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Nate Dorward talks to Peter Robinson

The Life of a Little Magazine:

Perfect Bound 1976–1979

This conversation was conducted via e-mail by Nate Dorward in Toronto, Canada, and Peter Robinson in first Parma, Italy, then Sendai, Japan, between September and November 2001.

Phrases in this interview are linked to poems and prose pieces to which they refer, in a file of samples taken from various issues of Perfect Bound magazine; links in that file bring you back to the same point in this interview.
This piece is 8,500 words or about twenty printed pages long.

Nate Dorward: You arrived at Cambridge to do graduate work in 1975. I’d like to hear about that, and about your own interests, projects and expectations at the time. ‘In a Tight Corner’ from News for the Ear: A Homage to Roy Fisher describes how you’d already discovered his work in the social sciences library when you were visiting Bradford in the early 1970s. To what extent were you aware of the current Cambridge poetry scene, and what was it like entering into it?

Peter Robinson, circa 1980
Peter Robinson: I did my first degree at York University. The English Department was largely staffed by Cambridge graduates from the early 60s generations. My supervisor for the three years was the future French feminist writer Nicole Ward Jouve, married to the novelist Anthony Ward — who had been part of the Prospect group. He knew Elaine Feinstein, Jeremy Prynne, and Andrew Crozier, and lent me copies of books by the first two. They were all Donald Davie students, and I got pointed in the direction of the Black Mountain poets and the Objectivists, so I arrived in Cambridge having read American long poems, Zukofsky, Olson, Dorn, Creeley, as well as Prynne’s books up to and including Brass, and plenty more besides.
      I’d also read some of what were the Fulcrum Press poets, and been most taken with Bunting and Fisher. Because I grew up in the North of England — my father’s family in the cities of the Midlands and North West, my mother’s from Tyneside with some Scottish relatives — I didn’t find it difficult to think of them as poets who were making sense of my particular backgrounds. Though I’d read and absorbed some of the founding materials of 1970s Cambridge poetry, I was already orientated towards a slightly different configuration of the poets who helped change the look of poetry in Britain during the 1960s. There was a girl at York, for instance, with whom I was to be briefly romantically involved, who had grown up in Glasgow. She was a fan of Ian Hamilton Finlay and Edwin Morgan.
      Ezra Pound died during my three years at York and there was a good deal of interest in him. I’d long been absorbed in painting and the visual arts (my first idea was to go to Art School) and at York I did a special paper on some art history topics. I didn’t think of myself as a graduate student, didn’t even think I’d do well enough in the Finals exams, and so decided to take a year off, and see what happened. The most decisive and devastating thing that happened is the rape of my girl friend in Italy, which I’ve written and talked about elsewhere [off-site link: Cortland Review interview].
      Well, despite my self-doubts, I got a First, was undecided about what to do, applied to Oxford, Cambridge, and the Courtauld Institute, London. Oxford wasn’t interested, but the other two interviewed me and both said OK. In the end I decided to go to Cambridge, with the idea that I would do a PhD on Pound and the Visual Arts. There was nothing much on the subject back then. What I ended up discovering about the topic eventually emerged in my part of the 1985 book published by the Tate Gallery, Pound’s Artists. By then I’d long given up that line, changed to something on Davie, Tomlinson, Fisher, and Larkin, and been awarded the doctorate in the early 1980s. Looking back, the extraordinary thing is that I was able to do anything at all on a poet like Fisher who was still in his forties when I started work on the thing.

How did you get involved in starting up and editing Perfect Bound?

Perfect Bound 1, cover image
I made contact with a group called the Cambridge Poetry Society. Its members were not only undergraduates. It was one of the contexts in which tentative town/gown collaborations might occur. They ran a weekly poetry workshop, edited an annual magazine called Blueprint, and organized a weekly reading by an invited poet. The funds to do that came from three sources: the Cambridge English Faculty, the Eastern Arts Association, and the National Poetry Secretariat (attached to the Poetry Society in London). To qualify for the first of these we needed a faculty member as our senior treasurer. That was Jeremy Prynne. At the Eastern Arts was a very positive young woman called Irene McDonald. It must have been she who indicated to the committee of the society that there might be funds available if we wanted to set up a real little magazine.
      The name Perfect Bound, taken from the printer’s specification of course, was alighted on by Bill Bennett. The nature of the magazine as it evolved was to an extent determined by the fact that we were given a grant large enough to publish 88 pages about twice a year. As you know, it’s quite hard to keep doing that on a regular basis without a professional structure. At the same time, it was supposed to be a magazine of the Cambridge Poetry Society, so we published pieces by students, some work by people who came and read, contributions from local poets (and there were quite a few in the town), and material by people we solicited directly. It was one of my great regrets that Roy Fisher never seemed to have anything he could spare. Soon people started approaching us too.
      But it’s worth underlining the social context in which the magazine arose and how it was supported, because although — being a graduate student with more time at my own disposal — I ended up editing all the issues (with a series of co-editors from the society), the magazine was not my personal plaything, and was not edited with the single-minded aim of promoting my vision of poetry at that date. I was still learning as much as I could and as fast as possible, and didn’t have a vision of poetry aside from the developing one I needed for my own work, and I’ve never thought that the personal one had to be pushed as the only one. So the heterogeneous nature of the magazine’s contextual support coincided to some extent with my sense of a distinction to be maintained between all the various things that were happening, and my private take on them. Even in the schoolyard I was never much of a gang-member, and, one way or another, I’ve stayed that way.

