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Two nibs


Roy Fisher
in conversation with
John Kerrigan

This interview was first published in Robert Sheppard and Peter Robinson (eds), News for the Ear: A Homage to Roy Fisher (Exeter: Stride Publications, 2000), 96-120. It is reprinted here with permission.
You can read an earlier (1989) interview with Roy Fisher in the first issue of Jacket.

‘Come to Think of It, the Imagination’:


John Kerrigan: I’d like to start with a topic which you’ve discussed more than once with interviewers, but which is so important to your work that it’s worth returning to every few years. You told Jed Rasula and Mike Erwin, in 1973, that, where the urban writing of City (1961) ‘is topographical it’s meant to do with the EFFECTS of topography, the creation of scenic moments, psychological environments, and it’s not meant to be an historical/spatial city entailed to empirical reality’.[i] Interviewed by Robert Sheppard in 1982, you were still more dismissive of loco-descriptiveness.[ii] On the evidence of ‘The Burning Graves at Netherton’ (1981), however, and parts of Birmingham River (1994), you have become more at ease with a ‘poetry of place’ which admits descriptive elements and even paysage moralisé.

paragraph 2

Roy Fisher: A short answer is that the landscape has come, with the passage of time and changes in my understanding, to moralise itself under my eye, without any nudging from me. I read it as a record of conduct as well as something subjectively transfigured.

Roy Fisher. Photo: Caroline Forbes.

Roy Fisher
Photo by Caroline Forbes


Forty years ago when I was experiencing the materials of City, the Birmingham I collected was virtually synchronous. At its extremes it had no more duration than my father’s lifetime: in 1959 he was dying there, at 70. And although it was starting to crumble into demolition and renewal there hung over it a sort of Faulknerian stasis — it was easy for me to lay the atmosphere (though not the plot) of Light in August across it. It was still very much what it had been when my father was a boy: the old hierarchical industrial buildup had been halted in the moment of rapid modernisation by the war. It was that twenty-year delay that created the post-bellum stasis; which in its turn made a medium in which my quite intense affective fantasy reading of the city as a stage for one character could grow. For me there was in those days no other reading to be had, or suspected.


I knew at that time that I couldn’t go so far as to assume any common ground with anybody else for the way I saw things, though I might, with luck, chance upon it. So I wrote accordingly. Later I travelled more and acquired a little history — particularly after the General Election of 1979 drove my mind to take refuge in Imperial Rome in search of a moral survival kit. It’s still there. Nowadays I’ll name a name if the place it belongs to sits steady in my mind and doesn’t wobble. But I still wouldn’t want to elaborate, even to the extent of Geoffrey Grigson’s short travel pieces, which I greatly admire.


John Kerrigan: To what extent do you (even sub-consciously) think of the physicality of the poem as text as correlating with the materiality of place. Environmentalists occasionally speak of the grammar of streets, the ‘textual’ layout of a city, and, of course, the urban scene is full of structures which have signifying aspects. How far does this make place ripe for printing out as a poem? Given your emphasis on indeterminacy, both in the poetry and in talking about it, I can imagine that you would recoil from this sort of idea, and I seem to remember you being uncomplimentary somewhere about the maps associated with Olson, perhaps out of the same scepticism about a mimetic poem/place game. (Are poems never like maps?) But there are elements in City, for example, of bird’s-eye place-inscription.


Roy Fisher: I’m not snooty about Olson’s own use of maps and so on (not that they’re ‘real’) for they suited his nature perfectly. I mapped Birmingham very thoroughly in the City period, to feed the obsession; but found that it clogged my writing, which being never as diffuse as Olson’s had mobility problems of its own.


Your question (though I understand it) is passing me by somewhat. I live a good deal in maps — some of my favourite reading — and I think the issue is tethered to the tendency I certainly have to think that a 2D map or a God’s-eye aerial view is the ‘truth’. We know better than that, but we don’t always think accordingly. We know space is curved but we also know damn well that the earth is flat and the sun goes round it. For convenience I’ll write a poem in simple linear form — usually: I have done spatial texts (collaborating with artists), like Cultures, but they’ve not been much seen — knowing full well that it is in any case at the mercy of the inevitably non-linear, temporally-unharnessed responses of anybody who might read it.


I have a certain blindness — arising, I suspect, from my lefthandedness — to design and layout, and do these things so badly I don’t attempt them myself. If I were to engage in spatial mimetics I’d be so unappetised by the thought that this was a dance I couldn’t do that I’d be unable to invent.


The mobile centre of your poetry has shifted in the last couple of decades from Birmingham to rural Derbyshire. I wonder why there’s been no move to something like nature poetry, now that you’re out in the fields? When are we going to have your poems about pike and hawks roosting?


I don’t think there’s all that much of a transition. I live on a picturesque lane driven down through his tenants’ fields by the 16th century Duke of Rutland/Lancaster/somewhere else anyway — let’s call it Normandy — to get the coal down from his pits on the moor 400 feet above. The house is on a field labelled at that time ‘The King’s Piece of Glutton’. Over the wall is a small herd of heifers bred from bulls imported as frozen embryos; they’re isolated because of ringworm. The BSE incinerator’s two villages away. The skyline up the road is being shipped off to underlie the second runway at Manchester Airport. Dow Low rears above us, and I’ll take the dog for a walk along the edge of its Drop when I’ve finished this. I don’t know if that’s an answer.


As for a bestiary, it just doesn’t happen, unless to express a grudge as in ‘Top Down, Bottom Up’. There are many obvious poem-opportunities, of a celebratory or characterising nature, which don’t seem to me obvious at all. If I try them they lie down and die under me. Ideas for poems come to me edge-on and have to be handled round till they’re visible (try ‘Mystery Poems’). As for the animals, I get on with them fine, but don’t project, or mix identities with them. Most of my (mainly incidental) nature poetry deals with vistas. I’ve always tried to do skies, and there are plenty here.


In one of your recorded readings, you invoke geography at its most literal-mystical, by alluding to ley lines…


It’s OK. I don’t have that particular anorak in my collection. I didn’t know I’d mentioned the things. But I will admit to having read old Alfred Watkins with delight because of his unabashed wacky curiosity, which reminds me of Aubrey’s. I never have any truck with large-scale schizocosmologies, but I think excitable morphologists can be instructive about our habits, especially if, like Watkins, they’re evidently at least 143% wrong. What I like about Watkins was the fact that his material was so local and — he hoped — human. And he did look hard at things before getting them wrong. My own compulsive orthodox landscape-reading owes something to his appetite, that’s all.


Let’s move on to the psychology of space. In your recent interview with Peter Robinson, you say that the tendency of readers ‘to fix their own readings — to “see” patterns in a display which at first suggests none — is certainly true to my experience, just as it’s familiar to perceptual psychologists.’[iii] When talking to Rasula and Erwin, you don’t make any such specific reference, but you are equally fluent about psychological/phenomenological matters.


