, because those things keep you going. But I try never to brood, like one of those figures out of Blake, consuming his self-pity in shameful isolation in Alan Halsey’s cave! The other thing I learnt from the scene of the mid-70s was that you got it together and did it yourself, through the provisional institutions of little magazines, small presses and pub-room reading series.

3:AM: This chimes with something I’ve only been saying the last few years, that I expected it. I expected to not be in certain spaces. But you knew this from your early twenties. Without being churlish, it’s enormous wisdom. Do you think one has to discipline oneself to focus on the process of writing over all else actively? I ask this because I know so many who have given up, or write quietly, and don’t try to get their work published after their initial spate of works coming out.

RS: You probably have to discipline yourself to focus on the process of writing ‘over all else’, but you don’t have to focus upon that ‘over all else’, and it doesn’t have to be (can’t be, if you want to pay the rent or have friends or family) ‘over all else’. That’s one reason for people’s quietism or giving up, I think. (I’ve had students who’ve said, ‘I enjoyed the course, but I know now I can never be dedicated enough to be a writer’, or, more poignantly, ‘These two,’ pointing to his young children, ‘These two need a dad!’) But if you are promised, or promise yourself, a career path that involves literati celebrity and fame (or, it’s worth saying, if you promise yourself posthumous celebration alone, bundling up manuscripts for futurity), it sure isn’t going to work out well! I suppose that means the work must be its own reward, whether it’s recognised or not. And you must ‘have a life’, the human covenant demands as much.

3:AM: Could you tell me more about Unfinish? Veer have an extraordinary list, perhaps one of the most underappreciated (not to make this a theme). What is your experience with the press?

RS: I’ve long admired Veer, because they publish excellent experimental work with little regard to its saleability, though not perversely so. My involvement with the press is twofold. I have been one of its authors in my own right, and Unfinish is my 2015 book of prose from Veer. There’s been a lot of critical attention to the ill-defined genre of prose-poetry in the last few years, and Unfinish is an example of writing in prose by a poet that exceeds that term, closer to Stephen Fredman’s useful but clumsy, and strangely dissatisfying, category ‘poets’ prose’. There are a couple of pieces that display narrative structures close to that of the ‘short story’, even a ‘novel’, telling the history of the USSR in compressed form, but most of the pieces – whether my political ‘letter’ to Sean Bonney, or my poetics of geography in ‘Unadopted Space’ – elude genre, and that was formally the point of the book, though you can also elicit themes from this explanation of these examples. I like it a lot, it’s quite various, but it’s not been much noticed. I wonder whether potential readers tell themselves, ‘Oh, it’s only his prose’, thinking such work the product of my left hand, whereas I don’t make the distinction.

Secondly, I hover around the Veer project of keeping Bob Cobbing and Writers Forum in print. I was honoured to be asked to write an introduction to Bob’s ABC in Sound and I was pleased to find new facts about the text’s evolution (and the rôle of legendary Delia Derbyshire in the radio treatment of his text). A facsimile re-packaging of the two collaborations I conducted with Bob, Codes and Diodes and Blatent Blather/Virulent Whoops, together with a contextualising essay, is just out from Veer.

3:AM: How do you perceive your own body of work, its content and size, 41 years after you first published with Writers Forum?

RS: Having to assemble both Complete Twentieth Century Blues in 2008, where I had to put everything in, and History or Sleep: Selected Poems in 2015, where I had to leave poems out, I gained a practical perspective on that work, but not a theoretical view of its integrity. I mean, I’m not sure how (or why) it should hang together. From the outside, critics (particularly those in the Robert Sheppard Companion) probably can form a gestalt, frame a sentence or two that sums up my oeuvre. From the inside, it’s harder to see; it’s a baggy, misshapen mass, not an arrow-thin progressive trajectory. One minute, a poem can look vital; the next, it’s dead language. Revision doesn’t help: I’m currently reading Wordsworth and his lifetime of fiddling didn’t achieve much (yet neither does simply opining that one’s ‘original’ text is the authoritative one). That’s where poetics comes in, as a speculative discourse to keep you going, which interests me more than looking back, though I do look back, surprised at what I’ve found. History or Sleep opens with a poem, ‘Round Midnight’ which I suppressed (lost, really, in honesty). I think I felt I was ventriloquising Roy Fisher, and it didn’t help the poem was about jazz piano. But now, it looks like a successful but limited poem, influenced by Fisher, and how’s that a bad thing in a young writer in the early eighties?

