Roy Fisher never became a “popular poet”, in the sense of his work being widely known and printed in the sort of anthologies that appeal to a broad public. I recall him once saying that he didn’t have a “party piece” poem, the kind that he could perform regularly and be recognised by. On the whole, his work didn’t lend itself to being quoted from to emphasise a point of view. I think his audience was largely confined to fellow-poets, a few informed readers of poetry and, after a time, various academics. One or two, like Eric Mottram, had supported him all along, but it took others some years to catch up, if they ever did. When it came to the response to Fisher’s work by the literary establishment generally, Donald Davie probably got it right when he said that he was the victim of “the blindness and condescension of the metropolis to writing which is provincial in its origins or subject matter”.

Fisher was born in 1930 in Birmingham, and the city, and the Midlands generally, figured prominently in his poetry throughout his lifetime. His early long poem, City, published in 1961 by Migrant Press, was an example of how he could use the facts of his background in verse that was shaped by his reading of American and European modernist poets. It was certainly different from the kind of poetry that was then being produced by most English writers, and it’s perhaps significant that many of the first people to recognise its qualities were Americans like Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov, who wrote about Fisher in the influential American magazine, Kulchur, in 1962. 

It was Gael Turnbull who, in the early-1950s, introduced Fisher to the work of William Carlos Williams, Creeley, Charles Olson, and Louis Zukofsky. He also encouraged him to send poems to Cid Corman’s magazine, Origin.  Fisher certainly learned a great deal from reading American poets, but he was also interested in Continental art and writing, and he always retained his own voice and concerns. Tom Pickard made a filmed documentary about Fisher, and it was tellingly called, Birmingham’s What I Think With.

Most of Fisher’s early work appeared in little magazines and small press pamphlets, though the adventurous Fulcrum Press did publish several books by him in the 1960s. It was only in the late-1970s that a somewhat bigger publisher, Carcanet Press, brought out one of his books, and this was followed by his being taken up by Oxford University Press in 1980. It gave him some status (Oxford eventually did several books by him) but, as usual, the London-centred literary critics and commentators largely ignored him. Bloodaxe Books published his later collections.

He had worked in schools and colleges, and for a number of years was a lecturer in the American Studies Department of Keele University. Fisher was also a talented jazz pianist. He had started playing with local jazz groups in the Birmingham area while still a teenager, and was influenced by what was known as Chicago-style jazz. Pee Wee Russell and Bud Freeman were the kind of musicians he admired. Later, he was skilled enough to be employed as an accompanist for Bud Freeman when the American tenor-saxophonist toured Britain. And I recall Fisher playing with Slim Gaillard at the Beat Dreams/Plymouth Sounds convention in Plymouth in 1987.

I knew and liked Roy Fisher. He was a good man and a fine poet. I’m happy that, in a small way, I was able to promote his work at a time when very few other people were paying attention to it. I can’t make any great claims for what I did, which amounted to a few short reviews in Tribune and Ambit. I also used some of his poems in Move and Palantir, a couple of magazines I edited in the Sixties and Seventies. But it pleases me to think that I knew him and valued his writing.

 Jim Burns June 2017