Could you tell me a bit about the Cambridge Poetry Festivals, and their impact on the magazine?

The life of Perfect Bound was marked clearly by the Festival in 1975 run by Richard Burns, the one in 1977 run by Paul Johnstone, and the one in 1979 run by me. The 1975 one, which took place in April, was already legendary by the time I reached Cambridge in early October. It helped to create the mood of something happening which probably encouraged Eastern Arts to think that sponsoring a magazine might not be a bad idea. The event had been overshadowed by the deaths immediately after it of Rolf Dieter Brinkmann and Veronica Forrest-Thomson. My first ever published book review in issue one was written from a copy of the typescript of her On the Periphery. Johnstone’s festival, for which I worked as the secretary, was like a forerunner of the more recent experimentalist conferences, except that unlike them it was organized to be like Burns’s — with international airfares and other high expenses, requiring the making of a lot of money from ticket sales. The latter didn’t happen and the society was badly in debt when I was invited to take it over.
      The policy of my festival — run in close collaboration with a brilliant treasurer called Alison Rimmer who worked for Heffers Bookshop — was again a combination of principle and pragmatism. We needed to get out of debt. Hence the big Saturday Night event with Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman and Kenneth Koch. Ginsberg did the whole thing for a tiny fee plus flights on to his next festival. The idea was to present the widest range of poetries so as to attract as many constituencies as possible. There was an afternoon of Sound Poetry, a debate between Silkin and Davie about poetry and politics, big readings by Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Joseph Brodsky, Edmond Jabès with Rosemary Waldrop translating, Michael Hamburger talking about Celan with an exhibition of his French wife’s etchings... We turned a big deficit into a modest profit. The main drawback was that trying to please everybody we ended up offending some of the splendid-isolationist cliques.
      There were people for whom the pluralism was just a bit too much, of course. I vividly recall CH Sisson getting up and walking out as Ginsberg launched into a sort-of-sung version of Blake’s ‘Nurse’s Song’. Well, that festival is one of the things I can feel did make a statement... a bit before its time, perhaps. Mrs Thatcher had just won her first term, and we were in for a general hardening and factionalizing in the whole society, with a concomitant travestying of the realities of the factionalized groups.
      Yet the stress of organizing the 1979 festival, of editing the magazine, of trying to finish my doctorate, get launched as a publishing writer, and live a life — was just too much. I staggered into the Thatcher era without a job, with a PhD to resubmit, and with some disillusionments about the extent to which poets and writers could be expected to collaborate under a Popular Front kind of cultural banner. I stopped doing the magazine and handed the festival on to other people.

All seven issues list you as a co-editor with a number of other people. Could you give me an account of the shifts of editorship in the journal’s life?

To my mind, the magazine’s life divides into three parts. The first two issues were edited by ‘Bill Bennett & Peter Robinson’, as it says; the third, fourth and fifth were edited by Peter Robinson and Aidan Semmens, though the third still names Bennett as an editor, and the final two were edited by Peter Robinson with Richard Hammersley. In the first two I was finding my feet and taking instruction from the other editor — who showed me how the golf-ball typewriter worked and how the paste-up was done (overnight sittings with coffee and the fumes from the glue to keep us going). The middle three were edited harmoniously and enthusiastically, with improvements in the production values that probably peaked with issue five, and a consensus, more or less, about what we were publishing. The final two issues show a certain restlessness with that consensus and an attempt to widen the catchment area of the contributions.

I’m not familiar with the names of your co-editors outside the pages of Perfect Bound — could you tell me a little about them?

Only a little, I’m afraid. Richard Hammersley was a graduate student in experimental psychology from Glasgow. I lost touch with him soon after the magazine editing stopped. He’s gone on to become a successful academic psychologist specialising in drug and alcohol problems [see footnote]. Bill Bennett was a survivor of Cambridge’s communes and squats period. He lived in a derelict property in what was the Kite area before its demolition. He was not a very reliable co-editor and in the end I got tired of trying. I’ve no idea what his fate has been. Aidan Semmens made contact again quite recently thanks to Richard Caddel. He edited one or two issues of another small magazine called Molly Bloom after graduating. He works as a sub-editor and journalist, now, living in Suffolk — but has long given up writing poetry.

Since I’m sure many readers won’t have seen the run of Perfect Bound, perhaps you could give me a tour through the issues and the selections in them that now stand out for you the most.

Each of the issues contains work still of interest, I believe, some of it finding its way into individual collections at later dates.
      Issue One (cover, above) opened our account with ‘The Land of Saint Martin’ by J. H. Prynne [link 1]. Then come two sections from ‘The Art of Flight’ by Allen Fisher, poems about the burning of the Crystal Palace that I was very taken by. Then, picking out some things, there’s a run of work by first-year graduate student poets: my poem ‘World’s Apart’ which will come first in the forthcoming Selected Poems, ‘Six Days’ by Geoffrey Ward, and ‘Driving Each Other’ by John Wilkinson; there are six poems by Edwin Morgan, and ‘After Christopher Wood’ by John James [link 1a]— another poem I particularly like. The reviews section contains pieces by Semmens on McClure, Ward on Dorn’s Gunslinger, myself on Forrest-Thomson’s On the Periphery [link 2], and Wilkinson on Crozier’s Residing.

