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Roy Fisher

in conversation with John Tranter

The English poet Roy Fisher was interviewed at his home in a remote village in Derbyshire, high in the Peak District of England on 29 March 1989. The interview was recorded for radio. It has been edited slightly to make it easier to read.
      It opens with Roy Fisher reading his poem ‘Stopped Frames and Set-Pieces’ [from Roy Fisher — Poems 1955–1980, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1980.]
      This interview is also published in SALT magazine Vol. 11 (ed: John Kinsella), Fremantle Arts Centre Press, PO Box 320, South Fremantle WA 6162, Australia, on the Internet at

This piece is 13,000 words or about thirty printed pages long.

You can read John Kerrigan’s later (2000) interview with Roy Fisher in Jacket 35.

[ Roy Fisher reads his poem ‘Stopped Frames and Set-Pieces’ ]

John Tranter ... Roy, would you like to talk about how you came to write that poem?

Roy Fisher: It’s a composition from pictures. Every one of those items was an item from a collection of photographs. I think every one was in fact either a news photograph, or taken out of an illustrated magazine, taken out of context. The important thing for me was to ignore the structured context in which the thing had originally had a meaning, and let it hang about. In many cases it hung about for years. The photograph of the Indian statue I still keep on my wall, because it’s pretty. I probably owned it for ten or twelve years before I decided to sit down and write it.
      But in all of those I was interested in finding the energy that I thought was in the pictures, that was in whatever was being described, that wasn’t the — meaning, if you like, or the anecdote that whoever took it or printed it published in a magazine article or whatever it was, thought it had. I was recycling.

John TranterWhat about the form that it has on the page? It isn’t written out in rhymed verse, or even in lines of verse at all, it’s written out to look like ordinary English prose.

Roy Fisher: Yes, it’s meant to be meticulous English prose. It’s a collage, the main thing for me was the juxtaposition, the movement from one sort of thing to another, following my nose. I’d have a literally statuesque passage followed by a bit of frozen newsreel, which was the scene about the shooting in the street, and then I’d want another set piece. And that’s the title I gave to it.

Roy Fisher

Photo of Roy Fisher
copyright © John Tranter 1997

I was very interested in the way in which a movie is made of frames. This is a work which I wrote in, I suppose, the mid sixties, from a picture collection I was making four or five years earlier. So in fact it comes from an interest in cinema. You know the way in which you have an unbroken rhythmic series of images in conventional cinema, and once you start ‘freezing’ an image, you get a different sort of energy. A different thing is being described. The one about the dog is the central one. If you have a thing that is obviously a dog in motion, in a movie sequence, the dog would carry on moving. If you just look at the stopped frame, you literally don’t know what you’re seeing — you’re seeing a splat like an inkblot picture, a scatter picture, then you reconstitute it, and it’s a story again.
      So far as the form is concerned, it follows the sort of law I nearly always follow when I write, which is to assume that what I’m writing about is, if I’m lucky, a fairly unfamiliar idea, or a fairly intricate or oblique idea that’s odd enough to interest me. I don’t think I’m ever declamatory or rhetorical for the sake of it, so I’m interested in exploring something that I haven’t seen before, and what I do then it to try to write it simply, in as ‘clean’ a fashion as I can. So for me the boundary between prose sequences, the boundary between prose and verse, is a very fine one.
I don’t write in very metrical verse ever, and for me very often if I’m writing what (for want of a better phrase) is called prose poetry, the units are very often units of idea. To which I suppose I would apply the ordinary verse rules of not having redundant sound, and spare syllables that aren’t under the control of your sense of style or your sense of tension.

Let’s look at the matter of poetic development. Where did you begin as a writer when you first decided you wanted to write poetry rather than prose, or make movies or whatever else you might have wanted to do? And where did you learn to write from? Did you learn to write from English models, or from models in other languages?

I started at the age of nineteen, from the first place I could find anything which I thought crudely exciting enough to break the rather grey surface of my mind. I knew there was something that I wanted to make. I didn’t know what it was. All I’d studied up to that stage, and had felt any sympathy with was a sort of statuesque nineteenth century diction. Matthew Arnold was my idea of sensible development from the heady stuff like Keats. Had I started writing in that mood, all would have been lost, I think. But I knew better than that, and was completely stuck, and literally had — it may be a very common experience — a feeling of something wanting to be made, but not telling me at all what it was. I got in through reading surrealist or neo-surrealist texts, things like Salvador Dali’s autobiography, or Dylan Thomas’ prose works.
      The first poem I wrote, when I was nineteen, was a cheap trip through Dylan Thomas’ stage properties. Nobody who’s read me in print since would believe that. I still own the poem somewhere. I’ve never revealed it to anybody. I started in from steam heat, by raising the temperature and melting of the language, and writing a lingo that never was. I went very far from conversation. I don’t think I was very conversational at that stage. So I wrote in a special fine language and continued to do that, getting a bit more educated in what I did along the way.
      I remember writing the first thing I published — it was in a student magazine — it was a sort of King Lear dramatic monologue, where the old man is going out in a rather quiet way to die, and in the forty or fifty lines of this monologue he not only copies certain writers but he also alludes to them by quotation: Eliot, Yeats, Lorca, Rilke, Rafael Alberti, it was quite a catalogue. I went through the book, you know, being very eclectic indeed.

I think Eliot said that poets learn to write by being other writers for a while, and then moving onto another one.

I was being all of them, at that period. Then I went on, I got more of a smell of what the hard stuff was like. Oddly enough, from Robert Graves, who was surfacing, again, about this time. He was having one of his periods of being interesting. This was the early fifties, The White Goddess had come out and that interested me very much. Too much, at the time. I was interested in the really very tough but committedly imaginative strain that there is in Graves.
      You know, there is part of his poetry where he really means business, and I was interested in the not very decorated style of writing that he had, the style that was very close to a brusque off-hand conversational style. I learnt some things from that.

What about the influence of the English ‘Movement’ poets of the fifties, did you ever feel drawn to want to write in that style at all?

No, I couldn’t even mimic it. I can do imitations of things but I couldn’t understand enough of what made those people tick, even to send them up.

What about Larkin? Larkin was one of them but his writing style is very impressive, even to a young writer, I’d think. Even if you don’t like it, you have to respond to it.

Yes, I had a sort of near brush with Larkin. Larkin was about eight years older than I am. It was the point where I started having some currency, the things I’ve been talking about happened when I was a student around the early 1950s. I then stopped, and purely by this sort of chance that happens to people who are just sitting in their bed sitting rooms wondering what to do in their nights off, I wrote one or two little pieces without any content to them, without any meaning. They were little decorative fantasy pieces, and I sent one off to local radio station. It got broadcast. Then I had a thing in a magazine called The Window, which was a not very establishment-minded little magazine, John Sankey ran it.
      Whereas the ‘Movement’ people were coming through things like Encounter and The London Magazine, they were hitting the mainstream, and if you weren’t that, you weren’t going to get in. And Gael Turnbull saw it in The Window — he’s a person of very mixed background and a congenital outsider — he was collecting material for a guest-edited number of Cid Corman’s magazine Origin, the first series. And he was completely free in what he chose. Gael was temperamentally not interested in the English mainstream so he went sniffing around the outside.