What sorts of reading informed or intrigued you in this direction? Despite the importance (which you’ve spoken about elsewhere) of your early dream transcriptions, and of surrealism in The Ship’s Orchestra, I don’t think of you as strongly drawn to psychoanalysis, but I might be wrong. Was Merleau-Ponty your sort of thing in the Fifties? Gestalt psychology? Did your interest in painting encourage you to fall upon R.L. Gregory’s Eye and Brain (1966) and the like? Or was your interest in perception, and especially the experience of space, entirely home-grown?


I don’t breathe psychoanalysis nowadays, but in the Fifties it impressed me with its air of authoritative revelation. Merleau-Ponty I hadn’t read, and still haven’t. I’ve long been familiar with Gregory, though; and Gombrich, particularly Art and Illusion [1960], gave me direct confirmation of my lifelong disposition — I seem to have been born swimming in Mutability, and readings in that area were home ground. I had some training in Educational psychology. Gestalt spoke instantly to my condition. My rather lack-lustre response to the structuralist onset, in the late Sixties, or whenever it hit popular Academia, is partly explained by that old, if partial, familiarity.


On space, it’s worth saying that between the ages of about 12 and 29, when I had a corrective operation, I had very defective 3D vision, and probably compensated like mad.


Your interest in spatial perception and cognition evidently went on for some time. It’s there in the poetry of the 1970s and ‘80s, and you say in your Warwick interview with Helen Dennis (1984) that ‘talking about perception… makes it sound as though I’m conducting exercises in experimental psychology’.[iv] What kind of work in that developing field were you aware of? Does it trouble you, in retrospect, that some of your poetry could be read quite closely alongside experimental work by psychologists? Presumably it shouldn’t, given that we can learn so much about, say, King Lear, by reading early modern psychology.


I’d be very happy to feel that my guesses lie close to experimental work. I’ve certainly no mistrust of scientific method even though I can’t practise it. The school I went to was an impressive forcing house for the production of academic and industrial scientists and technologists. The fast stream I was in progressively shed Art, Music, History and Geography — most of my life, come to think of it. I never found out how to hack it. I was a maladroit and frustrated mathematician, and an uncomprehending chemist. I think there were reliable production line methods in operation but they didn’t work for me, even though they didn’t, on the other hand, damp the spirits of my friends who went on to become Professors of Microbiology or distinguished metallurgists. No perceptual psychologists, though. What I called earlier a lifelong disposition towards, I suppose, a rationale for all sorts of subjective experience didn’t, in spite of my school performance, arise from any hostility to science, even though my education had crippled me as a practitioner.


As for how I came to be in harmony with what experimental scientists were doing. I must always have been listening out for signs that would confirm an orientation which somehow had not been ‘adequately’ suppressed by early training in the ways of the world — its dominant languages, verbal, numerical, symbolic, for time, extension, direction, singularity and so forth: languages developed to a formidable extent in our culture. The questions children ask about such conundrums as the edges of space, or the paradoxes of perceived time persist as subjects of enquiry in some adults, from the pre-Socratics to modern scientists with sophisticated techniques. The experience of being faced with such problems is a perennial one. Your culture may snuff your candle instantly with a dogmatic myth or custom; it may leave you free to evade the dogma; it may treat your enquiry as vacuous and provide it with no form to proceed in. It’s easy to place artists or unsubsidised scientists on that little map. Their situations are not all that dissimilar.


I think the signals I mentioned are never far beneath the surface of the culture. They’re constantly present in subjective experience, and an everyday alerted mindset of the sort familiar to lovers, hobbyists, research students out of sight of land in their projects, will light up the evidences in the world around. I can remember, for instance, spotting something rum, a door into infinity left accidentally open, when I was taught, at eight or nine, a couple of Irish songs — Moore’s ‘Minstrel Boy’ and ‘The Harp That Once Through Tara’s Halls’. These songs had no part in the history we knew, and nobody explained, in those Anglocentric days, where they fitted: somewhere, though, obviously. Thinking of them still blows a cold clear draught through my imagination — there was more than one world to know about. Later, any reading, in anthropology or linguistics, that brought out the plurality of systems had the same effect of deepening understanding by a dimension or two. It’s hard to credit now, but children of my generation were still exposed to a crazily linear view of things by which the adventures of the Children of Israel led naturally and inevitably by way of the Incarnation to the blending of Saxon and Norman in the finest race and system that was ever created to rule the progressively-improved world. No anomalies were visible; World War II merely went to show. To duck out from that, even by the accidental hearing of a different drummer, was a relief.


Two poems which might be thought about in this context, ‘Without Location’ and ‘Simple Location’, were composed within months of each other,[v] but other pieces come between. Did you intend to write a pair, or was the latter sprung by the former?


They’re not related by design. The echo in the titles is inadvertent. I couldn’t recall the first till I looked it up.


I should say parenthetically that in other interviews, and recorded readings, you also have difficulty in recalling your own poems, which books they are in, and so forth. Is this simply authorial modesty, or is there a scorched earth aspect to your forward movement as a writer? Is it necessary in some way for you — notwithstanding your tendency to draw material from old notebooks — to put completed poems behind you in order to write new ones?


Nothing so lofty. I’ve grown very bad at housekeeping my work. When I had to tell somebody recently that I didn’t know where in the house to look for a copy of my Collected I wasn’t being coy. Unless moved to respond to a query I simply never happen to make time for the luxurious activity of re-reading my own work, much though I know I’d enjoy working over it. I don’t blot it out of my mind, though I find it hard to gain access to the memory of writing it.


In ‘Without Location’, I suppose you are stripping perceptual experience down to a process, tracking what it would be like without the constructions of place which help us organise such data. The second poem seems to turn this inside out and to identify the energies which arise from the fact of something being physically situated. I wonder how far the claustrophobia — or do I mean agoraphobia — of spatial confinement in ‘Simple Location’…


Both — ‘simple’ phobia —


... arises from the particular ‘dream’ of line 12, or is it an everyday ordeal (compare the end of ‘Seven Attempted Moves’)? Did the poem literally start from a dream?


Your interpretation of both poems hits the mark. ‘Without Location’ arose from its title, which is a phrase from, I think, some such venerable explainer as Eddington. I can’t now place it. I just started wondering what such a concept was like as an affect. The dream in ‘Simple Location’, recalled from a spell of compelling dreams I’d had at the age of 19, interposed itself as I was writing.


It would be easy to take ‘Simple Location’ reflexively, as being about its own inception (lines 1—2) and fleetingness (last lines), but that’s always what tends to happen when the reader is at a loss. How do you feel about that sort of self-descriptive imputation in accounts of your poetry? Is it just the product of bad reading habits left by the New Criticism &c., or a legitimate response to the work (its multi-dimensionality not excluding a certain formalism)?


