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To reach the moon you need a rocket

An interview with Tom Pickard by Alex Niven.

Described by Allen Ginsberg back in the day as “one of the livest truest poets of Great Britain”, Tom Pickard has been flourishing of late. While the ears of the English literati remain bafflingly deaf to his singular music, Pickard has been cleaning up in America: his last three collections appeared via the Chicago press Flood Editions (a fourth is due in 2013), and his long poem “Lark and Merlin” won Poetry magazine’s inaugural Bess Hokin Prize in 2010. In a sense this transatlantic imbalance is nothing new. Since the early 1960s, Pickard has been one of the foremost British proponents of a modernist aesthetic gleaned from the American Pound-Objectivist-Black Mountain backbone of modern poetry in English. Many of these allegiances were part of the legacy he inherited from the modernist poet Basil Bunting, who Pickard first met as a teenager in Northumberland in 1963, and who would act as his mentor over the next twenty years. As the founder, with his first wife Connie, of the legendary Morden Tower readings in Newcastle, Pickard became a seminal presence in the British Poetry Revival of the sixties and seventies. Pickard’s verse has latterly become increasingly preoccupied with the landscape of the North Pennines and the history of its marginalised inhabitants. The most substantial product of this late, neo-Romantic turn was Pickard’s latest collection Ballad of Jamie Allan (2007), a poetic “life” of the eponymous eighteenth century outlaw, which featured some of Pickard’s most evocative nature poems (notably the ballad poem “Hawthorn”). A short memoir, More Pricks Than Prizes was published by the Boston publisher Pressed Wafer in 2010.

3:AM: Perhaps we could start off by talking about influences.

Tom Pickard: Well the obvious one is Bunting, because in a sense he totally changed the direction of my life. But from an early age I thought of myself as a poet. I was writing stuff when I was fifteen, sixteen, and earlier, as a kid.

3:AM: So what would that pre-Bunting poetry have been influenced by?

TP: I was in the lower stream of a secondary modern school, so they didn’t pay too much attention to our education really. I certainly don’t remember any literature whatsoever at school. But my older sister went to a grammar school, and some of her books were lying around. I remember reading Shakespeare’s songs and being able to understand them, whereas I couldn’t really understand much of the plays. Although I don’t have much respect for him, there was a copy of Shelley lying around, and maybe Keats. But certainly Shakespeare was very important, and particularly the songs.

3:AM: We were talking before the interview about your interest in Elizabethan lyrics and songs

TP: That came later, but when I was thirteen or fourteen I did dip into the Shakespeare, and I did learn by heart some of the songs, so they were in my mind. And then when I met Connie when I was about sixteen, I remember she had an LP of Alfred Deller singing Campion. So those were an influence, as well as folk songs of course, and even kids’ skipping songs.

3:AM: So would you emphasise the importance of music to poetry to the extent that Bunting did?

TP: Yeah I would. Although with my documentary poems I have to follow the narrative, my lyric poems are primarily composed by ear, led by the vowel sounds, so to that extent I’m a total Buntingite. I find it very difficult to persuade myself that the other stuff outside of the musical poems has any merit. And If I have a poem that I can’t perform live, I find it very strange. Basil gave me Zukofsky’s work to read early on, especially his earlier work, and Zukofsky says somewhere: “if you can’t sing it then it isn’t a poem”. But then these days with atonal works you can pretty much sing your telephone directory, and some people have, I believe.

3:AM: In the middle of all of that, what sort of value do you put on the written word?

TP: I mean I like to see a book in print. Obviously I treasure books as a resource. Do you mean my own personal use of the written word?

3:AM: Well I’m interested in how you lay out words on the page. Is that of great importance, or are you always primarily thinking of the sound?

TP: I am, but sometimes the layout indicates the pauses, so if it breaks away from the left hand margins it’s to indicate where the pause might occur – it’s a notation. Sometimes, you know, I get lazy and just leave it to trust and keep pretty much to the left hand margin. But I like breaking away from the left hand margin just as an indication of how to place the sound in a pattern. Whereas sticking strictly to the left hand margin, it means the reader has got to work a bit harder.

3:AM: Do you see your work as a total break from orthodox English literary form?

TP: Well those are strange terms. Did you say English or British?

