Binary Myths

Andy Brown Interviews Peter Finch


Given that the market is far smaller than the number of poets producing poems; that poets are generally the main readers of other poet'ms work; and tht poetry itself is super-abundant, what are the motivations of publishing houses and poetryeditors? How do they select work? What do they select? What do they choose to leave out, or leave to others. and why? Why do we need more poetry books?

Andy Brown in correspondence with Peter Finch.

Taken from Andy Brown's book Binary Myths 2 published by Stride, November, 1999.



What's going on in contempor-ary poetry that interests you? Is poetry in a healthy state at the moment or is it heading nowhere?

I'm pretty interested in the whole of the British New Poetries (or whatever we want to call it). The approaches adopted years back by poets such as Allen Fisher, Bill Griffiths, Thomas A Clark and especially Tom Raworth continues to fascinate me and I am much enthused by the large number of writers who, over the years, have now joined them and still continue to join. Allen Fisher in particular is a giant among UK writers who somehow manages to stay outside of the usual lit. crit trap, has not got himself bogged down in the reading circuit and still appears as fresh a voice today as he did in the early seventies. His work is large scale involving multi volume projects and is informed to a significant extent by the worlds of visual art and science. He is one of the UK's unsung best. Add to this the post-LANGUAGE work that flows in across the water from the US and we have a pretty healthy seeming backdrop. Writers do not appear afraid to push at the boundaries now. There was a time when I looked to Europe but I guess that time is over. Major contemporary significances for me are now English, Scottish, Irish or American.

At base, though, there is a problem and that's the sheer diversity of poetry itself. Outside the aforementioned areas of personal interest lie most of what the critics, the Universities, the amateur poetry dabblers and the public consumers (such as they are) perceive as the real stuff. The UK New gen extended, the English traditional, the minority Caribbean black, the academic backwaters, the stage performances, the slam shouters, the Welsh, Irish and Scottish ethnicicities. And there is stuff here too that really interests me. But the enormous range of it all gives us poetry as scatter gun. No focus, no agreed direction, no single handle to hold onto. Everything there ever was repeated and done so simultaneously. I am here too, taking advantage of my modernist upbringing; finding what I've been doing for the past thirty years is fashionable again; watching others hijack old ideas and retread them as if they were new and as if they were their own. This is what post-modernism teaches us is the way on.


What chances and risks are taken in your own work, or the work you have edited & published ?

Chances imply risk of creative failure or risk of misunderstanding. The misunderstanding part has never bothered me. Some poets start with the idea of the reader in mind - if the work cannot cross to other ears or eyes then it is doomed. Others play to the lowest common denominator, that is they make everything they do accessible and instant. Like an issue of Bella or Best or a tv soap. I've had brushes with this approach when I've been up there on stage performing and getting that buzz you get from instant audience reaction. It makes you lean towards the neat ending, the joke, the instant effect. If they don't understand you then you are lost. And I've done that. Gone out and worked on pieces to work in just that kind of situation. A slab of my work from the early 80s was defined by its ability to succeed when read at 2.00 am to drunken students at a Monday night jazz club. There was no band - too expensive - they used poets instead. Props helped - a loud hailer, explosions, the whirled tube from the back of the tumble dryer. When the students wouldn't listen I stood next to them and put the amplified cone to their ears. If the poem didn't succeed under those conditions then I abandoned it. But I've returned again now to the idea that audiences themselves have to do some of the work (and in some cases quite a lot of the work). So they do not get every reference contained in the poem. So it sounds random or fragmented or self-indulgent. So what. Poetry is not always mathematics. Poetry is not geometric shape. There are no hard rules and ultimate forms. The reader participates as much as the writer.

Much of the material I included in the 21 issue run of my magazine second aeon which was published between 1966 and 1974 ran extreme risks. It was the risk that excited me. If I could get our literary guardians hopping up and down by the newness or the unadulterated wildness of what I published then so much the better. Bob Cobbing taught me a lot here - and I owe him a huge debt. If it's good put it out. Do it fast. Push the boundary and push the form. He relished bad publicity and drew strength from the fact that the average poetry reading attendee appeared utterly baffled by what he did. The audience needed to be stretched. The poet was not there simply to entertain. And by this he did not mean sloppy creative indulgence. The poets had to turn creative somersaults in order to achieve anything at all.