Cut Pages

One of the people he chose to be in this issue of Corman’s magazine, along with me, was Larkin, who seemed to him not typical of the English and also obviously very good. I think at that stage the full biliousness of Larkin’s outlook on life hadn’t come through in the verse, and Larkin was not a man who was making pronouncements about the century having moved on too fast. He hadn’t cultivated his Eeyore qualities, the persona he developed in middle life. [’Eeyore’ is the donkey in a series of stories for children by A.A.Milne, author of Winnie-the-Pooh. ] Larkin was sent a complimentary copy of the magazine, to see what kind of magazine he was going to be in. He opened it and — I don’t know whether it was the impact of what he read, or the fact that his book was coming out shortly — he sent by registered post a countermand to withdraw all his material. So he wasn’t published along with Irving Layton and Charles Olson and Larry Eigner and untidy people like that. But our paths were close together for a little while there.

That must have been an interesting moment in English literary history. If only one could have realised what the past and the future would have looked like in fifty years time ...

Well, if he’d been in the magazine, I don’t think that sort of thing would have stuck with him. He wasn’t interested in opening the experience out.
      I found it a very windswept world of the mind to get involved with that, and to find that suddenly I was getting correspondence course lessons from Cid Corman. He was telling me what was happening in Black Mountain [Black Mountain College, in the United States]. This was the mid-fifties. It was a completely new world. And as an ordinary crusty young Englishman I found it new. I went some way along with it, but I wasn’t ready to run with it all the way.

So you read the American writers but at a bit of a distance, and it was a distance you wanted to keep. Was that was because of where you were born?

I’m a Midlander, which is a very particular sort of race. It’s supposed to be nowhere at all. I haven’t got the near-nationalism which Basil Bunting has. He had himself referred to as a ‘Northumbrian’, because Northumbria was an old kingdom, and its language is descended slightly differently [to other kinds of English] and its political institutions and its exposure to invaders from Scandanavia, and the way it was treated by the Norman French invaders, all this gave it a different fate from the body of England. I’m a Mercian, if Bunting was a Northumbrian. I come from the no-account bit in the middle.
      I’m — because of what in England we call ‘social class’ — I come from the thing called the ‘working class’, and I didn’t go to one of the older universities, and I’ve never lived in London. I’m a provincial. Someone in a review said ‘Fisher’s subject matter is, I suppose, always “the provinces”.’ Which is everywhere else but London and Oxford and Cambridge, and one or two rather well-to-do spots around that way. It doesn’t mean much, but it affects the way you behave, and what you root for and what you snarl at.

It also helps to determine where you appear in print, doesn’t it?

It can do. One mustn’t caricature, and certainly the people I think of as being on Establishment railway lines will fight back indignantly if you imply that certain ways are open to certain people and closed to others. But I think it certainly happened in my generation that ... it’s quite easy to be invisible. I don’t mind being invisible if it gives me independence. But there were times when you could feel more invisible than you wanted to be, simply because of the very strongly metropolitan habits that England has.
      There’s the ‘express route’ through into anything to do with the media of print and broadcasting. There are exceptions. But traditionally it will go from a ‘public’ (i.e. a private) school, it will go very commonly to Oxford, it will go into London.
      And the habit of starting a magazine, the habit of being in contact with people who are published, the people who have access to radio and so forth, it comes rather quickly, and there’s a network of passing favours and getting things done. Which means that people can be on their feet and up and running in their early twenties. And that happens to a lot of people.

Some of them are aware of it. I was reading a recent autobiographical piece by Thom Gunn. He said he left England and went to America partly because of how easy it was, he saw, for him and his friends to get into print in London. He went to Cambridge, and he said he went down to London, and he found it very easy to get reviewed well by his friends. For him I don’t think there was any point in any of that at all, because it didn’t have anything to do with what you were worth as a writer.

He’s a good guy from that point of view. The carry on of that quick burst into celebrity that Thom Gunn had, it lasted him for twenty, twenty-five years in this country. He’d come back for a reading — I met him at a reading full of parties of school kids, and he was surprised. He says no one pays this much attention to him in the United States, what’s it all about? It was the momentum. I remember picking up the London Magazine in my early twenties, and saying ‘Who’s this new poet? He’s got a come-on. He’s got a style.’ And there he was, bam bam. Ted Hughes the same. It’s not to be sneezed at.
      Whether that road through into publication affected the way people put things down, whether it makes them less shaggy, uncouth or odd — I wouldn’t call Ted Hughes other than shaggy, uncouth and odd, in his early days, and his Yorkshire-ism is very strong — but at the same time it may give you an idea of know-how about what it is to write a publishable text.
      Just as if someone said to you at an early age ‘Come and help me make this movie — hold this’ — you’ll know something about making a movie, other than you would know if you sat in a pub for fifteen years saying ‘It’s going to be a great movie, I can see it all in my mind’s eye,’ and you’d never been on a set. I think there are things like that, that work. And this has not got much to do with poetry, as poetry, but it may have something to do with the medium in which poetry exists.

Yes, and it has to do with how well you can reach an audience too, doesn’t it? If you find it hard to get into print, and hard to get publishers who can distribute your books well, then you tend not to have as much of an audience as you might have.

That’s true.

You mentioned in an earlier conversation that there was a period when you felt unable to write, then you broke out of that.

I was a late starter. In my early and middle twenties I wrote in a very solitary fashion. It was very much to do with fantasy. I was pretty mad — in a quiet kind of way, but my head was filled with a very thick and lurid soup. And I wrote this thick and lurid soup. I wrote virtuoso pieces with metaphors dripping and trailing all over the place. Then almost by accident, in the middle of writing a lot of very decorative work, I found that I was making contact for the first time with people with a demanding aesthetic — and these were people like Creeley and Corman — whatever their aesthetic was, it was at least demanding. I met people like that for the first time, saw them at work.
      I didn’t particularly want to follow the patterns they were working on. I certainly didn’t want to follow the mannerisms. I often sat scribbling happily sending those mannerisms up. But I was impressed by finding anybody in literature talking with the sort of toughness that I knew very well that painters frequently talk with. Discussions of literary form among the ‘Movement’ people and their reviewers all seemed to me to be very stilted and petty, and far more to do with [gang?] styles than to do with matters of making art, matters of composition. But here were these Americans who had been exposed to people like Albers and Buckminster Fuller; they were working to completely different rules from university literary fashion.
      So then I got access to magazines. I’m very passive about this. If I’m asked to choose things, I learnt early on that I choose the wrong ones. So I thought, ‘Let’s see. Who wants what?’ And Gael Turnbull was instrumental in getting me published at all. I would just send work to him as a friend. He knew everybody. He knew all the magazines, and was always feeding odd things into odd magazines. So I had quite a scattering of things published.
      Then, again, things were taken almost out of my hands. Michael Shayer was the other partner with Gael Turnbull and later me in the little international thing called Migrant Press, which bridged various things that were happening in America and in this country. Michael looked at my great heaving mass of odds and ends that I was writing about Birmingham, which was Rimbaud at one end, and, say, hard prose at the other, and saw that this material could be used as a kind of collage work; which he could see, and I couldn’t. So he shook it around a bit and produced the first draft of ‘City’ which was published in 1961 as a Migrant pamphlet.
      I didn’t like it, but it caught people’s attention. The knowledge that people were reading the stuff, and that it was not perfect, so far as I was concerned — it gave me a screaming fit. I could hardly move out of my chair for months. It really upset me.
      I got used to it. I wrote various other things, slowly, then decided that this simply hadn’t got enough leverage, it hadn’t got enough power. I was learning to write the style I now write. But to be truthful, that had to be a fairly minimalist style, and I wanted more bulk or power. I spent ages trying to write a massive novel. Oddly enough, talking to an Australian, the person I had in mind was Patrick White, the way in which he could make great massive and epic effects. I was reading things like Voss, and being very impressed by large verbal structures, gothic or baroque things which would take you out of normality.
      So ... I did that, and spent a lot of energy on it for a year or two, and got two or three sentences written, and a lot of notebooks. And I thought to hell with this, this is not succeeding, I’ll go back to poetry. And when I went back to it, the poetry wasn’t there. And so ...