Perfect Bound 2, cover image
      Issue Two (cover, right) follows this pattern with a special feature on Tom Raworth gathered and edited by Geoffrey Ward: a section from Writing, some poems from Common Sense including one called ‘Magnetic Water’ [link 3] I especially like, and a piece on the poet by Ward. Denise Levertov had given a reading. We wrote to her and she sent a sequence called ‘Metamorphic Journal’. John Matthias was, by pure chance, living all but next door to me in Herschel Road and he gave us a poem I’m very fond of called ‘After the Death of Chekhov’ [link 4]. There’s more work by the graduate students, this time including parts of Rod Mengham’s Beds and Scrapings [link 5], plus an undergraduate poem of some refinement, ‘The Novel Detective’ by Adam Clarke-Williams. There’s a review of George Oppen’s Collected Poems by Chris Hunt, and of Roy Fisher’s Nineteen Poems and an Interview by me.

Perfect Bound 3, cover image
      Issue Three (cover, right) is one of my favourites: five poems — one of which was recently included in Keith Tuma’s Anthology of 20th-Century British and Irish Poetry — by Christopher Middleton (who had read for us), ‘Old Bosham Bird Watch’ by Lee Harwood, another interesting poem by Clarke-Williams, some prose poems by Ken Smith, Iain Sinclair’s ‘The Horse. The Man. The Talking Head (a Note on Howard Hughes)’, a piece of Beckettian prose by Marcus Perryman, three poems by Gael Turnbull [link 5a], five poems by Matthew Mead, more Writing by Raworth, plus poems by the regulars including John Wilkinson’s ‘Political Health’ [link 6] and Aidan Semmens’s ‘The Strange Geometry’ [link 7] — which won the Chancellor’s Medal for a poem by an undergraduate in 1978. There are two reviews of Turnbull by Clarke-Williams and Perryman, and a piece on Mark Hyatt by Wilkinson. The production values take a leap forward.

That’s indeed an interesting poem by Adam Clarke-Williams [link 8] — a long title (‘The Ambassadors: Raymond Williams in Cambridge, Christmas in Portsmouth’) and some striking lines: ‘your increment of pleasure gone haywire’; ‘the crystals of shifting hungers’. Perhaps you could tell me something about him and about Perryman — two regular contributors to Perfect Bound’s poetry and review pages who don’t seem to have published much outside the journal.

Adam Clarke-Williams was an extremely scrupulous undergraduate poet who didn’t appear to be writing for any of the juvenile self-expression reasons. He published a pamphlet of just eight poems called Programme Notes with Richard Tabor’s Lobby Press in 1978. Many of them had first appeared in Perfect Bound. He became a journalist too, and now works behind the scenes for the BBC. He’s remained a friend and continues to write poetry, but doesn’t publish. What seems to have happened is that, once out of Cambridge, his sense of a style to write in or a project to develop lost its focus. I think you can see it happening in the poems that appear in the last two issues of the magazine. He soon lost faith in the small press endeavour — at least as far as his own work is concerned — and went through a long phase of trying to write in a more congenial style, but, since he doesn’t publish, few people know of the results. We’re still in contact and meet every so often.
      Marcus Perryman emigrated to Italy immediately after graduating and lives and works in Verona as a professional translator. He was my brother-in-law for a brief period in the late 1980s. We’re in almost daily e-mail contact because together we’ve translated the complete poems of Vittorio Sereni (our Selected Poems of Vittorio Sereni appeared from Anvil in 1990). He continued to write — but not publish — up until a few years ago; now he seems to have turned his creative attentions entirely to playing chess. He’s one of my best and most lucid critics. A few years ago we did some e-mail conversations, a couple of which appeared in internet magazines.

Let’s return to the second ‘phase’ of the journal. Can you say a bit about the next issue, number four?

Perfect Bound 4, cover image
Issue Four (cover, right) opens with the short ‘Opus Number’ by Harry Guest, followed by the wonderful ‘Untitled Sequence’ by Peter Riley, then poems by John Welch [link 8a], Richard Caddel, myself, Gael Turnbull, Michael Haslam, Ian Patterson, Nick Totton, Tim Dooley, more Writing, two poems by Matthew Mead, the lovely ‘Jane Welch’s Wedding Testament’ by Augustus Young, more prose from Perryman, another interesting piece from Clarke-Williams, an uncollected poem by Douglas Oliver called ‘Fun House’ [link 9] and a sequence by Ken Smith called ‘Fun City Winter’. There’s a piece of uncollected prose by F.T. Prince about the composition of his ‘Afterword on Rupert Brooke’, a review by Peter Riley of Science and Society in Prehistoric Britain by E. W. MacKie, and two reviews which struck a new note: Lee Harwood was not happy with the tone of Semmens’s review of Old Bosham Bird Watch, and Denise Riley detected some sexist patronizing in my piece on her Marxism for Infants. I was surprised by the response, and upset.

I do note that Perfect Bound, like most poetry journals of the 1960s and 1970s, was heavily tilted towards male authors... in the issue with your review of that book of Riley’s, for instance, there are no female contributors at all. This was pretty typical of avantgarde-oriented journals of the period — The English Intelligencer for instance in its hundreds and hundreds of pages only published work by three female authors (Feinstein, Vickers and Mulford). I’m sure this is one of the few aspects of Perfect Bound that you must be less than happy about in retrospect.
      Could you comment on this gender imbalance — its origins, the extent to which it concerned you at the time, and its relationship to matters of poetics? One sometimes comes across the conventional idea that because avant garde poetries are in the business of destabilizing identity, they are therefore unsuited to the feminist recovery of women’s voices and experiences. That’s a stark opposition that recent critics like Clair Wills or Romana Huk have tried to complicate....