Unfortunately publishing difficult and inaccessible material does not lead to huge sales. Concrete, sound and other experimental, alternative poetry sold in dozens rather than hundreds of copies. The choice for the publisher was to either stay totally in the field and become an obscure specialist or to add it to the mix and go for global coverage. I chose the latter route and mixed the new in with the rest and by dint of good marketing, fair judgement and a slab of street-cred managed to reach pretty high little mag sales. I gained an acceptance among seekers of the real and hunters for the new, libraries everywhere subscribed, bookshop sales across the UK were responsive. Among the poetry community second aeon became an arbiter of taste and a place to be seen, and the Americans loved what I did yet I was never once in my entire career as a publisher mentioned by any national newspaper. Had I been based in London rather than what was then perceived as the non-metropolitan sticks then I am sure things would have been different. When Poetry Review ran aground I was actually offered the editorship but because of a career move (I was busy establishing the Oriel Bookshop) turned it down. Maybe I should have accepted. So it goes.


How does your writing inform your work as an editor ?

It was actually always the other way around. The more you read the wider your creative edge. The more you do then the more you do. I came into contact with a huge range of poets, their new work and their published material. Editors get immersed like this constantly. And when you surface you either do something else altogether or you spark off work of your own. The latter was me.

Coming back to Cardiff from one of my many trips to London, the Poetry Society in the Nuttall/MacSweeney/Mottram years, Poets Conference, the Association of Little Presses' bookfairs, the gatherings of Cobbing, Bill Griffiths, Peter Mayer, Henri Chopin, Andrew Lloyd, and others always set me at it furiously writing.


What processes lie behind the writing of your poems? Are you prolific?

Prolific in bursts. Then long stretches of silence. That's the way it is now. The time factor is very important. My present job (running the Welsh National Literature Promotion Agency - Academi) takes up all my time and gets all my energy. There is very little of either left over for my own creativity. But that's at present. Things will change again, they always do. I wrote make, one of my best, published by Peter Hodgkiss's Galloping Dog Press in 1990, during one of the periodic lulls in my job as bookshop manager at Oriel. A times trade would drop, external demand from the owners (The Welsh Arts Council) would be elsewhere (i.e. they would be engaged in some new project and not at it poking me into new action) and I'd have a decent and competent staff behind me to carry out the daily tasks. Difficulties would recede. make was largely composed sitting in my first floor office watching the slow movement of the city from the window. The book is full of literary and bookselling references drawn from the stock passing through my hands and mixed in with observations of passers by, callers and the building site over the road. I'd recently read a compendium from that creative genius, Jackson Mac Low, and was interested in seeing how far I could push the verbal fragment.

On other occasions different forces have been applied. The Cheng Man Ch'ing Variations were written as a long process piece, taking the idea of body movement and spiritual progress as exemplified by Cheng Man Ch'ing and pushing these through a series of variations. I was deep into Tai Chi at the time and Man Ching was the acknowledged Chinese master of the Yang form. The philosophy behind the art and at the heart of Taoism informed the piece. I was careful not to publish any reference to tai chi in the first edition of the work (Writers Forum) and it was interesting to see how many readers managed to reach totally unexpected conclusions without this small clue. Cheng Man Ch'ing was seen as an opium driven waster, a Chinese restaurant owner, a fictional alternative persona, a character from Eastern literature and as a local acquaintance. In reality he was none of these things. At the time of the construction of this piece I was also looking at ways in which the photocopier could distort reality and simultaneously mimic street poster vandalism and the weathering of printed material. Mid 80s council estate reality. I took a photographic image of Cheng Man Ch'ing and processed it in ways similar to those I was using for the text of the piece. "So where do you get your inspiration" someone asked me at the time. "Does it come from life?" It does and then again it does not. Pretty Zen.


How often do you write?