This is a compositional problem I let myself in for by the liberties I allow myself and the reader. How to finesse my directions towards the degree, and kind, of indeterminacy I’m feeling the reader should be given is a mystery. Too much one way and it’s in free fall, too much the other way and it’s Escher.


Well, that raises a complicated group of questions about reading. And the first one is: what qualities would the perfect Fisher reader possess? Would he or she be encyclopaedically informed — inward with the OED, the history of the Midlands, the sometimes obscure artworks you invoke in your poems, and so on, or do you reckon only on sensibility and intellectual speed?


I suppose my ideal reader would be a woman who would nose around the back of the row of lockup garages to see what she could see, without making a song and dance about it. A literary education might be a drawback — though I do have to admit it might be a help if she’d spent at least some time at an Art School. No need to know any more about the state of contemporary British poetry than I do, even.


Setting the drawbacks of education aside, how much literature would that reader have encountered, and would she best approach the poetry from your own background in modernism? This touches on technical issues, because the ability of first-generation modernists like Pound and Eliot to play against expectations (breaking the pentameter, and so on) was a resource which now seems lost to poets. Would perfect readers of A Furnace have the rhythms of Kipling in their heads, or those of William Carlos Williams and Beckett?


The reader I just posited doesn’t carry much of an obligation to be perfect: the main requirement is the faculty Pound described, of being able to be comfortable in the presence of a work of art. You’re lucky if your literary education doesn’t inject allergens which produce undue excitation when aroused. The hard reality is that, for socially-determined reasons, nobody outside a well-prepared class of readers with developed motivations (that is, poets mostly) is likely even to know my work exists, let alone be willing to read the words carefully one after another. So yes, that sort of person will probably have already taken Williams on.


You’re right to say that a poet today who isn’t deliberately atavistic inevitably works inside evolved modernism and is deprived of the old reactive impetus of a kick-off against dead habits. So far as the ideal provisioning of a reader goes, I’d be unhappy with the idea of a canonical progression of reading skills carrying the implication that the final focus of history would be the ability to read my work. I’d prefer anything that dispersed insularity; enough acquaintance with the poetries of all kinds of cultures to show how various the whole business is. I go on to boggy ground here: Kenneth Cox once took me to task for using ‘poetry’ as if it represented an essence, something spiritous and invocable, and separable from language. If I meant it then, I don’t now.


Finally, in the act of composition, do you address or provide only for yourself, or for the ideal reader, or are you sharply conscious of the audience of imperfect organisms that browse in poetry bookshops? Obviously the answer to that will vary across the kinds of poetry — your comic pieces are accessible in quite different ways from ‘Simple Location’. But have there also been chronological changes? After the initial experience (which you have spoken about) of being shocked to find yourself read at all, has your notion of the reader and his or her relevant skills altered and consequently affected your work? Or has the evolution of the poetry entirely come out of you and your experiences (including, of course, the challenges thrown up by commissions and collaborations)?


There was a very early stage when I wrote (but didn’t publish) things so wordy that it was impossible to read them aloud, but since then I’ve not felt much change. I learnt early on that the alignment of writer-text-reader is subject to so many variables in the weights and lengths of the levers, with the joints so unstable, that there’s no point in building hopes on it. What you’re doing, if you retain the old-time anthropomorphic-cum-behavioural view of the uses of text which I still have, is blind fishing in the mind-sets and associational fields of unknown people. It’s necessary to rely — whatever way you choose to bend it — on some idea of a consensual use of language among people you might converse with. I don’t take it further than that. And even then that language-image consists in my overhearing myself: not far at all.


Let’s smooth the way for your imperfectly actual readers by looking at difficulties in some of the poems.


I’m fascinated by ‘Matrix’, and, with the help of your hints in the Eric Mottram interview (1976), I’ve detected ingredients from Monet, Böcklin’s Die Toteninsel and Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus.[vi] But I wonder about some names and tags: ‘B.D.’ in the Böcklin description of section 3 (incidentally, in my reproduction of Die Toteninsel, the shrouded figure does not raise a hand, but I gather that the work exists in different versions); Reinagle in section 8 (not, I assume, the eighteenth-century composer who produced ‘Mrs. Madison’s minuet’); and Doctor Meinière in section. 9 (is this a reference to hearing-loss?).


The figure, in my unfreezing of Böcklin’s freeze-frame, becomes a probably Lutheran pastor with the degree of Bachelor of Divinity. Philip Reinagle made the sumptuous and startling image of the Cereus in Thornton’s Temple of Flora.[vii] I don’t know anything about him, but he could easily have composed a minuet while breathing in. Meinière was introduced to me by the medics who diagnosed me as having his disease in 1958, after which it lurked for some years, offering pronounced insecurity: it wasn’t hearing I lost, but balance, the sensation of which the poem enacts. The eye surgery was meant to alleviate it, but didn’t. It went away.


Is there anything you’d like to say about the shape of the sequence as a whole?


Its origin was, not an ordinary dream, but one of those extraordinary experiences in which the dream process can be observed at its work while you’re awake; and can to some extent be manipulated. It’s presented to you as a complex toy, for a short while.


This experience felt very benign, and still does. The master-image was, for me, nowhere concrete or paraphrasable, but is best drawn for the reader in section 5: you’ll see it’s drawn in terms of something mobile in relation to itself, a thing of modes and movements, rather than something capable of being mapped. As I write this I’m reminded of the general field of apparitional challenge-locations — castles, islands, mazes — that occur in quest and journey myths and legends. Though the aesthetic of such things isn’t touched on in the poem: indeed, a different one is offered — that is, my own array of images. Which is, of course, largely though not entirely made up of works of art of various levels of aspiration.


The poem’s a strongly self-referential work of art which contains other works of art which are meant to be seen not as swag but as entities living on within it, and animated a little by being there. Paintings are mobilized and altered, not allowed to retain their fixity — my Toteninsel isn’t quite Böcklin’s, just as any two productions of Hamlet will differ. The same with music: Mann heard Leverkuhn’s music in his head and wrote its words, which in turn made me hear a music that came from them. A mobile Chinese whisper.


The presence of works of art wasn’t programmatic. In the vision I ‘saw’ a location which, on examination, showed up a number of familiar art things and ideas, and also attracted others, which proceeded to float in and take up places. The whereabouts of the various sections isn’t answerable. The whole thing takes place in what we used to call, come to think of it, the imagination. Anything you can’t recognise, I made up. The said imagination, of course, is where one’s ingested works of art continue their interactive lives. I harp on this because it’s important that the art works aren’t seen as arrested at the point of perception with the hard radiation they’d have if mounted as postmodernist icons.


On the master-image. It is island-ish, but also with something of brain-portraiture, as in the forms of brain-scan sections. Or those infinitely interpretable Rorschach inkblots that spread from the fold in the paper. Indeed the Dr. M. section is one in which the experience of the unstably-filled head becomes the entire world.


How would you introduce ‘Diversions’ at a reading?


