Saturday, March 6, 2010

TC: An American Abroad: England in the Mid-Sixties


File:Interior East Side of Gonville Court, Gonville & Caius (full).jpg

Tom Clark interviewed by Jeffrey Side, September 2009

JS: When did you first become interested in poetry?

TC: It must have been about 1957 or 1958. The first poems I remember liking a lot--as opposed to merely enduring as school assignments--were by (and I must admit this memory is pretty vague) e.e. cummings and Federico Garcia Lorca (Verde, te quiero verde...).

JS: When did you first start writing poems?

TC: I began then tinkering with some of my own self-serious small verse emissions, strictly in private mind you, in my environment such an activity would have been indefensible, and I've never much enjoyed playing defense.

Then at university it all opened up. The compulsory late Fifties Lowell period was followed shortly by several other more lasting interests, Stevens, Williams... and then there came the shock of encountering Ezra Pound, like walking out one morning and stumbling into in a deep canyon where a broad river gave issue to streams and rillets that led off and back and around and fanned out alluvially to flow toward everything in creation... and one's previous narrow path had been forgotten. Then read world literature as well as all world poetries intensely, acquiring at least at neophyte level such languages as were necessary for the journeying. Did an honors thesis on The Cantos that was published in the East/West Review, Kyoto.

By 1962-63 was writing quite a lot of poetry, won a university prize, had begun to publish. Went over to Cambridge in '63 and during my first year there found myself publishing poems in Poetry (Chicago), New Statesman, Spectator, Listener, TLS, Encounter, etc. That year also, Fall of '63, I took up poetry editorship of The Paris Review.

JS: You were poetry editor for The Paris Review at a young age (22). Did being so young affect your editorial decisions to any marked degree?

TC: No, I don't think so. The boldness or foolishness or whatever it was that caused me to summarily jettison the entire backlog of poems accepted by my editorial predecessor--several issues' worth in fact--probably resulted less from youth than from some permanent quality or defect of character.

At any rate I solicited and published in that venue poems from poets I'd been reading, Olson, Dorn, Creeley, Ashbery, O'Hara, Schuyler, Ginsberg, Duncan, Whalen, Blaser, Wieners, Eigner, Zukofsky, Niedecker, Oppen, Bunting, others; as well as from a number of younger American poets of my own generation and even the next, Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Joanne Kyger, Aram Saroyan; and eventually also, once I'd gone back to the US, Clark Coolidge, Joe Ceravolo, Alice Notley, Jim Carroll, et al.

JS: You studied at Cambridge University in Britain during the 1960s. What was your impression of British poetry as compared to American poetry at that time?

TC: While at Cambridge I met others who were interested in some of those earlier poetries I've just mentioned: Andrew Crozier (who was at Christ's), Jeremy Prynne, John Temple (both of them resident at the college where I was a grad student, Gonville and Caius, the former as a tutor, the latter an undergrad and happily for me my good friend and house mate). The poet Tom Lowenstein was at Kings then, and we became friends; we've stayed in touch all these years. I also met Robert Creeley, whom I'd published and corresponded with (he was at New Mexico then), when he came over to do some readings, including one at the Kings Cross pub in Cambridge, not far from my then digs on the Newmarket Road, across from the Star Brewery and Midsummer Commons. RC and I would remain friends for over forty years.

JS: After Cambridge you studied at Essex University (also in Britain) where you knew Andrew Crozier with whom you edited the magazine The Wivenhoe Park Review. What motivated you both to start a magazine?

TC: In '65-'67 I was at Essex, teaching a bit, working on a protracted and never to be completed Pound dissertation, and there continued to do the PR editing and also started a mimeograph magazine series, Once, that ran to ten issues plus four chapbooks. I featured many of the poets named above (encouraged them to send me all their work, used what I could in PR, the rest in the mimeo). Also published in that series some young English poets I'd gotten to know, like Tom Raworth, Lee Harwood, Tom Pickard.

And yes, while there I also founded and edited The Wivenhoe Park Review with Andrew Crozier, who like me had come over from Cambridge to Essex. As to motivation... It was operated under a sort of official departmental subsidy in that we were afforded the equipment and services of the university print shop. (Whereas my own truly underground mimeo magazine was cranked out in the middle of the night in a broom closet, strictly sub rosa, and then snuck into the outgoing university mail under the disapproving noses of the night porters.) Donald Davie, who'd been my Ph.D. supervisor at Caius, had come over to start the new Department of Literature at Essex; in my second year there he brought in Ed Dorn (from Idaho), so there was that particularly interesting poet, soon a good friend, as company. The Dorns were living on the old Roman Road in Colchester; while at Essex I lived off at the coast in a cottage in Brightlingsea owned by John Barrell (whom I'd known at Cambridge when he'd been an undergrad at Trinity) and his wife Audrey.

Perhaps this comes back to your earlier question, "What was your impression of British poetry as compared to American poetry at that time?"