Oh dear.

So I was on the rocks. I was on the rocks for years. I couldn’t write at all. In the middle of this period I met Stuart Montgomery who was setting up Fulcrum Press with a very interesting list, almost entirely of Americans neglected in America — when you say that these were people with names like Louis Zukofsky, Robert Duncan, and Gary Snyder, you realise you’re talking about a very strange period in American literature. These were books like New Directions books which were temporarily out of print, or things which British publishers had taken an option on and not taken up — it was the late sixties and people were going to read poetry. So he built up a list of people like that.
      He added the Englishman Basil Bunting who was terribly neglected and who’d just written Briggflatts, and was opening up again. And he added me. He published my little prose work The Ship’s Orchestra. And then made a collection of the older pieces. So I published with him. And when I shook myself out of my block around 1970 I fairly rapidly wrote a prose work called The Cut Pages, from which this ‘Stopped Frames and Set-Pieces’ comes. And I put together another collection called Matrix. Those felt natural books to be doing.

Were they with a mainstream press?

I suppose the mainstream press, as England regards itself, has always been Faber. Fulcrum was not in a sense an experimental or avant garde press. It knew very well what it thought was quality. And it knew very well what it thought was going to be part of the literary history of the times. So it could reach out for Americans at full stretch, or in full flight, as [Robert] Duncan was at that time, and say ‘This we can endorse. This we can use.’
      It would at the same time publish a certain number of chancey people like Spike Hawkins, Jeff Nuttall, the early Lee Harwood, and Christopher Middleton who was always getting knocked by English critics for being formalist and aesthetic — ‘Why can’t you play one that we know? Why can’t you play one we can all sing along with?’ — the typical English critical cry. Fulcrum would do that. It was a serious press, which did quite nice books. And Americans bought them. As well as some English people.
      When I went to America I met all the people who had bought my Fulcrum books. They hired me to do readings. That’s where my Fulcrum books were, on American bookshelves, in houses on campuses. People who’d bought them in the late sixties.

What’s you relationship with academia? You went into academia fairly early in the piece, yet you seem to me to be the sort of poet who hasn’t gone into the academic line at all. You seem to have veered away from it all through your writing life.

I suppose so. I’ve never been conscious of there being an academic literary tradition around me in the country. I couldn’t in this country say that so-and-so is a ‘campus poet’, in the way in which you can say this about American poets who live on campus.

I think it’s a very American thing, isn’t it?

Yes. If you can graduate in Creative Writing, and take a doctorate in it, and then get a job teaching it, that’s a quite different life from anything that’s available over here. There are scraps of it. There are one or two programs; very few programs for a credit, and they are minor parts of degree courses. There was a time when you could be a writer-in-residence on an Arts Council grant at a university campus, but that by English standards was regarded as far too leisurely an existence. You just officially seemed to be staying in a place of comfort. If you had that sort of job you weren’t required to run credit programs. You would be seeing the odd people who wrote a bit and you’d do a reading and get some of your friends in to do a program of readings. Funds for that sort of a thing in this country nowadays tend to be attached to all sorts of community activity programs and they’re out of academia almost completely, I think.

So what’s the work you’ve done in universities?

I was just an ordinary literature teacher. I worked in colleges for along time. We have — or we had — an sort of intermediate higher education institution, which was essentially for training teachers. And in those days they were of a more modest grade than universities. People didn’t need to be so well qualified to get in. I quite enjoyed working at a couple of those. I was teaching teaching for quite a lot of the time. I was teaching ‘method’ rather than teaching ‘literature’, and in fact I ducked out from teaching literature straight, as much as I could. I taught all sorts of things, like story-telling skills, and children’s literature, and how to control a class, and things of this sort, having been a school-teacher for a time.
      And I didn’t particularly want to have to handle the idea of being half in criticism, scholarship; and I rather enjoyed teaching in institutions where you could in fact set quite a fast pace of work — particularly with adult students, with whom I worked for ten or twelve years — with a complete freedom of curriculum. If I wanted to teach Catullus in translation and Dostoyevsky in translation — what I could read, not having the languages — I could teach that.
      Whereas in university programs, they tend to be rather more hidebound, you know, English literature written in English for the English was basically what you had to do. That was the case twenty or thirty years ago. It loosened up.

Photo of Roy Fisher copyright Claire McNamee

Photo of Roy Fisher copyright © Claire McNamee, courtesy Bloodaxe Publishers

Claire has photographed many poets, novelists, playwrights and screenwriters over the years. You can visit her site here:

When I went to teach in a university in the end, I carefully joined an American studies department and taught in a American studies program, so as to teach literature which was of interest [to me]. I just taught modern literature, nineteenth and twentieth century literature, fiction and poetry. I did that really so as not to get caught up in the rather head-cracking debates about how to teach English literature as such. You know, you get into the debates about how much theory there should be, how much structuralism there should be, how much Marxism there should be. Those are truly academic debates. I wasn’t too bothered with them.

They’re political debates too, debates about who has the power and who doesn’t, and who controls the latest fashion and who doesn’t.

They all seem to me to be reductive. In the long run they turn out to be dedicated to honing the curriculum down and down and down to a smaller and smaller canon which will have certain sharp socio-political edges. I’m not interested in that.

I talked to Frank Kermode a bit about that when he was in Australia recently. He went through a very rough time at Cambridge going through exactly that kind of argument.

He would indeed.

Trying to loosen things up a bit, I think, and introduce new ideas, and of course that’s hard to do in an older university. Old is old, too. That goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. You have a weight of tradition to push against there which can be quite frustrating.