I’ve merely warned listeners that the piece is a series of poems so slight as not to achieve titlehood; but there is a biographical subtext.


Diversions — divertissements — bagatelles — divertimenti — alternative routes through minor roads when the main highway’s out of commission. All of these. Again, a field of options. The possible use for readers who can catch its tone would be, I suppose, that it enacts (but certainly doesn’t dramatise) the common experience in which one’s forward-moving sense is stopped dead by some occurrence which is Wholly Unacceptable but also irreversible, irremediable, not to be tinkered with, even. One just has to sweat it out for as long as it takes to regroup one’s numbed faculties enough to get moving again. At such a time various flakes and flashes of life can appear, often quite small and fleeting signals. The ones that interest me, of course, are subjective perceptions rather than anything social or interpersonal. They’re not obliged to be cheerful or reassuring: just clearly perceptible.


I did the ‘Diversions’ during a bleak and bloody-minded August, marooned in a holiday in North Wales, a place always good for clearing my eye and mind out. Most of the segments were observations at the time. I’ll try to categorise them. Don’t make anything of the distinction between observed and experienced.


1 Felt
2 Sourceless
3 Brought into service from a note of some years earlier
4 Assembled from relevant fragments, I think
5 Settled opinion
6 Observed
7 Observed
8 Experienced
9 Observed
10 Felt
11 Observed. On Snowdon
12 Brought into service from a note of 1962
13 Experienced
14 Exerienced
15 Familiar experience, called in
16 Observed
17 Observed
18 Observed. Quarry Museum, Llanberis
19 Recalled. One of those Sunday supplement food pictures, shot from
directly above
20 Observed/experienced, Aberdovey (as it still was)


One italicised line in section 3 sticks in the mind: ‘The power of dead imaginings to return’. That sounds like a preshock of the Powysian returns of A Furnace. Is it? And what is the overall place of ‘Diversions’ in your output?


The line’s quoted from myself, possibly a little earlier. I’d probably been making notes on that topic in a quite sober fashion when a bit of it verbalised itself in an alien manner, which I recognised as the grand and ominous lingo of heaving pentameters with which I’d been trying, unpublishably, to conquer the world twenty years before. It made me laugh, so I remembered it. I’m not often given an unforgettable line.


As for the place of ‘Diversions’: it was what I could do at the time. My remark in the Rialto self-review[viii] about my preferred lengths has relevance, and you might like to think about its implications, which I’ve not myself worked out — something to do with post-Imagism, I suspect, as well as my disinclination for going through the routines of making free-standing, anthologisable poems stand up. I’ve used the casual string ‘form’ later but with weaker unifying principles, as the title of It Follows That suggests in part.


I suppose the most extraordinary instance of connectedness in your work is ‘The Trace’. That one needs no glosses; but I wonder about its inception and rationale.


It was the product of considerable concentration, luck and tightrope-walker’s nerve. Some god must have been guiding my hand: Mercury no doubt. Its method relates, I can see, to a technique I sometimes use to induce dreaming and hence sleep when my mind’s too stuffed with small realities: I visualise anything I can, so long as it doesn’t exist, then change it for another such, no matter what, as soon as it takes shape. Nothing familiar is admitted. The poem has no previously known image. Any management of the movement might as well be scored musically (or conducted) as described rationally. At ‘all through the chamber’ for instance, there’s a passage where I must have felt it necessary to use definite articles to head off complete diffusion and give a glimmer of hope to anybody who wants orientation. And the quasi-couplets throughout meter the images out to suggest somebody’s in charge of the adventure — that’s for the benefit of the writer as much as the reader.


‘Releases’ doesn’t seem to be much discussed. How much weight would you give it as a statement of your poetics? How you is its I?


It seems to be something undertaken to get going again after a long lay-off. The shape is an easy movement from childhood Handsworth memories to the mood of my leaving the place in 1972. I think all the materials were already-familiar images or notions, here looking for a home. The ‘I’ is my unexamined label for the introverted function of myself that thinks such thoughts. That is to say, I think it’s me. Still do. In the remarks tending to poetics I’m allowing myself to be overheard, rather than proposing a programme. They do illustrate the way I habitually think, and there’s nothing I’m moved to repudiate.


What about ‘The Red and the Black’?


The poem addresses the grain of my sensibility or aesthetic, and its physical limits. I always assume I can handle subtleties, velleities, half-tones, but not anything brash. Had I been a painter I’d have needed slaves to mix my colours, for the sight of reds, yellows and blacks splurging aggressively from the tubes would have wrecked me for the day. Hence the title, which refers to Stendhal only in the sense that both the military and the priestly callings give me the repellent vapours.


I could use some help with the last section (‘A hill of galantine…’).


The galantine’s just what it says: a magazine foodie photo, very hard-lit, which I actually cut out and framed and kept near my work-corner for years, the way people kept a skull as a memento mori. ‘When you can write ME you can start to call yourself a writer’, it said. About 1963, I think. This is how I brought on my writer’s block. As the poem suggests, it was only when the printed meat faded into subtleties that I could approach it and get to work. That is, my only technique had been to wait for it to die before I did. No genuine action.


Let’s go on to A Furnace. In your interview with Robert Sheppard you relate the ‘didactic’, political element in your poetry to the views of Blake. You quote, of course, one of the proverbs of hell in A Furnace, and it’s easy to see what is Blakean in the poem’s concern to track the operations of authority in the organized chaos of liberal capitalism. What I’m wondering is how far the later prophetic books, such as Jerusalem, were also an inspiration, and, in consequence, how far you’d go towards Blake’s mythical/religious side. He wasn’t, after all, just an analyst of the workings of power.


Jerusalem and the rest make a wonderful spectacle and I’m with Blake all the way. But I can make use only of such elements of that sort of sensibility as are capable of seeping through the matted filter of my, I suppose, mildly depressive and preoccupied nature and having the fascinating if constrained character of moorland bog streams. Forgive my metaphoric wriggling.


I’m quite unable to enter the religious mentality of generations whose intense heterodoxies existed within the assumption of Christianity as the inevitable system. Most if not all of the mentions of observances, cults, ancestor-worship, paganism and its gods in A Furnace are, pretty explicitly, insistently reactive rather than tentatively positive: a bellyaching against historical Christianity’s major hijack operation. I’ve nothing against its excellent ethics, which I have no difficulty in separating from its mythos, which was nowhere nearly up to the job of a bid for world domination via the bent brain. A familiar attitude.


Obviously, I’ve no theology. I’m a non-practising pagan: animist, polytheist. The Eleusinian mysteries would probably have suited my view of things, except that they’d never have got me in through the door and singing the hymns and all. I do have a sympathetic interest in the prudent guesses of hunter-gatherers and tribal farmers, concerned with cyclical repetition of things that work. My tone’s not reductive. Once a mythos starts to rock the social boat, though … see my gnomic utterance near the close of A Furnace.