3:AM: This process of selection, and ordering, is rarely discussed (well with poets around me, anyway). It’s an intense process for any collection, it feels quite vital, and then, I’ve found, you look back and that order shapes your own reading of your book, let alone the reader. Did you find this particularly so for your Selected Poems?

RS: Two different issues here: selection and arrangement. In History or Sleep I decided I wanted to amass a range of my poetry, in terms of date and style, and to avoid long excerpts, while allowing myself in one instance (the title poem) to include a long poem. (Other longer pieces had to go, therefore.) At the time, I described all this in some detail on my blog. I wrote: ‘I wasn’t afraid to excerpt from longer sequences to increase representation.’ I’d made lists for a long time before the book was required. I compared intuitive lists against considered lists. I allowed the page limit set by Shearsman to shave off a few titles after typesetting. I think I got it largely right, though I regretted losing some of the de-selected poems (and posted them on my blog as appendices). I’m not sure I had time to think about the effect on the reader, other than not wanting long stretches of the same. I left out loads from Twentieth Century Blues, because it was still in print from Salt. It still is, and in some ways I think of that as a ‘Collected Poems Volume One’. Like the Germanic tribes, who made decisions twice, once drunk, the other sober, I think some dialectic of the intuitive and the deliberative is the best method.

In both of these books, arrangement was not a problem. Simple chronology dictated their basic order. Same with Warrant Error, tracing the war on terror. (More recently, my three book ‘English Strain’ project is also happily chronological.) But Berlin Bursts, much more a miscellany, did prove problematic. I tried ordering poems as I wrote them, but that isn’t satisfactory. Laying them out across the floor helps, but isn’t definitive. The dialectic of intuitive and deliberative is important here too – it does help. In the end, it’s a matter of feel, and more like ordering musical tracks with moods and contrasts. Not that that is any easier: Carole King spent three months simply ordering the tracks she’d recorded for Tapestry!

3:AM: Could you tell me more about Twentieth Century Blues?

RS: The reason its arrangement was ‘chronological’ also tells you half the story of its structure; it was ordered in parts, seventy-five in the end, written as a time-based piece between December 1989 and 2000, as a way of wrapping up the century I definitely felt wrapped up in. It contains everything I wrote during that time, and most writings were also arranged in multiple strands, so the work is actually a network, and Los Glasier, for one, has recognised the pseudo-hyperlinked nature of its organisation (before the internet took off). It forms what I call ‘(k)not-net-work(s)’, and it appeared as many small pamphlets. I never dreamt of there being a 400 page book of the whole. (Before print-on-demand, such a book was unthinkable for small presses.) The parts are mostly chronological, but the strands aren’t: they double back on themselves and fizzle out on occasions! The dated ‘Empty Diary’ poems, 1901-2000, run through it as a sort of spine. Its index was one of its parts! This structuring (or numbering) was designed to be used by readers to become immersed, even lost, in the text, so arrangement here was fundamental to the reading process, as you suspect. I’m aware that such a quick description (which is also purely formal in the blandest sense) doesn’t indicate any poetic focus (a term I squeamishly use to avoid the equal blandness of ‘subject matter’). The work collected everything I wanted to say from that period of time, and it is true that the horrors of the twentieth century are unavoidable as theme, of ‘linking the unlinkable’ to the Holocaust, in Lyotard’s words. It was a work that generated its own poetics as it went along, much influenced by Allen Fisher’s two major sequences (and with Zukofsky in the background). It was a ‘long poem’ that refused to hold together, to behave like a ‘long poem’, as that was generally thought of, so much so that Andrew Duncan called it something like ‘unsuccessful and overheated, loud and repetitive,’ to use words I wickedly attribute to my avatar Michael Drayton in Bad Idea! I love the notion of being ‘overheated’, and I take it that some readers like it hot!