There were some local considerations: Cambridge still had single-sex colleges, and only three for women. The poetry society had almost no women members. I don’t ever recall us rejecting poems by women authors. The occasion didn’t arise. If Veronica Forrest-Thomson had been alive, I’m sure we would have asked her to contribute, and my third published review was of Denise Riley’s first pamphlet. There’s also some effort being made in the last three issues to have some poetry by women. Yes, it was a bad situation, and we weren’t taking many active steps to change it.
      Given that the magazine was experimentalist in its general leanings, there was also the problem of finding women writers who would fit the bill. The prominence of Denise Levertov in issue two indicates how much she constituted a sort of rare ideal. Elaine Feinstein, with her early connections to Olson and later ones to Russian avant gardes, was thought by some to be not quite experimental enough. Publishing her poems from ‘An England Sequence’ in issue seven was, in local terms, making a stand against that over-restrictive definition. I would also have to admit that we weren’t really concerned with the gender balance in ways that would soon become a proper necessity.
      As to the relation of feminism to avant garde poetics, I think it’s too complex an issue to be discussed in such terms in an interview of this kind. There would be, for instance, the problem for me that definitions of avant garde writing as ‘destabilizing identity’ would need qualification. It’s certainly the case that this sort of slogan was what got put on various strategies then and for years to come.
      Actually, I found myself growing more and more out of sympathy with this ‘destabilizing identity’ notion of what serious poets were meant to be about. Were they really destabilizing their own? It was supposed to be political, but where I grew up there were all sorts of social and personal problems, with political ramifications, that came from people having rather weak identities that were being fiercely buffeted by their social circumstances.
      I never felt myself in possession of one of the anathematized subjectivities that needed destabilizing, rather with masses of conflictual and contradictory experience and hurt that needed putting together and making sense of — and perhaps that’s one of the more personal reasons why I started to move away.

I think writers of an experimentalist or modernist bent would say that they have found such techniques essential for dealing with ‘conflictual and contradictory experience and hurt’, kinds of experience which more conventional approaches might be incapable of dealing with accountably.

You’re right, they would, and they’d have good arguments. But my early poems, the ones I’m thinking of, some of which appeared in issues three and four, have an evasively joky manner, and take an allusive glance at damage without being able to address it. I just felt that it wasn’t a promising way for me to continue.

Back to Perfect Bound: tell me about issue five, which you’ve said concludes the magazine’s second phase.

Perfect Bound 5, cover image
Issue Five, which looks the best (cover, right), is perhaps slightly flat in terms of content: a piece of prose and a poem by John Riley (which must have been among the last publications in his cut-short lifetime), work by Thomas A. Clark, Paul Green, two more good poems by Clarke-Williams, Turnbull, Perryman, David Chaloner, Mengham, Wendy Mulford’s ‘Chinese Postcard Sequence’, [link 10] a section from part two of ‘Suicide Bridge’ by Iain Sinclair... Yet, despite this slight air of a repeat performance in a well worked theme, the issue does contain one of Jeremy Prynne’s rare ventures into critical prose: ‘Reader’s Lockjaw’ [link 11], a review of books by Paul St. Vincent (soon to be revealed as E. A. Markham).

I’d always wondered about that review — whether Prynne had known that St. Vincent was a pseudonym (actually heteronym) when he wrote it. I take it he wasn’t, to your knowledge? Perhaps you could say a little more about Prynne’s influence at the time on Perfect Bound and the Cambridge poetry scene more generally.

We felt very honoured to be offered that piece, and I vividly recall Jeremy Prynne visiting my flat opposite St John’s College in order to correct the phrase ‘prostrate operation’ into ‘prostate operation’. Doubtless, he was living in fear of the kinds of misprints that we were only too prone to making.
      But, as I say, that issue was the best produced of the set. No, I don’t think he knew who the author was at the time he wrote the review. I’d come across some of the ‘Lambchops’ poems in one or two small magazines, magazines which also contained poems by E. A. Markham. I found the St. Vincent poems vivid and seriously funny, and kept up with Markham’s work through three large Anvil Press collections.
      Since the example of Jeremy’s poetry and outlook was having an evident influence on John Wilkinson’s rapidly evolving work, his seemed a game that couldn’t be played by anyone else. I had tried imitating the style of Kitchen Poems in 1973, but was so completely unconvinced by the results that I kept away later. Nevertheless, I read three of his books closely and repeatedly: Kitchen Poems, The White Stones, and Brass — and some of his global political vision and the way he brought that back home to the kitchen sink, and the human body, its wounds and responses, in work of that period went in deeply.
      His influence on the magazine is hard to calculate. He kept a respectful distance and didn’t push a line of poets at us. It came more indirectly via suggestions from others, I think. He used to attend some of the readings we organized and, again, was careful not to push himself forward, but would sometimes have a quiet word with the poets after the readings. Perhaps he felt this was part of his duty as the society’s senior treasurer. On the other hand, he never had anything whatsoever to do with the Cambridge Poetry Festival, so his absence from the later experimental conferences is not surprising.
      Another thing to bear in mind about his influence is that Adam Clarke-Williams had a large collection of poetry from the entire spectrum of Fifties, Sixties and Seventies experiment. He had the collected poems of Edwin Denby, for instance. He had that collaboration between Tom Phillips, John James, and Andrew Crozier. Coming from the South coast, he was a fan of Lee Harwood’s writings. He had Some Trees and The Tennis Court Oath — when Ashbery’s early work was very difficult to find in the UK. So the material that was going into the student idea of Cambridge poetry at that date was by no means drawing only upon the writers associated with the older poets from Cambridge.
      However, while Jeremy Prynne was a frighteningly articulate presence, he wasn’t unapproachable or forbidding when approached. Prynne was, strange as it may seem, the human face of the Cambridge avant garde — and he supported me during many difficult years with regular college teaching and long, long late night literary conversations. It was his advice, too, which partly helped indirectly to precipitate me into my present much happier situation.