To push beyond that a little. The poem ranges intellectually from philosophy of language to metaphysics. What is the pedigree of that scrutiny and celebration? It can’t all be coming in from Powys. Did the Nietzsche bug ever bite you? Do you feel, with hindsight, that more than the prose-style of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (which you mentioned to Sheppard) affected you?


Inevitably I’m going to disappoint you on all questions to do with intellectual provenance. The most acute of my schoolmasters had me down as ‘a bit of a charlatan’ and my subsequent tutors recognised (though I couldn’t understand what they were getting at when they tried to reform me) that I’ve always been quick-witted at spotting ideas and their implications and applications but quite incapable, through laziness or native incapacity, of patiently filling them in by study. I’ve many interests, but no scholarship at all. Nietzsche, yes of course: got the T-shirt. Extremely impressive and engaging, though I wouldn’t follow such a bruiser to the corner of the street. But yes, I suppose the power of the radical iconoclasm must have rubbed off. Wittgenstein: yes, I saw where he fitted in to my ever-moving picture of things. You’ll find another instance in Ian Bell and Meriel Lland’s essay on my links with William James,[ix] whose outlook I’ll have absorbed while a student, reading on the wing.


Early on, this magpie/monkey superficial acquisitiveness inevitably produced world-beating table-top diagrams of great complexity and total crankiness, and it was only when the ideas started to acquire a ballast of observation and experience (a substance I spent years trying to avoid) that they stopped making silly interconnections.


You’ve said that the title ‘Without Location’ is ‘a phrase from, I think, some such venerable explainer as Eddington’. In your 1977 interview with Peter Robinson you observe: ‘We haven’t a language for space-time. We haven’t a four-dimensional language at all. I suppose a lot of what we’re talking about here is my perhaps rather small but insistent attempt to assume that a four-dimensional perception is somehow necessary for us to have’.[x] You come back to this suggestively in your interview with Helen Dennis, where you talk about ‘the cosmology we have since Heisenberg and since Einstein but which is extremely, excruciatingly difficult to bend our language around. I’m writing at the moment a thing in which I am trying to describe the [e]ffect of the dimensions of space, time and other dimensions if you like being warped and subjectively bent, and… the language does not allow, we still haven’t counters, for things like Einstein’s space time’.[xi]


Is the poem alluded to at Warwick A Furnace?


Yes it is.


Did the problems of dealing with curved space affect your choice of the double spiral as an emblem and composition device for the poem?




Yeats, in later life, was interested in Einstein because his theories made the time-space schemes of A Vision seem more plausible. Not that I think of you as Yeatsian (though I suppose your double-spirals are not so unlike his gyres), but when it comes to space and time, should one be looking for a confluence in A Furnace between Powysian mysticism and advanced physics?


Well, yes. I wasn’t equipped to elaborate the confluence but I had a hunch they could coexist without fighting. It didn’t really occur to me that they were opposed. That’s a change from a memory of myself expostulating, around 1954, that if somebody would lend the old man a Pelican paperback guide to physics he wouldn’t need to have such a crackpot set of fluids, essences and what not interrupting his stories.


Was Eddington (especially on cosmology) a significant influence on your thinking? Did reading him in the Fifties set you up for life on post-Einsteinian physics, or were you turning to other sources in the Seventies and Eighties?


My warning about intellectual debts will have prepared you for my failure to answer, though it’s worse, probably, even than you feared. I’m not, like a journalist with a leak, concerned to protect my sources (‘which of you idiots leaked the riddle of the universe to this poet?’); I simply can’t remember forty years back. Ideas came out of the air, I reckon. From successive generations of Our Science Correspondent. Elaborate Third Programme Lectures in the days of intelligent radio. A gradual orientation; no coups de foudre deep in some particular book. There’s also a compendious category which has to be entitled ‘Talking to Eric Mottram’: a constant feed for about fifteen years from 1963 or so.


But maybe I should give you an indication of some belts of enquiry which, while still vague — and nearer to art than to science or philosophy — may give you an idea of the pattern of the environment of relativism in which my wisps of cosmology could find purchase.


I had a reasonable undergraduate training in what was then still called Philology, and got the point of the mutability of language and its relation to the world, and of the need to maintain a nomadic attitude to matters of language. Not long after, I had this opened up further by reading Whorf and others.


In my early twenties I read considerably, if without direction, in psychoanalysis, and became used to the sensation of concepts in free rotation, free fall and infinite regress. This was OK so long as I unhitched, as I did, the authoritarianism.


In my late twenties I acquainted myself with the ur-texts and instances of the classic modernism now taught in postmodernist kindergartens but then still hot stuff: Klee, Kandinsky, Duchamp, Delaunay, Schwitters, Schoenberg and so on — encountering John Cage en route.


Later in the Sixties I kept pretty sharp company in Linguistics around Birmingham University, and was buried in that when the first wave of structuralists harried the Midlands: that’s how I missed them.


After that I had to spend a dozen years teaching American fiction and had my learning channels blocked with novels, taking occasional flight into Cage once again, Buckminster Fuller, and the bibliographies in Norman O. Brown for fun.


In his TLS review of A Furnace, Robert Sheppard objects to what he calls your touches of ‘uncertain reverence’.[xii] He isn’t explicit about the mystical/visionary strain, but I think it’s part of what he dislikes, and, perhaps rather oddly — though one recognises the move — he sees this cultural and metaphysical reverence as tied in to your willingness to be discursive. Preferring you to be phenomenologically mobile, he writes: ‘Fisher is working to extend his range in this, his longest work in verse, only by working against the grain of his sensibility’. How would you respond to that?


Robert’s very perceptive, but he does have an agenda, whereas my agenda consists in not having one. There are stretches of my mentality where his otherwise valid writ simply doesn’t run, and the air’s not breathable for him — and why not? I imagine that in the TLS review Robert was alarmed in case I was about to commit Ash Wednesday. My tone of uncertain reverence is exactly as certain/uncertain, reverent/irreverent as I meant it to be. I go on at some length about my discursiveness and the causes of its late arrival in my recent interview with Peter Robinson.[xiii] The awkward truth is that, for me, to speak in propria persona and name names is more experimental than writing things like The Cut Pages and ‘The Trace’. When I do it I don’t want thereby to issue any signals about my relation to other writers, or to factions, or to changes in the history of the art — though I can’t help doing so, it seems. I do know about these things, but on this matter I simply have to nail my colours to myself and put up with the discomfort.