3:AM: Let’s go with English …

TP: Okay, well I didn’t have a formal education, so my indoctrination of the orthodoxy is through literary journals and the publishing houses. But essentially my idea of what English poetry is, or the tradition or whatever, is directly through Bunting. As far as I’m concerned, Bunting and his school are it. And politically, I’m outside the orthodoxy, or I don’t know what you would call it …

3:AM: … the canon …

TP: I think I’ve been fired from the canon! I don’t like to bring politics into it, but it seems to me related to this express distaste for experiment and for something that isn’t the norm. Who knows what the fucking canon is? Nobody will know what the twentieth century canon is until half way through the twenty first century. All people can go by is what’s fashionable, or what’s powerful.

3:AM: Ezra Pound talked about “breaking the pentameter”, and writing “in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome”. Do you feel the sense of a musical or organic phraseology, and is there a strong rhythmic pulse in your mind when you’re writing?

TP: I’m never really sure how poems are put together.

3:AM: It seems to be a strength for you, that freedom with form …

TP: Obviously a form does evolve, or it’s chopped into shape, so it evolves with the chop of the axe or the scythe or the scalpel. I do compose by ear principally, so the musical phrase has to chime, and I try to build on that. But that isn’t necessarily what leads me: you might get led by the eye or the emotion or whatever, but at the same time be accompanied by the ear, and it all has to be sounded, phrased, composed. I’m waffling, but I don’t choose to enquire too deeply into how poems arise. I compose a lot when I walk, so phrases and ideas occur most frequently that way. Poetry seems to be associated with physical movement. And the breath. There’s a line in “Lark and Merlin”:

a stroke of light along a law lain in under a long cloud

I was walking on top of the fells, and I was looking across the valley, maybe about ten or fifteen miles away, to a long stretch of hills, with the light falling on it, a stroke of sunlight, and I wanted to get a sense of the length of it. I don’t normally write lines quite as long as that, but I wanted it all in one long breath, both visually on the page as one long line, but also, if you like, one long sound. So while I don’t think about it too much, the form for each poem seems to evolve somehow.

3:AM: You’ve never been tempted to write a sonnet?

TP: No I haven’t. In fact I wrote a poem recently called “To goad my frigging peers”:

Fuck the sonnet, I piss upon it
and those who seek to launch a sinking reputation on it
as though it were some talismanic indenture
an entrée to a toothless craft.

Take those billiards out your pocket,
to reach the moon you need a rocket.

Which is all I have to say about form. Also, I’ve said it before in interviews, when I spoke to Basil about form when I was 18, he said: “invent your own”. And that was really liberating.

3:AM: It’s interesting: your relationship with Bunting seems to have a particular cast, in that your writing seems to takes its cue from late Bunting, from the late, Romantic phase of Bunting’s career, when he was very preoccupied with nature, landscape, Northumberland, the north-east. Also, birds are a focal point for you, as they were for Bunting around the time of Briggflatts.

TP: Yes, birds and wind. The wind is a focal point, increasingly.

3:AM: Could you say why that is?

TP: I don’t really know, except that they’re both aural. It’s all stuff that stimulates the ear.

3:AM: Have you felt that there have been different phases of your career? There seem to be different genres: nature poems, political poems, dialect poems. Has your interest in these different modes shifted over time?

TP: In a way I think they’ve merged. I think they’ve found a way of existing all within the same poem. The political work is difficult to think about in these reactionary times. I was looking through my work to make a selection for a forthcoming reading. I was looking at the political stuff I was writing in the ‘80s, and I thought: fuck, it’s all so relevant now, it’s just so utterly in date. I almost feel that I don’t need to write any more political poems, because the ones I have written, as far as I’m concerned, haven’t dated. Throughout my life a number of political narratives have interested me. The Jarrow March when I was very young, because it was something I grew up knowing about, and it spoke about the radicalism of the north-east proletariat, which has also a strong cultural base. You asked about my influences earlier; one influence is those fantastic mining songs:

Divn’t gan near the Seghill mine
Across the way they stretch a line
To catch the throat and break the spine
Of the dirty blackleg miner …

All of this stuff is really fucking violent. I’m not sure if there’s anywhere in the country with as violent an oral tradition. With people like Tommy Armstrong [nineteenth-century north-east pitman poet], there seems to be a cultural and literary blend; it just seems to be in the soil really. And I knew some of those songs as a kid. I was brought up by my great aunt and uncle, and they were barely literate, but they knew a lot of those songs. One of the few things I learnt in the infant school was some of the Northumbrian songs. So I did feel that I was part of a tradition that did carry with it a strong political charge. The politics weren’t divorced from the literature.