Prynne’s prose writings are comparatively rare: letters made public, a handful of reviews, several talks and lectures, and a recent publication on Shakespeare’s 94th sonnet. This is a strikingly small body of prose writing for someone who is, besides a major poet, a dedicated scholar and teacher.
      One might say the same thing of Andrew Crozier, too, whose only book-length scholarly publications are the recent editions of Rakosi and Rodker.
      The comparative scarcity of manifestos, critical prose, commentaries, &c was commented upon polemically by Drew Milne in the pages of Parataxis, for whom it’s part of a general ‘agoraphobia’: ‘the seemingly patrician reluctance of small-press poets to write prose commentary on their own work or on others’. Does this seem to you an inaccurate or unduly harsh characterization of the attitudes towards extrapoetic writing in the small-press scene of the time? Would you be able to comment on the sources of the reluctance that Milne’s describing?

The most authentically patrician of twentieth-century Cambridge poets, Sir William Empson (the son of a Yorkshire landowner), was — as John Haffenden’s recent edition of The Complete Poems makes amply clear — quite willing to explicate and comment on his own often difficult work.
      On the other hand, Ludwig Wittgenstein (son of a very wealthy Viennese industrialist), who has had an unusually sustained influence on poets, wrote and taught at Cambridge for longish periods while publishing almost nothing at all. Those two examples give you a broad range of possibilities.
      More recently, Donald Davie, who has a good claim to being a father-figure of the present Cambridge School (whether from being followed or resisted), may have suffered in his reputation as a poet because he wrote so much criticism. I could imagine that the reluctance of Cambridge poets from Tomlinson through the Prynne generation to put out books of criticism may have something to do with wanting to avoid the Davie pitfall and survive in the academy without succumbing to the criticism industry — thus being known as poets, pure if not simple.
      Benjamin Jowett once said that ‘Gentlemen never explain’, and the ‘seeming-patrician’ air might be attributable to ways that meritocracy boys learnt to camouflage themselves in a still patrician environment. Davie’s essay ‘Remembering the Movement’ is clear-sighted about problems associated with over-cultivating the reader in poems, and the same notions might well have reverberated in a reluctance to court them in occasional prose too.
      Then there’s a socio-historical reason. When Empson was writing his epoch-making critical books, there weren’t many academic jobs around and criticism was, thanks to T. S. Eliot perhaps, oddly fashionable — but he ended up in first Japan, then China. Davie needed to make an academic name fast in the post-war period, when the criticism vogue was still going, so as to support a family. The university expansion programme of the early sixties meant that people of the Prynne generation (such as those who taught me in York) could get jobs on the basis of a good Oxbridge BA and a reference.
      That little golden age of non-publishers was coming to an end in the 1970s, and absolutely evaporated in the Thatcher era with first the university cuts, and then the establishment of the research assessment business where university departments have to field a first team of scribbling-publishing players. It’s perhaps worth noting too that in books like Some Versions of Pastoral or Articulate Energy the division between the academic and non-academic is far less like an iron curtain. Those books are not big on footnotes and academic supporting apparatus. They are aimed at a generally well-informed reader.

You said that the magazine began to shift with the last two issues. Could you describe that final pair?

Perfect Bound 6, cover image
Issue Six (cover, right) begins with substantial translations by Stephen Romer of Jacques Dupin. There are also a few of my translations of Pierre Reverdy [link 12], of Philippe Jacottet by Tim Dooley, and of Alain Delahaye by Michael Edwards. There are translations of Nasos Vayenas, Yunna Morits, August Graf von Hallermünde, Yevtushenko, Pirandello, and Margarite Aliger. So it almost looks like the translation issue. But then there is, for instance, ‘Digest of the Poetical Works of Dora Oliver’ by Peter Riley [link 13], ‘It’s My Town (But I Had to Leave It)’ by Geoffrey Ward [link 14], work by Charles Tomlinson, John Welch, Denise Riley [link 14a], and Edwin Morgan.... Plus an unusually interesting prose piece called ‘from Studio 38’ by Richard Bentley, an undergraduate. There’s a review of Geoffrey Hill’s Tenebrae by Eric Griffiths, and Wilkinson on books by Nigel Wheale and Geoffrey Ward.
      Issue Seven (cover, below right) is the one designed to represent what was happening at the 1979 Poetry Festival as well as to continue business as usual: so Enzensberger, Christoph Meckel, Edmond Jabès, Michel Deguy, and Anne Waldman rub shoulders with Elaine Feinstein’s ‘Two Lyrics from “An England Sequence”’ [link 15], Denise Riley, Mead, Raworth, a distinctive student poem by A. T. Tribble called ‘An Appeal for Nakedness at Funerals and on Occasions of Great National Mourning’, ‘A Lyrical Ballad’ by John Barrell [link 15a], plus other translations and poems by the regulars, such as Marcus Perryman’s untitled prose poem from ‘Outposts’. [link 16]
      But there is also a feeling that the magazine may be losing its focus. The volume has opened itself up to a vast area of poetry in English and in translation, but doesn’t have a policy for deciding how to construct a coherent issue.
Perfect Bound 7, cover image       For me, the magazine had probably outgrown its usefulness. While issues one, two and five contain poems that went into Overdrawn Account, published by John Welch in 1980, and three and four have poems that went into a pamphlet called A Part of Rosemary Laxton (1979), issue six contains my poem ‘Looking Up’ [link 17] and number seven has other poems which were to find their way some ten years later into my first Carcanet book, This Other Life. It was during 1978 that I started to write the poems which seem to me fully to strike my own note. By the end of the decade, I was moving away from an uneasy alliance with what has come to be called Cambridge school poetry and into as much of the entire field full of folk as I can manage to live with and appreciate.