Well, I notice that in your Birmingham Dialogue with Paul Lester, published in 1986, the same year as A Furnace, you end on a note of self-doubt which isn’t that far from Sheppard on discursiveness, though you see the possible weakness as that of going with the grain rather than against it: ‘It seems to me now that in such work as I’ve done fairly recently — “Wonders of Obligation”, written in 1979, various shorter pieces done since then, and particularly the long poem A Furnace — I have, for good or ill, turned the matter inside-out and have access to an “I” which I don’t have to characterise or play games with; and thus to a pretty direct and discursive approach to a heterogeneous array of material which interests me and comes under my hand as I want it to; that is, it doesn’t just squat across my path. I have to admit, rather uneasily, that I may just be at the mercy of my original material, and that my sense of mental liberation comes only as [a] consequence of the real dismantling of the industrial base, and a good deal of the physical presence, of the urban Midlands.’[xiv]


I rather think that those sentences express separate ideas instead of the second being consequent upon the first. All that dismantling did in fact was to dissolve an obsessive theme. I don’t think it has had any implications for my technique. The truth of the matter may in fact be the opposite to what I said, in that it was the pressure of the obsessive empirical material that set me the task of struggling towards discursiveness.


Can we move into the text of A Furnace, or do you object to glossing the poem any further than you have in the published annotation?


I’ve no objection to furnishing Readers’ Notes, if only to save guesswork — or to head off those happy souls who would rather speculate than know.


I ask because the poem first appeared with a preface (in the Oxford University Press edition), which at least some readers have found helpful; but this was removed for the reprint in the Bloodaxe Dow Low Drop (1996). It’s true that the 10 footnotes which you published in the OUP edition are retained there, but they are removed to the end of the text — presumably so as to keep the pages clear for verse. Would you like to comment on these changes and what they say about difficulties in the poem?


The machinery of A Furnace came about during publication. Oxford got me an Arts Council bursary to write it. On seeing the text they asked me to write a preface that might make it more accessible to readers, or something of that kind, as well as footnotes. I could see the need for some informative notes but wasn’t quick-witted enough to stick out for their relegation to the end. In the poem I was particularly concerned, unusually for me, to impose a forward-rolling verbal movement through the whole piece, set against the inherently static collage-structure and the capricious shifts of focus back and forth through historical time. So I was wrong to allow eye-dropping invitations into the pattern.


I wasn’t happy about writing a preface, for I saw the poem as a sealed system that would, I hoped, cook in its own juices for a reader; so I wrote something rather stiff. It was the discomfort that made me want to dispense with it at the reprint. I know it carries some useful information, which I should perhaps have incorporated somehow in the poem, though I still can’t see how and where. If the poem’s ever reprinted I shall probably append a more relaxed version of it along with the displaced footnotes.


The ‘Introit’ of A Furnace is headed ‘12 November 1958’, and it has obvious continuities with City. When you write, ‘as if I was made / to be the knifeblade, the light-divider, / to my right the brilliance strikes out perpetually’, for instance, your readers are going to recall, from near the end of the earlier sequence, ‘I want to believe I live in a single world. That is why I am keeping my eyes at home while I can. The light keeps on separating the world like a table knife: it sweeps across what I see and suggests what I do not.’ Does ‘Introit’ draw on notebooks from the City period, or does it rely on your memories of that time and place — almost in a Wordsworthian way?


The passage you quote from City was written a year or more after the November 1958 experience, which at that time wasn’t indeed written up, though I did make some notes on it — as an experience, without any thought of a writing — on the day. The materials stayed with me, hardly altering and often recalled, for over twenty-five years until A Furnace offered them a reason for being written up, as well as an idiom.


I forget whether I’ve described the provenance of the passage. The job I’d just taken up, after years of confinement in classrooms, let me loose on certain days to cruise unfamiliar corners of the Black Country in search of the schools where my students were working. My productivity was low. I couldn’t then drive and my trancelike bus jouneys in odd directions at slack times of day often got me beatifically lost. This particular trip took me from Bilston to a place called Fighting Cocks. What interested me, as my account of it shows, was that the metaphysic which such spells of concentration, with their lurching renegotiations of the balance between self and world, familiarly generate took, for me, the form of a reordering of causality.


Section I of the poem, ‘Calling’ starts with the line ‘Waiting in blood. Get out of the pit.’ Presumably this ‘pit’ relates to the Homeric ‘trench’ of section II, where the ghosts get blood to drink. But I’ve seen it interpreted, also, by Andrew Crozier, with reference to I Ching.[xv] Do you wish to give any guidance?


Before starting the poem I threw the I Ching for an idea of its density and direction, so as to have some quasi-external suggestion to bounce my own ideas against. Those words were in the hexagram I threw.


‘Calling’ ends with a landscape feature in North Staffordshire, known as ‘Lud’s chapel’, which (your note explains) may be the ‘green chapel’ of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The section starts, however, from another sort of church, ravaged by iconoclasts, ‘beside the Dee’. If you had provided a note for that church too, what would it say?


It’s the main Powysian reference in that section, but I couldn’t give a note on it without owning up to some oddities. In 1972 I called at the church in Llantysilio near Llangollen. It’s a location in Powys’s Porius, which is set around the home he had in Corwen. My visit was brief but I made what I thought was a detailed mental snapshot: no photographs, no notes. I called up the mental image over a dozen years later when writing the section. What I wrote suited my purpose. But when I stopped off again at the church after the poem was published I found the details of what I then saw considerably at variance with the sharp details of what I’d thought to be my memory. Squirming inwardly I decided to let the passage stand, as a tacit witness to my theme of Mutability, until such time as some pilgrim, along either the river or the text, should challenge me. You are that pilgrim. Thirteen years it’s taken.


Where things are (as against where authorities assert them to be) is a key issue or mystery in A Furnace, so I don’t expect too literal a response. But in ‘Calling’ it would be useful to have some guidance as to the locations being explored in ‘Late at night / as the house across the street / stands rigid to the wind… ‘ and — in your return to ‘Waiting in blood’ — the haunting passage which runs ‘The straight way forward / checks, turns back… ‘


The first: moments picked off a quiet street near where I was living at Keele, a few years before the writing of the poem. The second: a vision. A complex of emotions and judgments which revealed itself in an unmistakably visual-spatial form at some point during the poem’s inception. I couldn’t begin to anatomise it.


What pagan-satanic forces are afoot in ‘The few moments in the year when the quadruped / rears on its hindlegs… ‘?


Pagan, certainly. Demonising Satan wouldn’t be part of my scheme. It’s merely the observation that a horned creature such as a stag or bison, that carries almost all its weight of imposing detail at the front, has to heave it up and simply park it at the times when the action moves briefly to the back end. Head and horns, immobilised and helpless-looking, resemble the big ritual masks men make and wear on their shoulders: and you have the repeatable link — beast, man, god. You have art, too.


Section III, ‘Authorities’, contains some of your most politically charged writing since ‘Wonders of Obligation’. Would it detract from the sweep of that to identify ‘The town gods’ who figure so prominently? Are they the ‘commonplace bosses’ of the ‘common / people’, the local bigwigs with enough money to spend in bars? JPs and aldermen.