3:AM:Wordsworth appears often on your blog, which is brilliant and frequent. To someone like me, he isn’t the first poet I’d associate with the timbre of your work. Has he always been there in your reading / writing?

RS: Not at all! You’ve parachuted into the documented development of my ‘English Strain’ project, at just the point Wordsworth shows up. I’ve been temporarily posting the draft of each new ‘strain’, leaving only the posts that summarise each stage (without the poems). This project finds me writing, and more or less completing, each new poem in a single day (rather than my more characteristic collagic processes, amassing material, though I do often complete such works in an ‘overheated’ act-event of assembly). My posting the poem (now with a video of me reading it) has become ritualised. I’m near the end now.
Wordsworth is one of the Romantic poets of whose sonnets I have been writing ‘transpositions’, ‘unthreadings’, ‘overdubs’ – I have a variety of terms for this versioning. This unfinished book, the third, will be called British Standards, and other poets treated include Shelley, Mary Robinson, Keats, John Clare, and Hartley Coleridge. Formally, the books show what can be done with the ghost of sonnet form; in terms of content, they deal with Brexit and Coronavirus – and indeed how the two are enwrapped. I don’t mean as two parallel examples of government mismanagement: the emphasis upon bonging gongs for Brexit and awarding gongs to cronies, blinded them to the approaching Covid cloud in early 2021. The Wordsworth versions take the brunt of that, and his patriotic sonnets of 1802-3 are just the vessels. His call to the men of Kent to defend Britain didn’t really need changing, although the running theme of Kentish dogging sites (the new national sport) needed to be furthered! The poems are satirical and overheated, funny and scathing (I hope) – but at heart they form a homage to the poems treated. They may not look like it, but they are as formally investigative as my more distanciated poems. However much I’ve (mis)treated their poems, I revere all these writers (and Robinson and Coleridge Jnr. were previously unknown to me, and Clare was misrepresented by my canonical reading).
There are two ways of looking at the project: the caperings of Bo and Go and other clowns across the post-Brexit dogging site that newly independent ‘Bressex’ has become, and the subtler story of the English strain of the sonnet form. I hope I will send readers back or away to the ‘originals’. Part of my poems’ meaning has to lie in intersectional reading between one of Wordsworth’s sonnets, say, and mine. That’s one role of the reader here, although general knowledge of transposition will be enough to see what’s going on. I’m not dismissing tradition; I’m invoking it. It’s the same with book two, Bad Idea, though there I stick to Shakespeare’s contemporary Michael Drayton, a fine sonneteer. Book one is called The English Strain: the project begins with Petrarch, picking up the ‘Brexit’ theme in a number of sonnets of my own, until Milton, Wyatt, Surrey, Charlotte Smith and Elizabeth Barratt Browning, provide the frames for me to hang my boots on. The English Strain is published by Shearsman; Bad Idea is published by Knives Forks and Spoons. I’ve spent almost as long on this project as on Twentieth Century Blues.

3:AM: Are there other poets you see as shadows or constant presences around you?

RS: All of the above are shadows, but not constant presences. In fact, each is rather summarily dismissed, once I’ve finished with him or her: all the research books on John Keats taken back to the shelves in the front room! Perhaps that’s why the life mask of Keats fell from the wall and shattered!

I feel the constant presence of Lee Harwood at the moment, because Kelvin Corcoran and I are preparing a New Collected Poems. I talked earlier about arrangement and chronology and we find ourselves putting back into the mix poems Lee had deliberately taken out. I can hear him groaning, although we are only returning to print work he had published in book form. It’s not a Complete Poems, and we are not proposing to plummet the depths of his British Library archive. I couldn’t look through that; we were friends.