I want to return for a moment to your comment earlier about your allergy to literary gangs. It reminded me that I’ve never, in fact, talked to a poet who felt comfortable with being labelled part of a school or movement, even though such terms seem to be unavoidable in the stories we tell ourselves about literary history, and especially about modern poetry for some reason.
      Peter Riley, asked by Kelvin Corcoran in a 1983 interview ‘Is there a “Cambridge” group of poets?’ memorably prefaced his reply ‘Well, there was, and wasn’t, and there isn’t’. I think, also, of Crozier and Longville’s obviously careful choice of the title A Various Art. Furthermore, there are complications created by the longevity of groupings — Riley’s ‘isn’t’ suggests that he sees the work of later writers like Wilkinson, Mengham, &c as being distinct from the 1960s group around The English Intelligencer and Grosseteste Review. Does the term ‘Cambridge school’ make sense to you, and if so how do you use it?

There’s a Wittgenstein anecdote from the 1930s where a young Theodore Redpath tells the philosopher that he’s just bought some classical records, and Wittgenstein asks ‘Are they any good?’ Redpath, trying to be subtle, replies: ‘It depends what you mean by good.’ And back comes Wittgenstein: ‘I mean what you mean.’
      So, the term ‘Cambridge school’ means to me what you mean by it: it’s an elastic term stretching from a fairly loose affiliation of avant garde poetries, to an inner circle of J. H. Prynne plus a few friends. It works to exclude poets who have perfectly good claims to be Cambridge poets, like Clive Wilmer, but who are rightly taken not to be Cambridge school poets, and of course it can exclude poets who passed through the town as undergraduates such as Michael Hofmann. How do I prefer to use it? I don’t. Hardly anyone who appears to belong to it likes the term, and some of those who don’t belong seem to resent it. So I prefer to keep clear of the whole idea.
      What I would prefer would be an extension of the history to pre-Prynne decades, a more perspicuous survey of what has happened in the town since the founding of the Cambridge English School — you know, less pigeon-holes and more complex descriptions.

Yes, that’s what Peter Riley would like too, I think — I seem to recall his once even suggesting that any such survey would have to reach back to the 17th-century Cambridge Platonists!

Fair enough.

One thing that surprised me, looking over Perfect Bound again, was that its contributions drew on a wider spectrum of the UK avant garde of the time than I remembered — there are a few authors I miss, like Bill Griffiths, Barry MacSweeney and Bob Cobbing, which suggests it had a different flavour from Eric Mottram’s Poetry Review, but on the other hand one of the magazine’s most frequent contributors was Allen Fisher, another of Mottram’s favourites.
      Nonetheless, I think it would be fair to say that the journal, along with the contemporary issues of Grosseteste Review, performed an important function in reworking or consolidating a ‘Cambridge School’, and a lot of early work by Wilkinson, Mengham, Ward, et al — what might now be considered a second poetic generation — first appeared in its pages. Could you comment on the role you feel the journal played in the development of this particular strand of experimental writing?

Well, it’s also probably the case that these younger writers were, let’s say, under-age volunteers for the forward positions. They weren’t recruited, they had to get themselves acknowledged as such. And there was, I believe, some friction between the generations: note the absence of Wilkinson and his friends from A Various Art. They were the young poets of Cambridge when I arrived, and my role looks retrospectively rather like providing them with a platform — something which may have got slightly taken for granted. I still have a typed letter from John Wilkinson, then in Harvard, warning me about what he calls a major and undesirable shift in my editorial policy. I had dared to ask for some cuts to a piece of Geoff’s on Rod’s work. This was characterized as censorship, the piece was withdrawn, and it never appeared in Perfect Bound.
      Peter Robinson, circa 2000 Mind you, I remember feeling much worse when in the late Seventies it became clear that a loose affiliation of Oxford-based writers had taken over the metropolitan power base. I’m referring to the Martians and the so-called new narrative poets. All these years later, Raine’s ‘revolution’ has come to look, I suspect, like an episode in the history of publicity — while Motion’s social ambitions have resulted in his shunting himself into the most creatively-damaging job a poet could wish for: the Laureateship. But back then it was possible to think that some well-placed, but only moderately talented people had hijacked the future.

Indeed! Let me quote a little from Motion and Morrison’s preface to their 1982 Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry: there they talk of ‘a stretch, occupying much of the 1960s and 70s, when very little — in England at any rate — seemed to be happening, when achievements in British poetry were overshadowed by those in drama and fiction, and when, despite the presence of strong individual writers, there was a lack of overall shape and direction.’
      From a different angle, of course, plenty was happening in UK poetry, from the prolific burst of avant-garde-affiliated poetries (The White Stones, Moving, Place, Tracts of the Country, Pleats, Roy Fisher’s collected poems) to the appearance of new books by older figures like Jones, Graham, Middleton, Prince and Bunting, to major volumes by ‘established’ poets like Geoffrey Hill (Mercian Hymns). Would you have some thoughts on how erasures of the historical record such as Motion and Morrison’s ended up taking place? I’d also like to know your own take on the history of this period.