None of these likely candidates. I may well have laid a false trail by being inexplicit. I’m referring back, without saying so, to a passage towards the end of The Ship’s Orchestra, where the town gods appear. Indeed, that’s all they do. They’re in no sense demiurges with creative — or any other — power. They’re creations of the place, apparitional and apparently in some sense meaningful, the way gipsy or hill-dwelling families can show up in town in strange vehicles on market days and interrupt the sight-lines without actually doing anything much. Fellini liked to indulge himself by punctuating narratives with such figures. In the City period I grew familiar with a number of them. Since they were, I suppose, fairly schizoid they looked more like emanations of the city buildings than did the moving crowds going about their business. Or like staring processional figures let out to hang around the streets.


And would it be a wild over-reading to see in the ‘Sadist-voyeur / stalled and stricken’ a version of the semi-autobiographical persona who seems so troubled in both texts of City?


Not at all. It’s me. Not in any confessional or narrative-making sense, but as a hindsight sketch of the implications of the muffled, unexpressed attitudes that made up my disposition at that time.


Does the ‘chamber’ with its ‘double spiral’ early in ‘Core’ involve a particular archaic site, as well as in some sense a Birmingham warehouse? Should your readers be looking at surveys of Staffordshire archaeology? And do you have any hints about the ‘polished black basalt / pyramid, household size’? Since it’s flown into its place as ‘fugitive / from all exegesis’ I can see that you might not want to pin it down.


The chamber is imagined, posited, if you like, by the surrounding references-from-life, and drawn by me from its indicators, rather as archaeologists project wholes from fragments. Newgrange is loosely referred to in the matter of the double spiral. You’re right about the inexplicability of the Black Thing. Again, I plotted towards what it might be, ‘saw’ it, and described it. All sorts of half-references are in my memory. And it may have been a premonition of my meeting with the Aphrodite meteorite in Paphos years later, as described in ‘The Dow Low Drop’. The stillness and disorder of the chamber owe something to the photos taken at the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb, as well as to physicists’ attempts to make diagrams of sub-atomic dispositions.


The scene shifts to Coleman Hawkins in February ‘69 at the Opposite Lock nightclub, made over as per description from a canalside warehouse in Gas Street Basin by a former racing-driver called Martin Hone. The area’s now a quite snazzy bit of Venetian Birmingham.


At the end of section VI, where you talk about ‘the bronze statue’ of Poseidon. Does the definite article point to a particular (perhaps drowned) statue of the god?


The most famous. The Poseidon (some would say Zeus) of Artemision, now in the National Museum in Athens.


Thinking on from A Furnace, to the sorts of poetry which were being written about the North Midlands at about the same time, I wonder what you make of Peter Riley’s Lines on the Liver and Alstonefield: poems of your part of the world?


I think very highly of Lines, and the succeeding Derbyshire poems follow it up well. His personalised, politicised landscape is completely recognisable as the one I live in. I think Peter’s hard/soft/hard, straight/twisted/straight poetic is a valiant attempt to duck out from under the Impossible Poetics plastic sheet, and he’s good enough to have something to show. Lines came out before I started living here and working up to A Furnace, and the spitewinter prose piece was influential in giving me a single image for holding the elements of my land-maze.


And what do you make of John Wilkinson’s collection about Birmingham, The Interior Planets?


John Wilkinson’s a powerful and intent poet whose language is densely charged with energy-traces: it’s rich with verbs, the sense of happenings, deeds, potentialities, necessities, results. Obviously some of the energy’s generated by the effort of the poem: making sure the horse doesn’t quit and start eating grass by way of doing scenes, moments or characters and suchlike portable or collectable goods. That would inevitably (I imagine) and disastrously break or coarsen the mobile line of language-creation he’s after. Anything resembling conventional mimesis is of the ‘now you see it — no you didn’t’ sort. It goes without saying that were there not a couple of local place-names in the text and had I not learned from odd extra-textual sources that Wilkinson had spent some time working in Birmingham I couldn’t attribute what goes on in the book to any particular source on the map. So my reading’s not much disabled by lumpen associations of my own. And as for what’s recoverable, the cortex of somebody with knowledge of Birmingham will be as likely to be stimulated as that of somebody with knowledge of Detroit. For what it’s worth, Wilkinson’s Birmingham stay comes thirty years after the period of my own obsession with the city’s intractable materiality and twenty years after I left it. But given the difference in time, my working milieu won’t have been all that different from his: going from one beleaguered multi-racial school to another by day, by night playing often in community centres in the same areas or in Soho Road drinking clubs and shebeens as a token white in a West Indian band. The contrast is that I never felt like using any of that in writing. A different task, different language


News for the Ear is a tribute to you by poets who have learned from your work, and/or been encouraged by your example. I wonder whether you have any reflections on the importance to your poetry — which has advanced with such striking independence — of knowing that others are active?


I’ve never given this sort of thing much thought, and find it difficult now to get the idea in focus. I can’t be comfortable with the idea of my work having directly influenced anybody else’s. Since I propound nothing the only influence I’d be willing to have would be something abstract, such as the example of my perpetual struggle to be pragmatic. What I get from other writers is something equally nebulous but extremely valuable. That is, the sense I get from a heterogeneous crowd of people who certainly have no common programme and may well be mutually inimical, that I can — well — write, and well enough to entitle me to do what I decide. That’s a help, in the only place I need it. I’ve never been sufficiently active to be worth inviting to serve in any gang; my collaborations have been loose and ad hoc. To writers who don’t happen to give me the tacit approval I describe I’m tiresome, boring or invisible. That’s fine.


Ian Gregson has recently linked you with Edwin Morgan (as well as Christopher Middleton) and called you ‘retro-modernists’.[xvi] Can you talk about your literary relationship with Morgan (to whom you dedicate an amusing poem in Birmingham River), and say whether you see him or yourself as ‘retro-modernist’? Do you prefer John Ash’s classification of you as ‘a classic post-modernist’.[xvii]


I didn’t know Ian Gregson had given us that label, though I can see why he did, and there’s good sense in it. Eddie Morgan is in method an opportunist and a mercurial. He’s famously quick on his feet and doesn’t mind being seen enjoying himself; but there’s a dark thug in there, which will out. Even when he’s being sentimental or frivolous he knows just what he’s doing. I don’t think he and I have ever discussed literature except to share occasional enjoyments.


It may be a futile avoidance, but I dodge any labelling that makes me a historical type, for I think that writers who incorporate that element into their own view of themselves have at least nibbled the housekeeper’s mouse-poison: their eyes will gleam unhealthily and their fur rub off in unsightly patches. The title of John Ash’s review of The Thing About Joe Sullivan was the first time I saw the term ‘post-modern’. I thought he’d made it up for my benefit. I didn’t find it hard to accept his use of it as a way of reading my work, but as soon as I saw the frictionless media-and-market-driven phantasm gathering pace in the world about me I took to ducking and weaving. I don’t look at it much, since I no longer teach and so don’t need to. For me it’s a consequence of technological advance and the compulsion to find ways of breathing recycled air and reading recycled signals, sometimes within a dizzyingly small compass. I can’t do that. ‘Retro-modern’, I suppose, can refer to a sort of nostalgia for the sunrise sensations radiated by early modernists, promulgated by their first apologists and filtered down into the mid-century as an optimist orthodoxy. Yes, it’s still possible to enjoy and explore those sensations, though without coming anywhere near to swallowing the whole deal of Modernism, either as method or commodity. What I am, a-historically, is a sub-modernist.