3:AM:How do you see the way British poetry has changed in the four plus decades you’ve been active, and to perhaps narrow this ridiculously grand question, do you think there was and continues to be a stylistic binary between what we might call linguistically sensitive / innovative and anecdotal (or traditional? sentimental? emotive? expressive? not sure what word to use?)?

In fact what do you make of that general division and the notion of it? Is it real? How do you conceive of the obvious difference between the communities that emerge from say a set of six or seven ‘mainstream’ presses who get Guardian reviews and prizes, and the dozens of other presses, reading series, who don’t, obviously because the work is more challenging to the lay reader?

RS: I’m going to answer these two questions together, as swiftly and skeletally as I can, without reference to individuals or groups. Otherwise I would be writing a critical book, and I have three already that implicitly and partly answer these questions. Firstly, I don’t buy being told that the mainstream/avant-garde division has broken down. I think that, while the divisions are porous, there is a distinction to be made between writing which cherishes radical artifice, difficulty as a pleasurable investigation of contemporary realities, and another that favours incremental modulations of the narrative and anecdotal models that preceded it, historically. I think that one thing that has happened, to take an emblematic example, is that, as part of the general primacy of the visual in contemporary communicative culture, some mainstream writers have embraced the mechanical possibilities of visual or projectivist verse and present otherwise quite traditional lyric poems in spaced-out visual forms. In general terms, there is a kind of cherry-picking of avant-gardist surface features, which is actually quite confusing. But the mainstream’s reliance upon traditional poetry forms has diminished in this period (which is probably why many of us feel free to write what we think of as ‘sonnets’ at last.)
That primacy of the visual is one important change in sensibility. It is odd, and charming, to see Cobbing-esque visual poetry restored to our walls, although the danger is that such work is no longer confrontational (in the way it was) but decorative. This may be a result of the internet finally existing as its appropriate and comfortable medium (as Kenneth Goldsmith suggests), though I also think that the internet (despite the obvious convenience of everything being available, though not necessarily unearthed, de-archived) has had less of an effect on poetry than one might think, except where poems are produced cybernetically (although I associate ‘cyberpoetics’ with past developments, around 2000). There has been a backlash, akin to the fashion for vinyl in music, in the resurgence and resilience of the pamphlet, and the continued primacy of The Book (e-readers notwithstanding). The re-appearance of typewriter poems (quite a healthy sub-genre in the 1960s) is emblematic of all of these points.
There is a now a massive academic critical industry around innovative work. I can remember when there were only a handful of books vaguely mentioning the important figures of the British Poetry Revival, and my own (quite unique) PhD from the early 1980s only became the basis for a book in 2005. There is the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry that Scott Thurston and I founded. There is also a huge parallel Creative Writing industry that I was also part of: it surprised me that we were able to teach innovative practice so successfully from about 1996 onwards, in tandem with the developments in Performance Writing. Of course, there is a downside to that, since those developments rely upon the academy, which has ironically become more restricted organisationally at the same time as opening out creatively. This doesn’t mean there weren’t academics involved with poetry in the 1970s, or that poets weren’t performing (they were), but the academics were often specialists in something else (so they weren’t ‘academics’ when they appeared at pub room poetry readings, and derived no authority from that). Performing was not theorised, as it has been recently; you just did it. The negative side of the growth of Creative Writing is the weird professionalism displayed by some younger writers (of both mainstream and avant-garde persuasions it seems). We who teach are responsible for that, playing into employability agendas too enthusiastically. The appearance of quite a lot of work that looks like classroom exercises gone feral (Oulipo arrived at the right time for that) is perhaps something to be regretted. Or, if you are one of those poets, to be guarded against.
The big change in the innovative scene (perhaps helped by some of the things above) is the presence of women: in writing, publishing, editing, criticism and reading organising. I don’t know why so few women were interested in experimental forms in the 1970s, but perhaps overt and covert sexism within the scene (pub rooms were not neutral spaces) and the inviting pull of women’s consciousness poetry outside of it, explains a bit. Arguments now are around race, and it will be interesting to see how they develop. I don’t think it’s parallel with gender.