And all those debates to do with academic fashion, they’re conducted with what is apparently a very high moral purpose, but they’re very introverted debates, and to my way of thinking they come down to matters of intellectual style rather than of cultural substance, or anything which has got an active muscle in it.

The [New York] art critic Peter Schjeldahl argued a few years ago in Australia [in his keynote address to the Adelaide Festival Artists’ Week in February 1986] that fashion and style are very good things because they help to focus the spotlight of attention on what’s the newest and the best and the most energetic work being done in any particular field, and they save you the impossible task of having to read literally everything, which no one can do.

Oh yes ... I take that ... ah, I would probably have taken it more when I was younger. The way I get to feel as I grow older and see a few more cycles go around — and I’m fairly slow at catching fashions and knowing what’s going on, and people never tell me anything — probably I’m the sort of person who manages not to be told things — but as I see the cycles go around, I get a bit spaced out. I sit back and ... try to think on eternity, and what is substantial and what is historically important over a long period. I don’t tend to get very much disturbed or very much excited by what seems to be going on this minute. I don’t get too much from it.

You’ve just had three books out in the last three years from Oxford University Press, which seems like a blast of fashionability.

You get remarks on some books that say ‘This book is made from recycled paper.’ My books maybe ought to have a warning saying ‘This book is made from recycled books.’ In fact the Oxford Collected of 1980 was almost entirely composed of most of four Fulcrum books, plus one Carcanet book. Then A Furnace, which was a separate book, and is a single free-standing work, was almost all I’ve published during the eighties. And the Poems 1955–1987 is a recycling of the 1980 Collected, with ten or twenty pages added. So some of the contents of these books are having their third and fourth and fifth time around.
      It all comes from the fact that the first verse collection I did with Fulcrum was called Collected Poems, which was my first collection of poems. And I also thought it was going to be my last, because I was in the block, and I wasn’t expecting to write any more poems. So I have this habit of ‘collecting’ as I go. So some of these poems have been ‘collected’ quite a few times.

That’s what writers used to do a hundred years ago, isn’t it? They’d bring out a book, then the next edition would have a few more poems, and they’d go on adding to the one book. Each book they brought out was a more complete version of their work. So that as their lives went along, the book grew with them, as it were.

Well, yes. That’s quite congenial to me. It’s probably why I publish with Oxford, who have done a few books of that sort. I don’t write much, you see. Also a lot of what I do write is an attempt to make sense, or make art, or make form of what were inchoate experiences some while ago. Or even inchoate writings which I want to rewrite or revisit. I am not a verse diarist. I don’t think of myself changing enormously with circumstance. I don’t write very autobiographically in terms of things that happen to me or what I go and do. I chew away at the relationship of my head to the world as I try to understand it, and there’s a lot of internalisation going on. And the art changes, the way I want to use artistic methods change.
      But on the whole, I suppose — although there are vast and very obvious differences — I probably see the rolling collection a bit in the way that Whitman saw Leaves of Grass. He saw it as an organism which grew along with his life, and might change and have bits left out and bits added in and bits ... redone in one way or another, or made more sense of as he saw more sense. But I don’t think of it as a thing where I move through and reject and lose old things and rejoice at new ones.

You don’t rewrite history, in the way that Auden is supposed to have done.

In his own texts? Not a lot, not a lot. Quite a lot of the things I have done within recent years have been lookings-back at myself by way of the texts that I wrote then. And I’ve seen myself through the way I wrote, and wanted to go back and understand that self better through understanding what those texts are twenty years later. But I don’t see my work as a kind of thing like a politician’s diary, which I think may be what Auden was thinking of. I don’t think I’ve got that sort of personality.

One thing that’s very important in your work, it seems to me, is the influence of place on what you write. It seems you often recreate a place in your work, particularly Birmingham, where you grew up. Now you live out of Birmingham, in the country. I can’t imagine two more opposite environments — Birmingham, busy and industrial, completely different to where you live now, which is very quiet, farming country way up in the hills in the middle of England where a car might go by every five minutes.

It’s very different. But oddly enough, I don’t seem to be able to go to any bit of country without finding traces of mining and industry and people’s lives in it. When I was living in Birmingham which I did for forty years, I suppose I was stuck with it like a child out of Wordsworth. For some reason I never really swam in the city as an urban person, although I lived in and around the town a great deal, and was in the pubs and in the jazz clubs and in the educational system of the same place for decades on end.
      But I was brought up with an implicit belief from my family ... my family who were working people, who seemed to have not long been brought in from the country ... they didn’t know anything about the country, they didn’t know where they’d come from, but there was a sort of strong moral air that it would be good to get back onto farm land again, and it was something of a pity that they’d had to come in to make a living, that the genes had had to come in two or three generations back, maybe, to be servants or silversmiths or whatever it was. Certainly my father’s family, a couple of generations of them, were the sort of working people who got out into the country on bikes and went camping. I was taken for walks in whatever tiny little bit of country there was, and taught flowers and birds’ nests, and hills and so forth. It doesn’t seem odd to me to live among hills particularly, now. I don’t know anything about farming or things like that. But there’s an urge to get into that sort of country.

Cloudy Rocks

Photo copyright © John Tranter 1997

And I suppose the other relation is this, that —what I was trying to say a few minutes ago — that having been brought up in the city — rather as if exiled in it, but exiled from what, I was never told! — I thought of the city as something to question. As I say, I wasn’t a real town kid who just withered if shown a cow, you know, the typical town intellectual who says ‘Yes, yes, very nice, take me back, take me back before the pubs open.’ I wasn’t one of those town people, and I just saw it — partly because of a somewhat oblique or withdrawn personality — I just saw it as an agnostic, I had to say ‘What is it? What’s this great blob? What’s this noise, what is all this red brick? Why are people like this?’
      And in the early poetry, the city poetry, I would be trying to more or less put a lever under it and prise it up, historically, and say ‘What are these two hundred years that have made this city? That have suddenly made this deposit on the surface of the earth, and has made these activities happen?’
      If I live in the country, as I do now, I live in a country which has got a couple of hundred years of petty industrial history, which you can see. And I also live among deposits which are three to four thousand years old. There are Bronze Age tombs on the skyline out of the window. And I think I learn a bit more history, or I learn a bit more intuitive sense of history.
      So always I’m looking at development and growth and the way people use land, the way people inhabit the surface of the earth. For me it’s just a matter of looking at it with a rather longer view. It’s odd. I’m living in the middle of what is quite remote country, you can feel remote in it, but I’m told that half the population of England live within fifty or sixty miles in the ring of industrial cities that are all around this green upland. And a lot of my working life consists of going out and giving readings in those cities, or teaching writing workshops in those cities, or playing the piano in the hotels and jazz clubs of those cities. I’m there quite a lot. I sleep in the country. (Laughs)

So you’re not a recluse. You’re just a person who likes to get away from it all the time, if you can.

I’m a gregarious hermit.

Talking about jazz reminds me to ask you — do you get your rhythms from the jazz keyboard?