Well, it was my immediate poetic environment. I would go down to London at the weekend and see poets there, like Tom Raworth in Barnet and Lee Harwood in the East End. Other welcoming ports of call in London were the abodes of the poet Anselm Hollo and the publisher Barry Hall. All of the above became good friends. I also got around the landscape quite a bit to wherever there were readings, it was very much an impromptu read-if-you-show-up scene, so I hitchhiked all round and did readings from Newcastle (with Andrew Crozier, in Tom Pickard's Morden Tower, where too I was able to meet other interesting poets in Tom's orbit, both younger, as Barry McSweeney, and older, as Basil Bunting) to Nottingham (I remember Jonathan Williams, Brian Patten and Adrian Henry showing up at a jamboree reading there) to Oxford (where I read several times, to microscopic audiences of course), all the way down to Bristol (where in the thickets of Somerset I heard but did not see my first nightingale). There were a number of poets I'd routinely bump into on these volunteer junkets. Gael Turnbull, Michael Shayer, Roy Fisher, Jeff Nuttall, Bob Cobbing, Dom Sylvester Hou├ędard, John Furnival were about, Michael Horovitz and Pete Brown were regulars, and Spike Hawkins whose work I especially liked, and also two Canadians, Lionel Kearns and Gerry Gilbert. The American poet Harry Fainlight then living in London was a familiar from that same time. Of course there were many readings in London as well. The biggest was a grand show at the Albert Hall in spring of '65. Readers as I recall were Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Robert Graves, Adrian Mitchell, Christopher Logue, Simon Vinkenoog, Ernst Jandl and a few lesser lights such as myself. I wore an overlarge black leather coat I'd bought for five quid on the King's Road two weeks before and read my poem "Superballs". Someone deep in the dark reaches of an upper balcony (how many holes would it take to fill the Albert Hall), once I'd announced the title of the poem, hollered, in a Cockney accent, "Wot?" I repeated the title. "Wot? again. A third time I tried. Once more the echoic bellow, "Wot?"

JS: During your stay in Britain, you hitchhiked across the country with Allen Ginsberg while he was visiting there in 1965. You also interviewed him for The Paris Review. What were your impressions of him during this time?

TC: We met at an art gallery in Bristol where we were both taking part in one of those informal, round-robin readings. We'd been in touch by mail, I had solicited poetry, we had had a pleasant correspondence. After the reading there was a crazy motorcycle sidecar ride through the wilds of Somerset and a long crowded night with what seemed like a hundred but was probably closer to ten poets trying to sleep on John James's extremely overcrowded floor. (Beyond which there peacefully slumbered sheep.) Allen, just back from an evidently somewhat exhausting stay in Prague, where he'd been elected King of the May, had a persistent hacking cough, so that the brief periods of sleep for everybody were synchronized with his gulps of some codeine cough medicine he had brought back from Prague along with whatever bacteria.

Allen was the first "international poet" I'd known. He had an acute sense of his international audience and thus, doing an interview in The Paris Review appealed to him immensely. We then hitchhiked together to Wells Cathedral and Glastonbury, where he plucked a flower from King Arthur's grave. There followed intense rainstorms and various further those-were-the-days adventures. Eventually by way of Bath and Reading (this begins to sound like a tale from Fielding or Defoe) we reached London. By then there was perforce a nice empathy. We went on up to Cambridge. Allen camped at my digs, while we taped the interview, on an old, borrowed and beat-up reel-to-reel machine, in several sessions. We went on several expeditions to the Fitzwilliam, where Allen wanted to clamp his glims on the Blake manuscript exhibitions. And he wanted to be taken to meet Morgan Forster at King's, which was nearly a disaster. The great novelist was not at home or at any rate not answering the door to unexpected visitors. I'd been to see him before, but that had been at Forster's invitation, in company with his former student George Plimpton. Allen left his calling card, a handwritten note covered with fields of daisies and skulls and crossbones. Have a nice day!

File:Senate House Passage in the snow.JPG

Interior East Side of Gonville Court, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge: photo by Jdforrester, 2003

Senate House passage in the snow (with Gonville and Caius Gate of Honour to left): photo by Monsarc, 2009


Tom Raworth said...

Tom: pretty accurate general picture of the time -- on the edges were those in Liverpool: Roger McGough, Brian Patten, Adrian Henri; and I imagine you crossed with Elaine Feinstein at Cambridge, and Libby Houston on the road. Anselm's importance to UK poetry during the whole of the 1960s is often overlooked now, as is that of Piero Heliczer and Asa Benveniste (two expatriate Americans). Bernard Stone's "Turret Books" off Kensington Church Street was a general Saturday meeting place. Blah blah blah, dribbles, asks for more mush. love, Tom

Anonymous said...