Another pair of poets — very different from each other as well as from you, but sharing your resistance to the Movement in the 1950s and learning a lot from American practice. Poets whose interest in experimental modernism hasn’t prevented them from publishing with ‘mainstream’ presses. When did you first read Christopher Middleton and Charles Tomlinson, and what have you made of their development?


I first encountered Tomlinson on the day in 1956 when Gael Turnbull showed me everybody I need to know about but hadn’t heard of, from Olson and Creeley to Bunting and Ginsberg. I picked up on Middleton a little later and read him with interest through the Sixties. I’ve not followed that up adequately. Charles Tomlinson’s excellence for me is as a celebratory poet, an uncommon role which he’s always carried with fine observation. For that reason it’s never occurred to me to expect him to develop, if that means changing. I suppose I find the later work tends often to be mediated through a conversational mode, which gets between me and what he’s showing, so there’s some loss of contact.


When I first read these two poets it was with a sense of relief that they wrote in the knowledge that what they were making was (to use the word as a crude shorthand) art, and not some behaviour-game round and about it. But I should qualify my judgments on my contemporaries by saying that I seldom speak from thorough knowledge based on comprehensive reading. With any poet I tend to size up the address to the work — where a poem’s been sensed, how it’s been managed — rather than the extension of that address, unless I’m clamped to it for some temporary reason. I think, say, of Robert Garioch or Tom Leonard or Robert Creeley, poets in whom that quality of address is immediately apparent. But there’s little poetry in my head, which is filled instead with almost continuous music and optical polaroids. What poetry I harbour was mostly taken on in the years when I was nosing around the outside of the art and hadn’t yet landed myself in the awkward preoccupations that came with my own work. I’m not happy that the faculty of acquisition and retention faded at that time, for it’s a genuine loss: maybe a redundant defence against the temptation to mimic, which would have come easily to me. I merely record it. I listen to music still very actively. Poetry I check out.


Looking beyond your 70th birthday, at your ongoing work, I wonder how you feel about the balance or interaction between avant-garde difficulty and the sorts of fluency which you show in ‘Six Texts for a Film’, the script for that documentary which Tom Pickard made of you, Birmingham’s What I Think With (1991).


‘Six Texts… ‘ are as they are because of medium-driven pragmatics, not a stylistic evolution. Had I been paid to write the film script in 1970 I’d probably have set The Cut Pages on one side for while and written the script in much the manner it had in 1991. There are many hidden loopings-back and catchings-up in my chronology.


I have, though, had intermittent inclinations to try to Redeem the Anecdote from the current waves of Sex, Shopping, Self-portraiture and Sanatoria verse. I’ve had it in mind that Brecht, MacDiarmid and Morgan (an un-English bunch, and given to Old Left leanings) could be uncommonly lucid and reasonably answerable without incurring charges of being cosy. I can be entertained and intrigued by the arcane, but am eternally suspicious of the mediations of priestcraft in all spheres. My present inclination, supposing I can ever get down to exercising it, is to be quite intricate and subterranean for a spell.

John Kerrigan interviewed Roy Fisher by e-mail
between 24 September 1998 and 20 February 1999.
 — Cambridge / Earl Sterndale


[i] ‘An Interview with Roy Fisher’, in Nineteen Poems and an Interview (Pensnett, Staffs.: Grosseteste Press, 1975), 12—38, p. 12.

[ii] ‘Turning the Prism: An Interview with Roy Fisher ‘, Gargoyle 24 (1984), 75—96; rpt. as a booklet by Toads Damp Press, London, 1986.

[iii] ‘"They Are All Gone Into the World": Roy Fisher in Conversation with Peter Robinson’, in Tony Frazer, ed., Roy Fisher: Interviews Through Time and Selected Prose (Plymouth: Shearsman, 2000), 104–28, p. 110.

[iv] Interview: Roy Fisher by Helen Dennis’, University of Warwick, typescript, 126—40, p. 139.

[v] 15 June—6 July and 9—11 December 1975, according to Derek Slade, ‘Roy Fisher: A Bibliography’, in John Kerrigan and Peter Robinson, eds., The Thing About Roy Fisher: Critical Studies (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000).

[vi] ‘Conversation with Roy Fisher’, Saturday Morning 1 (Spring, 1976), n.p.

[vii] Robert Thornton, The Temple of Flora (London, 1812).

[viii] ‘Roy Fisher Reviews Roy Fisher’, The Rialto 35 (Autumn, 1996), 30—2, p. 31.

[ix] ‘Osmotic Investigations and Mutant Poems: An Americanist Poetic’, in Kerrigan and Robinson, eds., The Thing About Roy Fisher, 000—00.

[x] ‘Roy Fisher Talks to Peter Robinson’, Granta 76 (June, 1977), 17—19, p. 18.

[xi] Interview: Roy Fisher by Helen Dennis’, 138.

[xii] ‘Timeless Identities’, Times Literary Supplement 4342 (20 June, 1986), 677.

[xiii] ‘"They Are All Gone Into the World"’, 00.

[xiv] Paul Lester and Roy Fisher, A Birmingham Dialogue (Birmingham: Protean Pubs, 1986), 28—9.

[xv] ‘Signs of Identity: Roy Fisher’s A Furnace’, PN Review 83 [18:3] (January/February, 1992), 25—32, p. 28.

[xvi] Ian Gregson, Contemporary Poetry and Postmodernism: Dialogue and Estrangement (London: Macmillan, 1996), 1, 127—91.

[xvii] John Ash, ‘A Classic Post-Modernist’, review of The Thing About Joe Sullivan, Atlantic Review n.s. 2 (Autumn, 1979), 39—50.

John Kerrigan

John Kerrigan

John Kerrigan is Professor of English 2000 at the University of Cambridge. He was brought up in Liverpool and educated, to some extent, at Oxford. Among his publications are a widely used edition of Shakespeare's Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint (1986), a study in comparative literature, Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon (1996), which won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, On Shakespeare and Early Modern Literature (2001) and Archipelagic English: Literature, History, and Politics 1603-1707 (2008). He has been reviewing contemporary poetry in such outfits as the TLS, London Review of Books, Metre and Thumbscrew for many years. In 2000 he co-edited with Peter Robinson The Thing about Roy Fisher, a book of critical essays. He is currently (2008) writing about MacNeice, MacDiarmid and Compton Mackenzie, and completing a book on British and Irish poetry since the 1960s.

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