If I played the piano with the rhythms I write with, I’d get shot. Because the rhythms of my writing are I suppose of the family of the rhythms of ... Samuel Beckett, or somebody like that. It comes from very close to silence. The linguistic rhythms I use sit, almost like philosophical discourse, very close to silence. And I’m not very interested in any kind of go-go rhythm. The music I play is very much mainstream jazz. It’s got to have some snap ... and ... I just like swing. I probably play the piano much more emotionally than I write. This allows the writing to be as cold as anything if I want it to be. I don’t need that thrill from writing. I don’t even need my writing to be particularly juicy, because if I play, it’s juicy and snappy or it’s nothing, you know ... or it’s sentimental. If I play ballads, or ‘Sophisticated Lady’, or ‘Body and Soul’, I make quite a meal of them. But I never want to write that kind of poetry. So I’ve probably split myself quite happily two ways, in those two arts. I play the piano in quite a juvenile, enthusiastic fashion.

Jazz piano is an American art, too, isn’t it?

Oh, yeah. Somebody once asked me in an interview years ago who influenced my writing and I said without thinking about it, Pee-Wee Russell, you know, the Chicago clarinet player. And I wasn’t being smart. Because I learned that music, I learned it as outsider music, as music that you had to go around corners to find. Music that was made against bourgeois traditions and academic traditions. I was studying the jazz of the twenties and the thirties. And that appealed to me very much, and I could understand the way of thinking of people who didn’t want to play the same thing twice ever, and who had for me — and I still admire it very much in musicians — a mixture of good old-fashioned, not too worldly-wise sense of Romantic creativity. You know, tonight may be the night, this number may be the number when I astonish myself, I may hit it this time. A combination of that with an honest artisan approach ... yes, I know how to begin and end a number, I know how to play in time, I know how to get my fingers on the right notes, without any ‘faff’ about personality and fame.
      There’s a basic artisan level in playing a tune in time and in the right key without failing, without scaling the impossible. But at the same time you’re always pitching yourself against something — you’ve got to invent. So I like that combination.

There’s an interesting contradiction there, isn’t there? There’s nothing more personal than an individual jazz style. That’s what makes you who you are as a jazz player. And yet you can’t say anything about yourself when you play a jazz piano. You hit keys that make notes and that’s it. You can’t say ‘I was born here, and I grew up, and I had an unhappy love affair, and I failed an exam, and then I got a university medal ...’ You can’t say anything about who you are or where you come from ... you can’t express anything about who you are, at all.

Well, it’s abstract. Yes. But I don’t overtly, so far as I know, do many of those things in the writing. I think a lot of the poets that you and I are going to be interested in don’t do that all that much. That’s marginal. Though we’re interested in the gossip. And if we give readings, or there are little notes about the authors in the back of the book, people grab on those, because not many of the poets that I’m interested in as craftsmen and practitioners of a tradition, not many of them are the ones who make a meal of their mistakes, or how much booze they can take, or how many women they can pull, or how they stand among their peers. The personal plight poetry isn’t so much in it ...

There’s that rather delightful essay by Frank O’Hara called ‘Personism: A Manifesto’ where he talks about avoiding all of that stuff about displaying your emotions.

Yes; that figures. But I can jump immediately from Frank O’Hara to Brecht ... the appeal for me of Brecht is the fact that although you can read him one way and say that this man lived through the cataclysms, and he slid between the jaws of the monsters that were grinding on him, and he lived this way and he lived that way, but you know perfectly well that the work is based methodologically — I’m talking about poetry — the work is based on ways of getting moral judgment free from autobiography, and that autobiography is there from the point of view merely of necessary witness.
      Somebody — a man has got to be there facing, if you like, abstract moral or political judgment. So somebody’s got to be there doing it. You can’t do it on a schedule, or you can’t do it on a theory. The autobiography is there serving a function of witness, as testimony, as the bona fides that somebody was there. They guy actually put his life where his brain was. That, whether it comes in O’Hara, or Brecht, or an abstract musician, is of interest to me, rather than reading juicy stories.

It’s interesting with O’Hara that almost all of his work deals with his own actual experiences from day to day, so it’s extremely personal in that sense. And yet he never uses poetry to puff that up into anything important. It’s just there as material.

He knew the difference between what poetry was, and [what it] was not. So he’s good.

I’ll read a few excerpts from the long poem I wrote four years ago, which is called A Furnace. It’s built very much on the lines of other modern long poems — it’s a collage of various sorts of experience, some of them what I can only call cultural, some of them autobiographical, some of them are a working over of what I think now about things I’ve written before.
      And I suppose if it’s got a theme, it’s an attempt to place my understanding of how the civilisation I was brought up in, which is working class life in a large industrial city which has been invented for people who are not most of the people who live in those cities — an examination of that whole cultural era, that historical era, the two hundred years or so which brought heavy industry, which invented the heavy industrial city, and has — while I’ve been watching it, while I’ve been writing about it — allowed it to cease and be dismantled and turned into computer businesses and unemployment programs and leisure parks and things of this sort. I’ve watched that happen.
      And I suppose the thing that very much makes the material of the poem is the fact that those cities are huge sudden objects, they are icons, they are ju-jus, they are idols and gods. There are huge physical structures on the surface of the earth which were thrown up.

The Dow Low Drop cover

Cover of The Dow Low Drop — New and Selected Poems, Bloodaxe Books, cover painting ‘The Autumn of Central Paris (after Walter Benjamin)’ by R.B.Kitaj (1972–73)
Courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art, London

I was brought up in the shadow of these things, huge black iron constructions turning to half-mile stretches of rust, great monstrosities, things belching smoke and so on and so forth. These were my environment, and I’m very interested in where they came from, and where they’ve now gone, because they’re disappearing as soon as I look at them. You can go to steel towns or coal mining areas and see them razed flat and turned into other things. You can see the good old human race at work making itself comfortable, making itself rich, blotting out what it’s doing. That interests me.
      And I suppose what I wanted to do in this poem was to say ‘How do I know what I know? Who am I? Who is the observer?’ It’s an attempt — without sitting down to it and writing a five page autobiography — an attempt, by illustrating the way I see, and the way one thing connects with another, to show what sort of an observer I was. And it talks about my education, and the way in which I consider that that education taught me not to see what was in front of my eyes. And anything I have seen, I’ve only seen by virtue of having been very inattentive or rebellious at school, and looking at what was out of the corner of the picture, what was outside the frame.

[ Roy Fisher reads from A Furnace, Oxford University Press, 1986, page 12 to page 19, part of Section II, ‘The Return’.]

begins: ‘but still, with hardly a change to it, / the other dream or intention ...

ends: ‘ ... Birmingham voices in the entryways / lay the law down. My surprise / stares into the walls.