I appeared on a panel with Motion and Morrison at the ICA in the year that their anthology came out. Michael Horovitz, editor of Children of Albion — an anthology of 1960s experiment (also from Penguin), was in the audience. There was a heated series of exchanges in which I managed to get Morrison to acknowledge that comments in their poorly-written introduction about the absence of anthologies between Alvarez and their own were a misleading travesty of the record.
      But then their anthology was never intended to be a serious attempt at a historical account. It’s an old-style take-over bid based on the fact that London has a large population and only a few literary periodicals and papers. By taking over some editorial chairs in publishing houses and literary journals, then selling your chosen wares to the metropolis, you can (for a while) kid yourself that you are determining the shape of literary history. Cultures are much more complex than that, though, and those two Ms are already being filed by time and change closer to their proper worth.
      Summary dismissal is the preferred way of the powerful; so I don’t see any difficulty in understanding how they might like to pretend that the 1960s and 1970s experimental development more or less never happened. However, I would say that their attempt to keep Geoffrey Hill out of the picture was ignorant even on their own terms. After all, as is well documented and acknowledged by Heaney, Mercian Hymns stopped him in his experiments with the prose poem in Stations and had a decided influence on the ‘word-hoard’ poems of North. Heaney paid his respects to the work in ‘Englands of the Mind’ too. The inclusion of Jeffrey Wainwright in their anthology was nice to see at the time, but that too (given Wainwright’s evident ‘school of Hill’ credentials) made the attempt to sideline the poet of King Log and Mercian Hymns look ill-conceived.
      It’s not really possible for me to give a thumb-nail sketch of Seventies poetry in Britain. There was far too much going on and I was just trying to find out about it. There were many more magazines than now, many of the very short-lived variety. There were lots of little presses which could produce good-looking books quite cheaply.
      John Welch’s Many Press, for instance, was never more than a basement or attic venture with an occasional grant to do a slightly more substantial volume, like my first collection, but he published many people who are still writing strongly. The 1960s and the idea of underground culture had meant that there was no simple rule for dismissing a book on the basis of its publisher’s name. There were both specialist poetry bookshops and general bookshops in university towns with reasonable poetry sections. Most of this has disappeared. I think that poetry then seemed a very lively thing to be involved with, something that mattered a lot, and a field that was populated by valuable writers of various older generations who were to be respected and learned from. I was lucky enough to meet a few of them, who turned out to be generous and supportive of the young as well.
      That anthology of Motion and Morrison succeeded in re-staging the rather tenuous notion of a metropolitan literary establishment, and in setting up the two Ms as a couple of smart-ish operators. It helped to inaugurate two decades (so far) of unhistorical misinformation in the guise of bringing poetry to the people. But the sales of poetry books and the almost total withdrawal of general publishers from poetry during the same period have given that the lie.
      You ask how it happened that this kind of forgetting took place? There’s a lot of other cultural forgetting that I would want to counteract — but at the heart of it somewhere is a sense that, speaking very generally, in Britain both the pillars of the academy and the literary journalists didn’t have that much time for contemporary poetry, and didn’t care much whether true accounts were given of it or not.
      Matters are maybe even worse now: poetry, even of the ‘popular’ varieties, seems to have been more or less abandoned by the media and, while there are plenty of creative writing schools, the academic legitimacy of contemporary poetry may not have got that much farther than when I was trying to write some PhD chapters on Roy Fisher.

Andrew Duncan, in the preface to Angel Exhaust 8, says of you: ‘once an editor of Perfect Bound, in the heart of Cambridge poetry, he is now a completely mainstream poet, never straying by a syllable’. I can imagine that you’ll want to contest that rather loaded description, but certainly your career and writing have taken unusual paths for someone at one point closely involved in 1970s non-mainstream and avant garde poetries.
      It’s a career that can’t be sketched out here at length, but let me just quickly note your association with Carcanet Press, your scholarly work on Geoffrey Hill, and your co-editing of the 1980s journal Numbers, all associations with what might be characterized as a formally conservative though modernist-inflected mainstream. But I would like to know a little more about your shift in direction.
      One way it was marked was by the appearance in 1978 of a broadside of yours from the Many Press, your poem called ‘Going Out to Vote’ — for John Wilkinson. The dedication has an edge: the poem ends, ‘My word, but you do go on.’ In response to an interviewer’s comment in 1992 about the demands his poetry places on the reader, Wilkinson quoted your line from memory and added ‘I’m prepared to accept that with pride!’ [off-site link: Wilkinson interview] Could you say a little about this poem, and more generally about the shift in your career and writing at this point?

Well, you know, I don’t have a ‘career’ as a poet: so that hasn’t shifted at all. I have a compulsion, a habit, a vocation if you like. I have a precarious and marginal career as a university literature teacher — who now, in middle age, is able to bank a small amount of kudos from also publishing some poetry. The poem for John Wilkinson, written in the early summer of 1977, is my most sustained single piece, the one in which it’s me who’s going on (the last line being obviously self-referential too) — about a cultural predicament and a loss of confidence in the way that some of my contemporaries were going about responding to it.
      One of the things that happened next is that I wrote a poem in 1978 called ‘In the Background Details’, which appeared in Overdrawn Account, and more recently, lightly revised, in the Liverpool Accents anthology as ‘In the Background’. I like it, and it’s in the forthcoming Selected Poems. It’s an attempt to write a landscape description from shifting viewpoints, without any located or implied consciousness.
      But there are phrases like ‘your mother’ in it, and there was to be a memory of my father preaching on the back of a lorry which just would not fit at all. A couple of years later I started writing another longish one called ‘A Short History’ (in This Other Life and Liverpool Accents) which started up from this apparently unusable fragment about my dad preaching. The point I’m getting at is that I had some subject matter — my provincial family background, the social and historical circumstances of my difficult love relationship, not least the rape of my girl friend in Italy — which was demanding to be written about in ways that would be understandable to people who were not necessarily poetry experts — my mother and father, for instance.