3:AM: What was the effect of the Writers Forum on your work? Do you think there is a sense of Bob Cobbing having a legacy matching his influence then? Could you describe your early experiences with the WF? How did you hear of it? How long did you attend, how many meetings did you think you made?

RS: The uniqueness of Bob Cobbing lies in his combination of activities, and this is increasingly being recognised. He was one of the only concrete poets to unite visual poetry and sound poetry in one practice. That led him also, on one hand, towards publishing, with the press, Writers Forum, and towards performing, resulting in reading series and events. These were then combined, bookfairs and readings, for example, workshops and performances (by himself and others, and with others). He was also a poetry organiser, of groupings like the Association of Little Presses and the poets trade union, Poets Conference, and later cooperative gatherings, such as the New River Project. This meant that anybody who was in any way active in the alternative poetries (and beyond) came into contact with him, at the level of, say, artistic collaborator or, say, for help in printing your poems (he ran the print room at the Poetry Society). Bob was the go-to man for aesthetic and practical information, and he encouraged that DIY mentality I mentioned earlier.
I went to him for information in 1973 (yesterday I came across the printout of Lee Harwood’s poems he gave me that day!) and thus began an intermittent relationship with him that lasted until his death in 2002. I both collaborated with him on text poetry and wrote about him critically (in The Poetry of Saying and in When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry). He is fixed into several histories, therefore, but I feel his biggest legacy will be his own text and sound work: it already is. I’ve written about The Writers Forum workshop in Far Language where I describe the sheer range of the work tested out in semi-public, if you like; we weren’t all concrete poets. ‘The school of Cobbing has no students,’ as fellow attendee Adrian Clarke says somewhere. We (Patricia and Stephen and I) attended during the mid-1990s. When we moved from London, Bob printed a special farewell pamphlet to us all.

3:AM:For a great deal of time, your work in and about London was a significant entry in a golden generation of ‘London’ poets, with Sinclair, Fisher et al. It seems that milieu has had a real legacy, do you have a distinct sense of your own work being about London for a time? Do you think the city, specifically, did something to your poetry? Are there poets from those decades you think are unfortunately forgotten or not properly remembered?

RS: I was reading Fisher and Sinclair, in parallel as it were, before I moved to London. London meant Cobbing, too. Ken Edwards’ and Robert Hampson’s edited collection Clasp: late modernist poetry in London in the 1970s – despite its title – gives a multi-authored account of events into the 1980s, when I was there (Ken’s splendid recent novel Wild Metrics tunnels back into the 1970s). The London poetry scene was vibrant: one certainly learned to read and perform, with so many opportunities to witness and participate. It also had its own supportive gravitational field, so that activities within the incomplete M25 orbital didn’t escape beyond it (something that is only obvious once one is outside it, living in Norwich or Manchester as I had been, or Liverpool after). I call it ‘the colony at the heart of the Empire’. The British Poetry Revival wasn’t very visible. Adrian Clarke and I attempted to gather a new grouping (with Bob and Allen Fisher as éminences grises) in our anthology Floating Capital in 1991. If anybody’s not considered enough from that group, I would say it is Adrian himself, with Ulli Freer coming in close second. Somebody is currently working on Carlyle Reedy: that’s good to see. By the 1990s we were starting to use the term ‘linguistically innovative’ (God help us!) to describe what we thought was different in emerging work. Of course, I’ve forgotten the people who are forgotten – that’s the problem.
As to London itself as a place. There’s nowhere else like it: the sheer impact of dazzling contrasts and continuities. You read Hazlitt and his streets and buildings are still there; Blake’s London is there somewhere. The Defoe Chapel is still there above or behind the shoe shop in Tooting. The city’s an instant palimpsest. Yesterday is history too – that man in the Ian Breakwell film is there every day, and then suddenly he’s not – as the city constantly re-develops itself. A tube ride is a perceptual and conceptual collage. Letter from the Blackstock Road is a loco-descriptive poem that won’t stay in one place (not even in London, but it could only have started from there). I can’t imagine writing The Lores anywhere else, where I imagined the ideal politics of our time as being like the negotiation of multi-kulti people criss-crossing in a London crowd. I know this seems to ignore class and poverty (including our own relative poverty) and the predatory tricks of capital to impose innovation on our consciousness, but it’s the way I saw it, aided by all that post-modernist theory that you could stock up on in the basement of Compendium Books.