Hey Tom & Tom, that's not bad remembering for old guys. A few more names in the mix would be Eric Mottram, who lived in a basement suite on Kensington Church Street not far from Bernard Stone's shop. Bill Butler (expat American), and the ICA gallery, where many of us read, and Martin Bax and Stuart Montgomery, and Barry Miles at Better Books on Charing Cross Road. I was living with Anselm and Josie when Allen arrived suddenly from Prague. The next morning I took him to see Lee Harwood who was living in an ancient building in the East End. On the bus Allen took out his notebook and read me his 'I am the King of the May' poem that detailed the events of two days before, which had led to his expulsion. I remember the reading in Bristol, and John James motor cycle and side car loaded with poets in the rain. And the smell of your leather coat at the amazing Albert Hall gathering. It was a privilege to have been young and alive in that particular place and time. And as you mention, it was centred in London, but the energy and excitement flowed out in all directions. I read in Nottingham with Edwin Morgan, and in the Morden Tower in Newcastle with Gerri Gilbert, at Tom Pritchard's invitation. Gerry left us a few months ago. He told us, near the end, that he had finally run out of reality. Blessings, Lionel

Anonymous said...

I am loving this, you. I am loving the reminiscing of such.The 'Batter' between you old guys.
You know Thomas....they still sell those 'over large black leather coats' down 'Kings Road'

TC said...

How brilliant to hear the sweet voices of such dear friends across such a great distance, as one staggers down the fretted ways of yesteryear.

Thank you very much Tom and Lionel for your memories, our intersections still curiously particular in the mind despite the dim fogs of time and of course the increasing urgencies of need for more mush (!).

And SarahA, if I am ever again to wander among the outfitters of the Kings Road in search of oversize apparel (perhaps this time in the Second Life, and perhaps the apparel this time might better be sackcloth, with a touch of ash), I hope you will be there to lend me a steadying hand. Certainly I will need it.

Readers unaware of the significant distinctions of our guests may gain awareness easily enough. The present-day English poet SarahA's blogger badge may be clicked upon to reveal her unique poetic world. Tom Raworth's terrific blog can be found via the marginal link column here. And while we're at it here are three short poems by Tom that date back almost to the geological epoch commemorated in the interview, though they sound so completely up-to-the-moment it's surprising (to me anyway) how well they fit with the great and totally contemporary TR photos accompanying them.

And Lionel, I was particularly grateful just now to find your very interesting Convergences. Forgive me for not knowing this work earlier. You might not know I have, coincidentally, assayed (well, blundered into might be the better verb in my case) the same area of NW coastal history myself, a while back in a book called Empire of Skin, and too in later extensions including this and this.

(In fact it seems I am not yet able to let go the obsession, having lately returned to it here and in the several posts below that.)

Finally, Lionel, it was deeply saddening to hear of Gerry Gilbert's passing. Indeed Gerry's presence in our little circuit of traveling poets back then was always for me one of its brightest features. Let us remember him here by a poem:

Bursts of friendliness

when a chunk of the story repeats itself
& homer & chandler do it all the time
there's a faintly mental smell
& you can tell
you're in the presence of poetry

i went to the convention of
the american institute for the conservation of
historic and artistic works
i heard there was someone here
who could make my poems last forever

rock & roll is all one song
kids want to be beautiful
any poem is one more

Gerry Gilbert, from Azure Blues, Talonbooks, 1991

For those not familiar with GG, more on this great departed poet can be found here.

TC said...

No, another word before we go... as to how any of us ever came to be talking together here, now, toward the end of it all...


Who would you be if your mother had coughed
at the critical moment of your conception?
What if she had sighed and rolled away
from your father’s fateful twinge that sent
a million would-be champions swimming
for their lives (and yours) towards the prize
ovum awaiting a hero’s triumphant entry
and formal presentation? Consider the contents
of that list, instructions, specific and precise,
written in a four-letter alphabet. That is you.
No other recipe will do. Where would you be
if Baba had come down with the sniffles
the night of the dance, and your grandfather
had found another pretty piece of lace
to focus his attention? What if peace
had prevailed, and flight had been postponed,
and your great grandparents had no chance
to meet in the refugee camp? There are no
alternate events to finesse your selection. Only
those that occurred can be counted. Nothing
can change the scheme that made you you.

Lionel Kearns, from A Few Words Will Do, Talon Books, 2007

TC said...

(Well, in the unlikely event anyone on the planet is actually interested in the geezer's obscure obsessions, let him at least try to get the codes right.)

TC said...

And for those who may be interested in an account of the years covered in the interview, uncoloured by the questionable lights of memory, here are some letters home from Cambridge.

Anonymous said...

Ohoh, I goofed again. It is Tom PICKARD of course. How could I make a mistake like that? I think my automatic spelling checker had something to do with it. Sorry Tom.

Anyway Tom C thank you for all those references and links. That will keep me going for a while. I'm off to them now. Connection is meaning, and electronic connection is truly wondrous. So much fun to be alive lately. Lionel