What was John Wilkinson’s response to ‘Going Out to Vote’?

John was evidently stung by the poem. He wrote a fiercely sarcastic ‘Note from the Sponsor’ about it, which I still have, and he could recall, more or less, its last line over a decade later. I’m sorry about the hurt now, but I don’t think I could possibly have written it without a certain animus... What’s worse, John is being set up — I’m afraid — as an occasion for a more general consideration of problems about the situation of the young and advanced poet that he exemplified for me in a very stark way. ‘Going Out to Vote’ is a survey of the territory of such a poet’s relationship to social, cultural and historical knowledge: who sponsors this figure? what relation does this poet have to inherited wealth? from where does the special access to insight derive? who was he, or less often she, addressing? what use is a poem’s apparent moral or political correctness in lived historical situations? Things of that sort.

So how would you qualify Duncan’s version of your position?

Andrew Duncan’s mischaracterization of me comes to this: I was never in the heart of the Cambridge school, because to be in the heart of something you have to be taken to heart, and that didn’t happen.
      Moreover, I have never been a part of the mainstream, because aside from a small and fluctuating group of people who promote each other in or via the Metropolis, I don’t think there is a mainstream. There are just lots of people who don’t get allowed into the more forward echelons of the avant garde, or into that nebulous metropolitan conspiracy. These others publish where they can, try to build up a readership which is larger than their expanded address books, hope that they’ll get reviewed, and that their books will sell in reasonable enough numbers for the publisher to think it worth putting out a next one.
      They rarely win prizes, don’t often get invited to read at festivals, are not usually the subject of specialist articles, and work somewhere in the penumbra between the small metropolitan in-crowd, and total obscurity.
      I’ve been fairly lucky, and hard-working — and as a result, I’m in that half-light. But to call this the mainstream is neither to understand my poetry, nor to have read it with much care — nor to care about having better descriptions of a culture than that crudest of us/ them binarisms.
Peter Robinson, 2002       I partly moved away because I could no longer credit the identification of what may be innovative formalisms with advanced politics. I don’t, for example, think that the poetry I have to write is in any sense formally conservative. I don’t call rhyming or having prose syntax or having stanzas, or using the stress-timed metres of spoken English, or using the varied line lengths of the English pindarick, or of free-verse for that matter, or syllabics (all of which I can and have used) either conservative or radical. I repudiate as clichéd and nonsensical the entire analogy, even in its more sophisticated manifestations, from whichever flank of the false and symbiotically-linked binarism it comes.
      Numbers was very heterogeneous: we published many poets who would have gone smoothly into Perfect Bound. And I don’t think poets should be assigned to particular ghettos because they happen to be published by one or other of the few presses that make poetry available in a relatively visible fashion. In short, I’ve thought, lived, and written my way out of an entire Joseph Cornell exhibition of conceptual boxes, and when not being attacked for failing to have the strength of my convictions (a familiar slur on the committed pluralist) I’m pretty happy with the situation.

I’d agree that the kinds of crude distinctions you mention are frustrating and misleading, though I’ve usually found that most of the writers I respect placed in the avant garde camp are circumspect about making them.
      Let me end by asking: what do you think is the magazine’s lasting achievement?

What counts in the longer run is what always did: is the material re-read? If not, it’s in perhaps permanent hibernation. No use lamenting that. All you can do is try to explain why certain things you like move you and deserve to be reread. There’s an underlying optimism there, perhaps, that, with luck and creative help, the good will out and the fake will not hold people’s attention for that long.
      In this light, Perfect Bound will have done well if it contains even one or two poems per issue which are still read and talked about in another quarter of a century.

This conversation was conducted via e-mail by Nate Dorward in Toronto, Canada, and Peter Robinson in first Parma, Italy, then Sendai, Japan, between September and November 2001. The texts selected from the seven issues of the magazine are presented here as they first appeared — with the exception of a few that have been corrected, and others lightly revised, as instructed by the authors in order to bring them up to date with their present states. We’d like to thank the individual contributors for permission to use their work again on the occasion of this retrospect.

There is a photo, a bio note and links to dozens of pieces of writing by Peter Robinson on his Jacket Author Notes page.

Peter Robinson homepage link:

Peter Robinson Cortland Review interview link:

John Wilkinson interview link:

Elaine Feinstein homepage link:

Tom Raworth homepage link:

Richard Hammersley became a successful academic psychologist specialising in drug and alcohol problems. He has published over 100 academic papers and three books and is currently working at the University of Essex. He still writes poetry, songs and short stories and has published a few bits here and there over the years, mostly in Scottish literary magazines including New Writing Scotland and West Coast Magazine. He was also a longstanding member of the Glasgow Science Fiction Writers’ Circle, after being runner up in the annual Glasgow Herald SF short story competition. [Back to body of interview.]
His website:

Check out this author’s work: Bookstores in Britain, and in the United States

Jacket 20 — December 2002
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