3:AM: What are your thoughts about the British poetry revival now, as a term and a movement? What is its effect on British poetry do you think?

RS: The term is an atrocious one: ‘revival’? It’s strategically impertinent to suggest that the poets of the 1950s … oh, you don’t want me to rehearse all that again, do you? It never was a ‘movement’. Jeff Nuttall’s now republished Bomb Culture proves that, but it nevertheless involved the movement of ideas, aesthetic and otherwise, that aren’t to be forgotten. I still believe that histories of British poetry will one day routinely recognise this vitality, against tired accounts in which the ‘underground’ 1960s offered nothing but the Liverpool poets and the Beats (this is not to disparage them, since at the time they were part of the ‘Revival’), and easy, oft-repeated, narratives in which ‘nothing happened’ during the 1970s. Detailed readings of this work will become more visible, credible, and won’t have to plead exceptionalism. We’re not quite there yet.

3:AM: I’ve always, bar my first few years at Birkbeck, been outside of any of the critical seminars, conferences, books and conversations which frame the past in British poetry and create terms like British Poetry Revival, so my ignorance shows in that last question somewhat! But it is a term that gets thrown around, so your response is fascinating because I have no idea what the that is! Maybe best I don’t. Do you think there is a succinct way of summarising the more innovative poetry of the time for those who arrive to it now, at say 20 years of age, knowing nothing?

RS: My exasperation was probably caused by the times the term is used (by me, included!). An off-day; I apologise! But it is good to see you historicising the term. Since I answered your last question, I think the day has almost arrived. I’m currently reading my contributors’ copy of CONTEMPORARY BRITISH AND IRISH POETRY, 1960 – 2015, edited by Wolfgang Görtschacher and David Malcolm, in which I have an article on ‘The British Poetry Revival’ and Scott Thurston has one on ‘Linguistically Innovative Poetry’. In addition to that specific coverage, there are a number of generous readings that willingly discuss ‘mainstream’ and ‘alternative’ positions, that make other ‘survey’ essays, which narrowly cover Heaney-Hughes-Plath-Larkin as though they are representative of 1960-2015 in toto, seem weirdly limited. (An essay on the long poem that doesn’t mention Allen or Roy Fisher?) It is now near-impossible to suggest that there is a small set of outliers not worth considering, which is what one might have read, if you were ‘lucky’, in earlier decades, as I say above. What lies outside that mainstream is not one unified thing, is perhaps not capable of being summarised for our fictional 20 year old. Let her watch a load of Enemies videos, or read this book. I hope this interview will help, parts of it. There is no quick fix. A summary won’t buzz. But engagement with individual works across the decades, by Tom Raworth, Maggie O’Sullivan, Tom Jenks, Sarah Crewe, Rhys Trimble, and Amy McAuley, for example, might.

3:AM: What do you draw now, looking back on your time teaching, being a Professor at Edge Hill, on the effect sharing poetry had on your own work? It’s a question in some ways, but I find enormous growth in just having to enter a process I consider ‘justification’, and repetition too. What was the environment like at Edge Hill?