3:AM: Form and politics seem to be intertwined for you …

TP: Well, MacDiarmid didn’t have a problem with that …

3:AM: You started writing poetry in the ‘60s at a time when there was a folk revival and a great flowering of music. We’ve already talked about musical form, but do you feel part of a musical-poetic culture or scene, or has that shifted over time?

TP: It’s got stronger over time. I always knew the dirty little songs that were going around, the skipping songs, so it was in the pavements from when I was a kid. But then in the ‘60s, there was a big resurgence of folk music, as you say. And there were bands like the Animals, there was the importation of the American blues tradition as well as a revival of indigenous folk music.

3:AM: Did you identify with that?

TP: Absolutely. It was all part and parcel of the same thing. I tried my best to write songs for anyone who would have them, I seem to remember. I didn’t see any separation between the two, although I knew for instance that when I met Basil, his was a much finer discipline, more finely honed and a harder road to take. And I knew that some of the easy values of pop culture you couldn’t always easily carry into a literary poem. But it worked backwards and forwards. Basil used to come to our house every week or more, and if he had a drink or we had people round after a reading he would always be singing old music hall songs or traditional Northumbrian songs. So folk song was very much part of his makeup, there was no problem there at all.

3:AM: One of the interesting things about Bunting is that he had two real phases of productivity: 1930-33, and 1964-66. And it seems that the one constant between those two periods – and the thing that he maybe lost in between – was an artistic community. In the early period he had the Objectivist circle and the “Ezuversity” at Rapallo: Pound, Zukofsky, William Carlos Williams. And he found a creative community again the ‘60s in Newcastle. How important do you think that was?

TP: It’s a very interesting theory and I’ve never really thought about it. But it makes sense. I mean, I don’t know much about that earlier period, but the ‘60s were exciting. I would say that Basil was the centre, and felt very much a part of, an artistic mob. It was exciting and everyone was engaged in it, even Richard Hamilton in the art school. It was cross-discipline and cross-class too. And I would think that Basil did thrive on that tension, because it was an adoring, attentive audience at the [Morden] Tower. And they were – quote unquote – genuine people. For the most part they weren’t pretentious people. They were solid. Actually, they were delinquents, a lot of my friends. They had no literary ambitions, so Basil had to make it work for them, and he did. There was a period when it was as okay to be interested in poetry as it was to be interested in pop music, it was that liberated.

3:AM: It seems to me that one of the labels you could put on the Tower, and the ‘60s moment, and everything that went on around it, is “popular modernism”. You have this modernist period in the early 20th century that’s quite a coterie thing, its only a handful of people really, but then in the ‘60s it filters through into the wider culture, and as you say, everyone becomes involved in some way, a whole community, a whole region.

TP: That makes sense.

3:AM: It seems to be bound up with praxis. I mean, you’re an activist in a sense. You’re very good at getting things done and organising things. I get the impression that Bunting wasn’t very good at organising things, that he needed someone who could, and that he perhaps wouldn’t have done it on his own, or maybe he was getting a bit old by the ‘60s. Do you regard that sort of praxis as part of what being a poet is, that organisational side?

TP: It’s hard to say. In terms of Morden Tower: yes. I saw the Morden Tower as part of my apprenticeship, as it were, part of my education, to listen to all these different voices and to find out as much as possible. And I wasn’t going to get that from the fucking University, because they weren’t putting on readings; it was as it is now: horribly institutionalised. I think I am a bit of an activist, or certainly have been. I suppose you just have the energy and if you have someone to support you, a partner, that makes it easier. I suppose I was an arrogant bastard and I didn’t like being told to fuck off and I was persistent in trying to get money to keep the thing going. But that wasn’t so difficult when you had the encouragement of Basil and MacDiarmid, who people could appreciate, plus the audiences who were coming, and it was our own place and it seemed pretty much a part of what was happening. Other people were forming bands, and it required a degree of activism to keep them going, because musicians are as lazy as poets: somebody has to whip them into shape and give them their drugs and get them to the venue. I did a lot of that when I moved to London: set up gigs and various benefits for political things and tried to use my energy like that. But there came a time when I realised it was a drain. I think there’s a period of time when you can do that, but it is a drain on creative energy. And all I want to do now is work.

