STRIKE UP THE BAND: POEMS FOR JOHN LUCAS AT 80
Edited by Merryn Williams
Plas Gwyn Books. 108 pages. £10. ISBN 978-0-9533952-1-7
Reviewed by Charles Ashleigh
John Lucas, poet, novelist, critic, professor, jazz trumpeter, might have been forgiven had he used the excuse of a very full life for saying he hadn’t much time to spare for anything else. But he’s also been a generous publisher of other people’s work, with his Shoestring Press bringing out both poetry and prose on a regular basis. Independent presses rarely make enough money for their owners to live the high life, so it’s obvious that a fair amount of belief and dedication goes into operating them. And I suspect that too many writers take it for granted that the presses exist simply to promote their books, and they don’t think too often about the hard work that’s required to keep them afloat.
With this in mind, it’s good to see a collection like this, with so many poets and prose writers coming together to sing the praises, in a variety of ways, of someone like John Lucas. Not all of the contributors were published by Shoestring Press, though a good many were, so the book can’t just be dismissed as a kind of “insider’s” tribute to a publisher. It wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing even it did happen to be something along those lines. But in this case, it seems to me that, though a number of poems might specifically refer to the writer’s direct relationship with Lucas as a friend, as well as a publisher, many others relate indirectly to the kind of publishing pattern that Lucas has established. In other words they offer a good picture of the sort of poetry and prose that he favours when selecting what to publish. And it’s obvious that it’s not a narrow selection process.
It would be difficult to pull a few poems out of the anthology. It
doesn’t have a “theme,” other than in terms of being a tribute to
Lucas, but some do refer to his interests. Tony Roberts’ “Benny
Goodman” is based on an amusing anecdote about the famous jazz
clarinetist, and John Mole’s “The Chicago Boys” likewise touches on
the music that Lucas loves. Ann Drysdale’s “Background to Music”
might fit into this category, too, and John Godfrey’s “Lunchtime
Jazz at the R.F.H.”. And there are poems with references to cricket
But I’m perhaps being unfairly selective in referring to a few poets and poems. There are many others worth mentioning by poets like Alan Brownjohn, Anne Stevenson, Matthew Sweeney, and more.
What does come through quite clearly is the fond respect that the contributors seem to have for John Lucas. You sense that they don’t just see him as their publisher, and have regard for him as a friend, a good poet in his own right, and a man who has done a lot for contemporary British poetry.