I try to protect at least one day a week where I have the phone off hook and the doorbell unbatteried. I ask repair men not to call at this time. The space is precious and very hard fought for. Any old time will not do. I need an early start and really have to avoid speaking to anyone. People do not understand this, even those close to me. Nonetheless, if I am to write anything at all then the selfish removal of all external influences here is an absolute essential. When I see others who lead less pressured existences with no full-time job to hold down in order to pay the mortgage or fewer family or other external personal involvements then I often feel envious. Bastards, do they know what it's like trying to find 30 unadulterated minutes in which to get an idea down? But then I guess I chose to be like I am.


What important influences have shaped your current interests?

Past interests inform those of the present


Jack Kerouac
The Beat Generation
The idea of poet as visionary
The inability to sing
The Blues
Bob Dylan
Big Bill Broonzy
The Futurists
The Bauhaus
Abstract Expressionism
John Cage
Jackson Mac Low
William Wantling
Jack Spicer
John Ashbery
Clark Coolidge
Gertrude Stein
William Carlos Williams
Jean Paul Sartre
Standing Stones
The end of the nation state
Geraint Jarman
William W. Williams, Williamstown
Tom Petty
Philip Glass
Dion & his lonely room
Bob Cobbing
The Concrete Poets
The martial arts especially aikido, tai chi chuan and tae kwondo
Breath, Tantra, Mysticism
Tibetan Buddhism
Sharon Olds
Matsuo Basho
Captain Beefheart
Vandalism, moral panics & social disorder
That place where the outgoing breath ends and the incoming has not yet begun
The way we can turn lead into gold


What am I reading at present?

Patricia Dunker's Hallucinating Foucault, Paul Bowles' Their Heads Are Green and Charles Simic's Frightening Toys


Why do some poets choose to operate from within the small press only?

There are two reasons for publishing with the small presses. Either you can't get accepted by the bigger presses or for artistic reasons you simply don't want to bother with them. The former is easy to answer - most poets who publish over a long period end up either creeping out of the small presses (and ending up, most likely, with Bloodaxe) or they suddenly find that their small publisher has grown a bit and has acquired a new status (Arc is a fine example here). The few poets who stay small whatever do so because they like the control that small publishing offers them. Two classic cases are Ian Hamilton Finlay at his own Wild Hawthorn Press and Bob Cobbing with Writers Forum. Both poets are so idiosyncratic in their approaches that no larger press would ever be able to accommodate them. Small Presses with their antipathy towards economics, marketing and all the rest of the publishing world's regular trappings are ideal vehicles to publish a work consisting of three cards in a plastic bag or a fold out sheet with one word on it. It also helps, I guess, that the poets concerned own their respective presses.

Small is also containable within the head. Conglomerate puts form and decision in the hands of the corporate accountants. Look what happened to Chris Torrance - years of small press struggle and then, at last, grand acceptance. Paladin put him out in paperback and he was available in every bookshop UK nationwide. But that was for a mere fortnight. The company changed hands and all poetry was pulped. Famous for 15 seconds, that was Torrance's 1980 poetry fate.


Are you interested in electronic publishing?

Yes. My own web site has offered me the opportunity not only to post information about my books and what I do but to experiment with the new form. I've set up a work called R.S.Thomas Information which begins as a straightforward resource for Wales' greatest living English language writer. There is some biographical detail, a bibliography, a place where you can order R.S.Thomas titles, news if his recent concerns and then slowly you notice that the data is changing. There are hyperlinked lists of influences on R.S. His typical vocabulary is broken down and re-ordered and filled with fixed and random links. There are side leaps into descriptions of some of his recent mind-states and into critical coverage of his work (appropriately redrawn and reworked). The information (the essence of the web) becomes a new piece of creative work in itself and is then, in turn, remade to become further information as an end in itself. The form of the piece excites me considerably. It is endless and offers me infinite possibilities of change and expansion. "The poem is never finished only abandoned" - certainly this one. And it simply cannot exist in any other medium. It's no good printing extracts in a traditional book, for example, although I guess this will end up happening.


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