3:AM: Your memoir More Pricks Than Prizes starts off with an anecdote in which Bunting says to you: “poets need a sinecure”. Ideally, how do you think poetry should be funded? What should the professional status of the poet be?

TP: It should be like it is with the National Health. They almost flirted with that idea, when they let kids on the dole be musicians and they let them draw their dole money. I mean it’s fucking ridiculous now. There’s never going to be a return to full employment, that’s fucking clear, with the technology, and the number of people. Kids going to university was a good idea, so that you don’t throw them into drudgery if they don’t want to go there, you at least enable them to develop so that they find out who they are and what they are, and what their interests are and what their career might be: you trust them to find their own creativity. But I think they should just give them dole money to do what the fucking hell they like: I don’t think poets should be any different from anybody else. These days there’s a creative writing industry, which means to keep their jobs people have to produce books of poetry. I’m sure there are decent people coming out of it and I know there are decent people teaching it. But I wouldn’t like to be involved in it. I like going in and out and doing bits and pieces and I’m grateful for the work I can get. But I couldn’t see it as a career. It’s the same dilemma I had back in the ‘60s, in a way, when I was deciding whether or not to go to university. Jeremy Prynne very kindly offered to help to get me into Cambridge (and remember I was in the lowest stream of a secondary modern, so it was a generous gesture). And Claude Rawson at Newcastle – who was extremely helpful with the Morden Tower, lending respectability to our committee – he would have helped me to get into Newcastle University as well. But I fought shy of that academic pursuit, and in a way I’m sorry I did. But I felt that things were more exciting out of it. And I didn’t think I could get any more – I’m sure I could have got something different, but I didn’t think I could get more – than I got from Basil and his mentoring of me.

3:AM: Do you think you’ve derived a lot from being on the outside? Not just professionally, but also in terms of England and Britain, do you have a sense of being on the margins, and deriving a poetic subject from a geographical and political hinterland? Do you think it’s an impetus?

TP: It is. I’ve thought a lot about that. You know, I had to spend many, many hours in social security offices, because they keep you waiting all day there. And in my case because I said I was a poet I had to go in three times a week and spend half the day in a dole office. So you do see the depth of poverty around you, because that’s the bottom. And I identified with that, and it gave me a sense of belonging, if you like.

3:AM: I suppose there’s an argument that art is made by the dispossessed, that it’s often made for and by people who are suffering in some way, and that there isn’t the same power or emotive force when, say, a lackey of the landed gentry writes a country house poem. For instance, the whole notion of the blues is that it’s a way of singing through pain …

TP: Or Tommy Armstrong …

3:AM: Or Jamie Allen …

TP: Yeah. Although I think a lot of the blues is sexual.

3:AM: Well finally, then, could you say a little bit about sex in your poems? Does that originate with the cultural moment of the ‘60s, when writing about sex had a political charge to it?

TP: I suppose it became acknowledged with the Chatterley trial. The language of sexuality in literature became acknowledged, that was happening in ’63, and the discussion had broken out around then on a wide popular scale. I can remember getting that book when I was 15 and enjoying it. But for me initially the writing about sex was just the discovery of such fucking joy and pleasure and I didn’t think of it as a taboo subject. I mean I wasn’t writing about it because I thought I was breaking a taboo, I wrote about because that’s what I felt. I suppose I may have felt uncomfortable thinking, y’kna, if me old grandma reads this … But now I’m a granddad I think, well fuck me, what was I worried about?

Alex Niven is originally from Northumberland and now lives in Leytonstone in East London. His poetry has been published in Ash, Etcetera, North-East Passage, and Oxford Poetry, and his poem ‘The Beehive’ recently provided the epigraph to Owen Hatherley’s architectural survey A New Kind of Bleak. He is currently working on a combined work of poetry and criticism for Zero Books, and a book about Oasis’s Definitely Maybe for the 33 1/3 series (Continuum).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 2nd, 2012.