This was a poem where I knew that I’d somehow got to convey I suppose two things, one of which is fairly easy for me after a few decades of practice, which is to say what I’ve seen, to notate, to report. Because I suppose you get used to describing in terms that people can say ‘Yes, I see that. You can draw.’ The other thing which is very difficult for me is to somehow enact what I can only call my cast of mind, you know, the angle that the world hits me at, and what it does to me. I take it that this is the most difficult thing that anybody has to do, and maybe some poets can learn to do it quickly and deftly, by how they describe, and I suppose I’m fairly used to being able to get a cast of mind by moving through a bit of material quickly, what you might call an acute state of the cast of your mind. If we’re thinking of Frank O’Hara, you pick a little thing like ‘Lana Turner Has Collapsed’ or ‘The Day Lady Died’, where so much comes through in a little diagonal passage of that man’s mind, through a newspaper event or through a public event.
      What I find is difficult is to somehow convey what it’s like to be in my head for a week or a month, as various sorts of material — some of which doesn’t get conversed about, but is just moods, or is ways of reprocessing experience and joining new experience up to old experience — to somehow find an notation for what that’s like. I’m stuck with wanting to do that.
      So all I could think of to do in this poem was not to pitch against Pound, but to make, in a similar way to all the books of [W.C.Williams’s] Paterson, or whatever you like, an accretive work, where the thing is written in a sequence which is to me musical, but it is at the same time a heap, it’s an arrangement, which is not narrative, it’s an arrangement in the familiar style of the modern long poem, from any time in the last sixty or seventy years, one of the styles of the modern long poem, the collage. Where you revisit various themes at various times in the course of a thousand or two thousand lines.

Roy Fisher

Photo of Roy Fisher
copypright © John Tranter 1997

If you read it once, and you read it again, they’ll start to chime together. And the systems in the poem ... for instance, there’s a system to do with identities which is a word that pops up in that sequence a few times, but at one point it’s been laid down, and it’s chimed on, as if it were an orchestral work, certain instrument sounds, certain bell sounds, and anybody who is patient enough, and is going to give his life up [laughs] to moving through this poem a few times is at least going to be helped by the formal recurrences of a certain bit of vocabulary, or certain icons, you know, like the old woman in black sitting by the wall, there’ll be several old women in the poem, there’s a system.
      When I call it a system, I don’t mean a mathematically worked-out system, but there’s a reference system like the blood or the lymph, that passes through the poem, which is various ways of treating death. There’s an on-going discussion of death, whether the reader likes it or not. I’m talking about death quite a lot, and I’m like this evangelist who’s at your elbow, saying ‘Talking about death ... we just had this bit about sex and drink or whatever and birth, I was thinking about death while we were doing this, so let’s think about death again for a bit, and the burial of the dead.’ I go back to it because that’s the thing I’m riding through the poem.
      So... I think this is a distinct crunch and difficulty for anybody writing a long poem made of poetry, which is intended to be made of poetry rather than hung on narrative or hung on a lot of anecdote, but which is made chiefly for being in a language which is somewhat freed from anecdote, and is made to move in its own way.
      If you have along poem made of poetry, I think we’re stuck with having to ask people to float on it and hang around it as they hang around a work of abstract art, or a sizeable symphonic work which they can’t tap their foot to all the way through. People do this with music. They will expose themselves to a symphony and see what sticks, see what the character of it is. Later they will understand the themes.
      I have to say the poem was not written to be broadcast at long stretches and got in one.

It was written to be read off the page, wasn’t it?

It’s written to be pored over. I also wanted to write it as something which I could read with pleasure myself, as a sound sequence. I didn’t want it to be a cut-up, I didn’t want it to be a bag of bits. I did want it to have a certain amount of forward progression, in the sense of the episodes beating along through it. At least that was what I was after.

How has the poem been responded to by people who’ve read it or reviewed it?

Not badly. I don’t think I’ve encountered reviews which say, oh what the hell, this is a self-indulgent piece of pomposity. What’s happened is that the quick reviews tended to say ‘This work is a bit more humane than we’re used to with Fisher. There are actually some people in it, there’s actually a bit of emotion, a bit of political snarling, indignation, anger even. There is supposed to be. It’s certainly there in me. Whether it’s in the poem ... is not for me to say, but people immediately seem to get a feeling that just possibly, by going on at greater length than I often do, a certain amount of blood and emotion builds up and is secreted.
      Lately — they’re just coming in to print — three or four sizeable academic articles have been written — Andrew Crozier, Ian Gregson, Peter Barrie — have written lengthy articles in which they fitted in to what they know of what I’ve done before. And they see it as I see it, which is as an elucidation, a sort of long gloss and re-enactment of things which I’ve blundered into, habits I’ve blundered into, areas of material ... when I say blundered, I’m not criticising myself — I intended to blunder, I wasn’t doing anything else — which I blindfolded myself and went for, twenty or thirty years ago.
      And I was conscious certainly in this of saying ‘I’m a bit clearer in the head, and a bit stronger in the hand — how do I now work over the area I found myself in? How do those things fit to what I understand about history, or the plight of peoples?’ They’ve seen that, and pretty-well they all seem to have seen the same thing, and they’ve named one or two things which apparently I’ve inadvertently invented, like a thing called ‘mimetic scepticism’. Apparently I do have a technique of describing bits of the world with loving care but in such language as to cast enormous doubt on whether there’s anything there at all.
      And I suppose I do do this. I’m in the business of doing that, I mean, the tradition of Laurence Sterne and again Beckett, saying ‘I see this thing, it’s doing this, it’s doing that, and do I exist to see it at all? Is language stable?’ I’m always asking that. But I don’t want to play mere language games. This question of what you can say and in what terms you can try to say anything and what you say will do to somebody — these are all up for question, for me. So I suppose I’m an uncomfortable writer in that sense. I don’t intend to be otherwise.
      I’ll read some excerpts from a longish work I wrote in the early sixties, some forty pages odd, of short prose units. It’s called The Ship’s Orchestra. This is one of my two favourite works, the other being the long poem A Furnace, which is more recent. I suppose they are favourite children of mine, both of them — they are very different — but they both are unusually, for me, pretty well deliberate extended compositions.
      I tend to work always rather by chance. I work from chance stimuli, very much like a graphic artist, I’ll work from bits of photograph, bits of picture, things snatched out of the air, John Cage fashion, often by chance operations, on the assumption that I’m thinking of something all the time, I may not know what it is, but if I have something oblique to key me in to something that’s lurking near consciousness, then I’ll have a medium in which I can make something.
      So very often I’ll do short things, I’ll just get a raid on my own mind by some means like that. I’ll go in and find something and it will surprise me and I’ll come out and I may have made it as well as I can, but it may not have been with me for long in my consciousness. A Furnace was brewing for a long time, and The Ship’s Orchestra, which turned up very strangely, at least was with me for most of the year when I wrote it.

