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Walking to the Beat of A New Waste Land: An Interview With Michael Horovitz

“May seemed the kindest month, breeding
roses out of the dying land
That first May day in ‘97
was surely signalling
our long benighted country’s
new beginning.”

Lulling us at the beginning of A New Waste Land, but we all know how it has ended in these past ten years. Michael Horovitz is an extraordinary, eccentric and erudite man, and there are not enough of those about any longer. His history of relentless poet, poetry promoter, musical performer, speaker and evangelist for the good, have been going on since 1959 when he began New Departures magazine publishing William Burroughs, getting Stevie Smith reciting again, and of course Samuel Beckett. He was there on stage at the Royal Albert Hall on June 11 1965, when 7,000 people crammed in to listen to the International Poetry Incarnation, with Allen Ginsberg and Alexander Trocchi, Christopher Logue, Adrian Mitchell, George Macbeth, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Simon Vinkenoog, Spike Hawkins, Tom McGrath and William Burroughs. And he’s been doing the Poetry Olympics ever since. He is a last handshake to the Beat Poets along with Fran Landesman and Logue. Einstein famously said, “True religion is real living; living with all one’s soul, with all one’s goodness and righteousness”. And somehow that seems appropriate for Horovitz.


Michael now has a band he sometimes appears with in homage to Blake, they sing his poems as songs, imagine “The Tiger”, with a flute and a kazoo as accompaniment with the dress sense of the wacky happy. Who else would wear a cotton beeny with a nursery-coloured design, clashing satin shirt and jeans deorated with metal studs. Oh, he is a brave man when it comes to fashion, even braver at fighting the establishment.

Now he has published this book A New Waste Land – don’t worry, Eliot won’t mind. It is a poem of a book, all poetry and pictures, not sugar pink sweet like his hat, but soldered with wit and passion, lambasting our world and what has become of it. All that Great British hope when Labour got in, the Tories were out and we were creating a brave new world, well it was a chance to do so that was ignored. This book shows us what the rest of us find too easy to ignore and look away from, for the pain and cruelty of war, torture and poverty may hurt our eyes, but nothing like how it must offend the sensibilities of those caught in its callous claws. I dare you to look away, of course it is easier to look away. A New Waste Land is a homage to those who haven’t, the memoriam is to “All builders of all true new Jerusalems and all deities that reside in the human breast, with the milk of human kindness”.

And, the names go from Blake, Burns, Bosch, Brueghel and Bunting, to WH Davies, Gandhi, Thomas (Dylan and Bob), Nuttall, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Dickinson, Whitman, Marx, Milton, Jesus and Joyce — well you’ve got the idea, outspoken world fighters. But he’s got enough breath left to beat the fakes and the fogeys, and lands his punches bright and loud not just on the CIA or Blair, here’s one for Felix Dennis, another for Murray Lachlan Young — beware the wrath of Horovitz!

Michael uses the New Jeruselm men’s poems and images woven through his to make up a silk Persian magic carpet, using Eliot’s Waste Land as a template. The book is appropriately covered in the Atoll Nuclear Bomb Test, underneath it lie these 250 pages of prayer, and another 250 of notes, stomach-churning facts about torture and explanation because, as Paul Valéry said, “A poem is never finished”.

Sometimes funny, irritated and sad, but all real. Real, did I say that? The nomclenature of a hippy. Yeah, well, hey, don’t you ever drink herbal tea? Or want a better world? Would you walk on a peace march?

Up on the stage of the 100 Club for National Poetry Day, Horovitz rallies and drifts, dithering over what’s next, he’s entirely comfortable to bumble across the microphone knowing always that his audience is with him, on his side, cheering. And if you start to wonder if art should be mixed up in politics, doesn’t Billy Bragg slightly stain a good pop tune? What did Lennon sing about? Remember what Picasso said when asked: what is the function of Art? To combat the darkness. If art is to banish the darkness, what is poetry for? “The same, to express joy and to make love and countless other benign musical and anarchic things,” Horovitz says, when I cross-examine him.

And if, as Seneca said, “Sometimes to live is in itself an act of bravery,” Michael Horovitz fights the battle with all his might to continue on the path to Jerusalem, old-school style with plenty of vim and vigour.

“I’m an alternative politician, in the Poetry Olympics nobody wins, as Leader of the Poetry Olympics Party we can all join in. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, I can’t be certain I wouldn’t be corrupted,” he says more honestly than any politician.

Remember, Blake wrote ‘Jerusalem’ as a rallying cry to the heart of revolution, not as a hymn for a bunch of right-wing politicians to sing at their own weddings. If you don’t believe me, that this book is worth reading perhaps you’ll believe Mr Tony Benn:

“It is an immensely powerful work bringing poetry and art together with passion and commitment in a Charge Sheet against certain people whose crimes you document so well. I have to try and keep my spirits up because without hope nothing can be achieved, but you certainly fire me up.”

Go fire up, see Mr Horovitz singing with his William Blake Klezmatrix band at The National Portrait Gallery. It’s putting on a homage for Blake’s birthday on 29th November at 5pm (£3). You can also catch him at Waterstone’s Covent Garden (13-15 Garrick Street) on the 8th Nov at 8pm (free admission and refreshments).

Michael Horovitz is a poet, songwriter-singer, visual artist, translator, literary journalist and editor-publisher. He has published more than thirty collections. In 1959 he founded the New Departures magazine while still a student, publishing William Burroughs and Samuel Beckett. In 1969 he edited Children of Albion: Poetry of the Underground in Britain for Penguin Books. He now runs the annual Poetry Olympics at the Albert Hall (since 1980) and elsewhere the world over, and has just published A New Waste Land. His website is here (portrait by David Hockney, 1980).

Sophie Parkin has written seven published books. Three grown-up novels (you can’t say adult otherwise people think they might be pornography): All Grown Up, Take Me Home and Dear Goddess. For teenagers there is French for Kissing, Best of Friends, and Mad, Rich and Famous. She has also contributed to four other books, from short stories, true stories, long stories, to poetry. Mothers by Daughters, Sons and Mothers both published by Virago, Girls Just Want To Have Fun: the Cosmopolitan book of short stories, and POT 05 – Anthology of Poetry ed. Michael Horovitz. Her new book, Bazaar Nights and Camel Bites (Piccadilly Press), a teenage novel set in Tangiers and London, is out this week.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 27th, 2007.