RS: I’d be interested to know what you mean by ‘justification’. I’ll attempt, though, to answer your first question directly and specifically. The effect of literally ‘sharing poetry’ (which began full time for me in FE teaching English in Surrey, and ended in HE teaching Creative Writing in Lancashire) is that it makes the poetry more real, it makes one’s responses to it real too, particularly as they change, in relation to teaching it (often with repeat performances that are not simple reiterations), augmented by students’ own changing views. There was one odd result of switching from English to Creative Writing. In the former – this happens a lot – teaching is learning, because it involves the close reading of poetry. In Creative Writing, as a tutor, you learn less; in a workshop situation, you have to give more: your examples, your exercises, your responses to student work, your smile. There’s, oddly, less sharing. English academics can often test out their critical hypotheses in class; Creative Writing tutors do not directly progress their own work (even in ‘workshop’ situations: the students are either reticent or openly resentful of one using ‘their’ time). That makes it draining rather than sharing, though it can be more fun than unpeeling the onion of a literary metaphor in Donne. I’ve still enjoyed it. I would sometimes think: ‘It’s amazing: they are paying me to teach Metaphysical poetry or to get students to experiment with listening and sound!’ What’s not to like?
My major pedagogic stain on the profession, my mark, was the development of poetics as an anticipatory, writerly discourse. I’m passionate about that as a way of freeing student writers from being students, from workshop dependency (‘give me a writing prompt!’) – to get them to ‘place’ themselves, to chart out a provisional route (even if that is only going to last the length of the programme). I wish I’d achieved more there, with the profession at large.
Looking back, I always felt most at home in the classroom, because I knew exactly what I was going to do any given hour, it was meticulously planned (I’m a trained teacher), but there were too many hours teaching in each week. Outside the classroom, I often had trouble knowing what the institution wanted of me. The closer one stayed to our section, with some great colleagues, the clearer the vision felt. The admin load was heavy, the research support erratic, sometimes generous, though there was no sabbatical system. I ran the MA for over 20 years (possibly a record) and I regret having not innovated more at this level. But it was difficult to juggle teaching, admin, supervision of PhDs with research, which meant writing both poetry and critical essays and books. I don’t quite know how I did it. There was an heroic period at Edge Hill, as it emerged as a university, validating its own degrees, when research was supported, and my professorship was conferred, but subsequently it became less liberal – academics are a spineless lot, and there was little resistance. (I’ve been impressed by recent militancy, though, particularly from precariously employed staff.)

3:AM: Your influence seems to have been felt in presses too, I can remember Alec Newman of Knives Forks and Spoons saying that your work had been enormous in starting his publishing activities. It seems to me, for me anyway, the last ten years have been a golden time for independent innovative poetry presses. Do you think it’s the case?

RS: I think I was the first poet Alec saw read, when Scott Thurston invited me to Salford, but I have more reason to thank him, given his support of my work, and of poets from Edge Hill staff and students, as it happens: James Byrne, Patricia Farrell, Scott Thurston, Daniele Pantano, Michael Egan, Simon Rennie, Cliff Yates, Andrew Taylor, Tom Jenks, Joanne Ashcroft, Matt Fallaize, Debbie Walsh, Lindsey Holland and Penny Sharman. (I found more names than I’d imagined!) I agree it’s been a good time for presses, less so for magazines, I think.

3:AM: I’d like to ask you about the anthology Atlantic Drift, edited with James Byrne. How did it come about and what are your thoughts on it now?

RS: I’ve spoken of the intermittent generosity of Edge Hill, and the existence of the Edge Hill University Press is the result of one of these gestures. They funded launches in Edinburgh and London (and one in the States). There have been several books so far, one of which was our anthology. As you know, James is a born editor with an internationalist vision: he proposed the idea of an anthology of current British archipelago and North American poetry. I may have come up with the idea of combining that with poetics, I can’t remember. Part of my editorial is perhaps my clearest definition of poetics as a discourse. The book is beautifully designed, thanks to our partnership with Arc publishers. The launches were competently handled, by our group of student interns. It is a tremendous collection, I think, because of the range of writers, the different types of poetics statement. It felt good to be juxtaposing Allen Fisher with Nathaniel Mackey, Bhanu Kapil with Zoë Skoulding. It was a good way to exit Edge Hill. It was published on the first day of my retirement – or my first day as a full-time writer, as I prefer to think of it.

This interview was conducted across the UK’s Lockdowns 1,2,3: 2020-21

SJ Fowler is a poet and artist. He has been poetry editor of 3:AM Magazine since 2011.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 19th, 2021.