Cover of A Furnace

Now what happened was that I just felt a wish to catch a certain sort of discourse, a certain sort of tone, which was controlled, but at the same time as wacky as I wanted it to be. I suppose one way of looking at it came from the observation — I don’t know if I made it as long ago as this — but it’s about the way I would write poetry and the way I would write dreams.
      In my early twenties when I started I was very interested in dreams and what Freud called ‘the laws of the dream’, which I took it to be narrative laws, rather than psychological laws. I’m not interested in psychology, but I’m very interested in the way a dream unfolds, or appears to unfold. And I still am, particularly with the modern theories of dreams, which I like very much, which suggest that strong electrical impulses come out of the base of the brain, and just tell spare material which is not the case to get out; on the way out it passes through the visual cortex or whatever, which doesn’t go to sleep completely, and that desperately attempts to make narratives out of these scraps of rubbish, which are not so, the dreams are what are not so; the rubbish, faced with extinction, says ‘We’ve just go to make some sense of ourselves — get your clothes off quick, climb that wall, fly, drink this, go purple, do any narrative trick you can think of ...’ and a sort of John Barth extravaganza happens at once.
      And I love the — you know, being interested in art media as well as reality media, I’m fascinated at what happens. In my early twenties, for reasons which I thought to be psychological, I would notate dreams, with great care, night after night. And after a few years — and I ought to be writing poetry — after a few years I realised that the poems which I wrote with enormous sweat and love and amour-propre were appallingly written and full of bombast; the dreams were beautifully written.
      I couldn’t write now better than I could write my dreams. And when I couldn’t write art work at all, I could write these damn dreams. Cool as a cucumber. They were written in the style of Roy Fisher, you know, they were quite cleanly done.
      And I wrote a thing ‘as if a dream’. And what I wrote came rather strangely. I had a reproduction of that famous Picasso painting called ‘Three Musicians’ where there’s a little monk-like figure holding a clarinet, and there’s bits of a fourth musician, and I did a sort of you know ‘What kind of musicians are these?’ And I always sympathise — I mean, I make half my living by being a member of the band that turns up for the gig and say ‘Who the hell have we got on bass?’
      The other night I played one where the bass player was really an accordion player, or a concertina player, and he played bass like a concertina, you know, what can you do? And you walk in, and you try to persuade the people to let you get out alive and pay you. I love this.
      And I thought ‘What kind of band is this?’ You look at that picture and you say, you book these people for the Bar Mitzvah or your daughter’s wedding or whatever it is, and they turn up. Can they cope, will they send you to kingdom come, will they blow your mind? So I looked at this, and after a bit something which was nothing whatever to do with them came up. It was the idea of a completely confused sort of Kafkaesque set of people with their own comedy, on a ship. Now it was in the days when I had travel-phobia, I had never been on a ship, I thought I never would go on a ship, I would never leave this island. So I wrote a story about a ship’s orchestra.
      I’ve been offered jobs in ship’s orchestras since then but I’ve always sent another piano player in case it all came true. And it was a sort of, if you like, Kafkaesque or Beckettesque fable, of people who are musicians but don’t play, so what are they? Is it musicians that they are? What is it to be a musician who is not called upon to play? And then they fictionalised themselves, and turned into characters.
      And I found — and it delighted me — that I was making the work, just on laws of art. By the end of the first page I found I’d got three or four concepts in play, certain images, and I thought ‘I’m going to make the whole thing out of this, on a palette.’ And I also had a rigorous law of composition. Which is that everything that was written must somehow come from what was already written, but that must be regarded as complete. The work at any moment was finished. I couldn’t lay trails as a novelist can for something that was coming in advance. And I was not to know — I must not know what was coming next. So I wrote in these short units that were almost like verses, and each one was finished, and for me that was a compositional law, and it gave me a standard. A compositional law sharpens up your texture.
      So I enjoyed writing this. I think it’s a well-written little thing. Later I’ll read some.
      So here’s the beginning of The Ship’s Orchestra. The character who’s speaking is the piano player in the band. The whole thing takes place in his consciousness. He’s an indeterminate sort of character. You don’t know much about him except the way he sees things. He may or may not be sober, he may or may not be telling the truth. He may or may not know whether he’s telling the truth or not. He may or may not be who he says he is. He may or may not know all these things.

[ Roy Fisher reads some excerpts from The Ship’s Orchestra.

begins: ‘The Ivory Corner was only a wooden section of wall ...’ [The Dow Low Drop, p.43]

ends: ‘...the little boy lies on the floorboards.’ [p. 46]

I see some history in your writing, and also some regionalism. And I guess this is compared to New York writers or London writers or writers from Melbourne Australia. I was wondering how you see the work you do as part of a tradition that might touch on the work of Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns on one side and Bunting’s Briggflatts on the other.

Geoffrey Hill comes from a place really very near to where I come from. He was born around Bromsgrove which I suppose is twenty miles, thirty miles at the most, from where I come from. He comes from a rather similar social class. Obviously enough, he’s got a rather different stake in matters from mine. He’s — I think — always more structured and more controlled.
      Probably for geographical reasons I found Mercian Hymns more to my liking than I think the people I normally run with would expect me to. It is thought of as tending to make a political sound, or an aesthetico-political sound far to the right of what I’m about. And there is this priestly and hieratic quality which some of the people who like what I like would think of as rather tight and bombastic.
      I was caught by it very much, and the atmospheres of what goes on in Mercian Hymns, they rang true for me in all sorts of ways. The idea of there being a history of quite savage energy which is almost recoverable from the body of Middle England, that seems to me worth looking at and worth exploring. I’m probably a lot less interested in kings and hierarchies and great public deeds than he is. But I think there’s something there.
      And I did indeed once write a poem for him, which was a curious little thing. It’s called ‘Staffordshire Red’ and it arose from an incident where I was driving on a sunless day, so that I couldn’t find my bearings from the sun, through a fairly featureless but rather intricate bit of landscape in North Staffordshire, and I found myself, as I felt, ‘driving through’ a poem by Geoffrey Hill. And it’s where a road goes through a sudden cleft in a sandstone cliff with trees arching above it, and I said ‘I’m in a poem by Geoffrey Hill’.
      And I wrote this poem for him, and sent it to him, and the next time we met he said rather savagely ‘What are you doing in my imagination?’ So I said ‘As a Midlander, I have a perfect right to inhabit that bit of Mercia.’
      Again, as a man with, I think, an easier access to a historical sense, he was able to move — as he always has been able to move — into other cultures and into earlier bits of England, of English history, into the Tudor or mediaeval periods, the Plantagenet periods and into the Saxon periods, more easily than I could. I didn’t have much of a sense of history to start with, and I acquired it very gradually. It was a thing I was conscious of not having, just like people know they’re tone deaf. I get very interested in acquiring more, now. I drift into the past and try to find my feet there.
      He probably was at ease there; more at ease than he was in the present, much earlier in life than I was.

What about [Basil Bunting’s long poem] Briggflatts? It appears to me to have some connections with what you were doing with Birmingham, in a way. You’re not alike at all, but ...


Compared to, say, Peter Porter, or ...

Oh yeah ... We would be different sorts of Roman poet, wouldn’t we? I suppose Bunting and Porter and I would be listening to classical poetry in different ways, and they will know much more about it than I do, having the languages and all. But I suppose where I would come at all into the same area as Basil Bunting is in that particular thing I’ve tried to express, the difficulty of showing your cast of mind in an extended form of — how did I put it? — trying to illustrate what it’s like to be in your head for a day or a week.
      And the way in which Briggflatts [is] dealing with its own materials, going back to Eric Bloodaxe, going back to personal memory, having a swipe at London, or Paris, quite freely, as if there was no such thing as sequential time, as if everything was in a dream-time of things which are mythic, and a thing which could be a little adolescent moment, or the ride in the cart, it could have happened in Homeric times, it could have happened, it did happen in the Homeric time of a person’s own life — this is a different time from chronological time.
      In an autobiographical bit I was writing recently I found myself saying that there was a rather dramatic illness I had when my life was at risk for whatever while, when I was twelve, it was an attack of pneumonia which took me away from the world for a while, and in that little bit of pre-adolescence, I found I was living as a convalescent in the place to which I go now to be able to write. And what I found myself saying was that in that place — I’m not twelve again, but it’s a place where I don’t have to bother to grow old. It’s a timeless place. And I can take modern and really awfully grown-up experiences into that place, and the boy of twelve accepts them.
      And I think what Basil did classically in Briggflatts is to establish a timeless time. You’re conscious of time passing, you’re conscious of the faculty of memory, and the faculty of search in memory, and the bringing of life from the past. I suppose that, yes, I would want to do that. I want to be free to go from Achilles, as I understand Achilles, who is a person in the book, to my great-great-great uncle William Fisher, who is a figure in a census return which I happen to have read on a microfiche. It’s Homeric for me. As are certain moments from my own life.
      Bunting’s obsession was his aesthetic, his physical obsessions are different from mine, and he’s not a man for acres and acres of brick and rust and greasy canals. But it’s very clear to anybody who reads Briggflatts and hears the music what the sensory world of Bunting’s mind was. You have it there.

I don’t think this is a very important point, but I should mention it. It seems to me from the perspective of Australia that your work is more ‘American’ than ‘English’ English. Have you run into that problem in England as an English poet? That people have said ‘Well he’s not really English at all, he’s more American than English, therefore we don’t like him, or we don’t understand what he’s trying to do.’

I’ve been puzzled over. You know there are various little labels that get put on you, and these get parrotted from year to year without being updated. There’s one which still gets said, which is that Roy Fisher is far better known in America than he is in Britain. I rather wish that this were so, but it hasn’t been true since about 1960 when I was slightly known in America and not known at all in Britain.
      In fact almost all my currency, so far as I know, is in Britain, and it occurs through two things. One is that I have written to some extent about city life and the actual physical being of cities. And since an enormous number of people have been exposed to that, even though they may not see things the way I see it, they’re quite glad to read something which deals with that material fact.
      And I’ve got another constituency, which is among young poets, or younger poets and maybe some artists who are quite at ease with the kind of aesthetic I have, or the kind of interest in form that I have. I don’t think that I’ve had much currency in the United States since the United States became fairly self-sufficient in its own poetry, and had plenty of American things to go looking at.
      I’ve never been accused of making ‘the mid-Atlantic noise’. There are good poets like Lee Harwood who are accused of making ‘the mid-Atlantic noise’, and if you do that, in this hard little island, you forfeit your passport. Nobody needs listen to you. And people like Lee, who can move very freely from the American/French — or — Continental world that the New York writers of the sixties had, and is clearly an English writer, I think probably loses a constituency through being so free.
      I’ve obviously got such clearly English problems — I don’t mean problems of character, I mean problems of substance, that I was stuck to the place I came from and the questions it gives rise to, for half a century pretty well, and don’t write a lot of tourist poetry either, and don’t write poems about poetry cliques and parties.
      The fact that I did that makes it clear that I’m not an &eacutemigré, I don’t suddenly start writing tourist poems about American style, about American lifestyle. At the same time I felt free to use American methods because I haven’t noticed that there are English methods ready to hand. I could find English methods from English eccentrics, English surrealists for instance, or English nutters — they might as well be painters, I’ve used bits out of Francis Bacon in my time.

What about the writer J.G.Ballard?

I’ve read only a few stories by J.G.Ballard.

It seems to me that he’s contemporaneous with you, and in some of the things that he does with contemporary English prose, he seems to be doing things rather like what you’re doing.

Yes. He’s free. I tend to want to feel quite internationalist about this, in that I suppose so far as I’m conscious of latching on to methods I’ve seen used in any literatures in particular, on the whole the methods I want to use, I’ve not seen used with determination, or professionalism if you like, much, in England.

1. Aleksandr Blok Russian poet, (1880–1921), Blok was the leader of Russian symbolism, a counterpart of the European literary movement strongly influenced by the Eastern Orthodox faith.

2. Armory Show, art exhibition in New York City, February 17–March 15, 1913, at the 69th Regiment Armory [located 68 Lexington Avenue at 26th Street, New York City]. The international exhibition was the first major showing of modern art in the United States. Over a quarter of a million people paid to see the exhibition, which first promoted an awareness of contemporary art in America.

3. Stieglitz, Alfred (1864–1946), American photographer, editor, and art-gallery director.

We had all sorts of experimenters popping up and popping down; on the whole I tend to think of them as ‘gentleman amateurs’, or short-fuse people, who’ll make a sudden streak, and do one thing, but don’t have too much theoretical sense.
      Whereas it doesn’t seem to me as it never seemed to me at all unnatural to say ‘What had Mallarmé to say on a certain matter? What was Aleksandr Blok [note 1] doing, where does this relate to Valéry?’ And as I talk, I talk off the top about Beckett or Kafka. (I don’t think of Beckett as an English writer, really.) If I think of the Americans, it’s merely the faculty of the Americans, which they showed early in the century, for being open, such of them as were open to anything, of being open to modernism in the first twenty years of the century.
      The Armory Show [note 2], [the poet W.C.] Williams, [the photographer] Stieglitz [note 3], all that lot. They would have a go. They hadn’t got the English defences against it. The English defences were canny and preposterous, and are still up. And half the time I take methods which I don’t think of as being particularly contemporary in any sense. I will scrabble around in methods that were pushed out anytime between Baudelaire, certainly Mallarmé, and Dada, which still seem to me to be available in kit form if I want to use them, pragmatically, for materials I’ve got.

      And, yes, I suppose the American label does come from the fact that in my own language — I’m no linguist, I can cope with French, and know what happens in German; apart from that I’m in translation — if I want my Russians I have to have them in translation, the Germans too, really; Italians — but yes, the general openness to Modernism, and an attitude to literature which treats it as a matter of composition in the way that painters are used to thinking, musicians are used to thinking — the English language access to that has obviously been more in American writers than in native English writers.

Some of the books cited ....
Roy Fisher — Poems 1955–1980, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1980.
A Furnace, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1986.
The Cut Pages, Oasis Shearsman, London, 1986 [first published by Fulcrum in 1976]
The Dow Low Drop — New and Selected Poems, Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle Upon Tyne, 1996.

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