The definitive document on Jim is his
interview with Kevin Ring which appeared in Beat Scene in 2014
BEAT SCENE INTERVIEW
Poet, critic, observer, essayist Jim Burns has been writing about books, jazz, art, poetry, films for as long as anyone can remember. Editor of two independent little magazines, a longtime contributor to the journal Ambit and more lately a run of four wonderful books of essays that take in the Beat Generation, bohemia, obscure and forgotten writers, musicians and artists. He's also provided back up as Deputy editor of Beat Scene magazine for many years. We thought it was about time to pose him a few questions.
Kevin Ring: When do you think your personal fascination with the outsiders of literature, art, films and so on, began?
Jim Burns: I think I always was alert to the idea that there were lots of interesting things going on outside the usual framework. I can recall even as a kid prowling around the local library just finding things for myself rather than accepting the received ideas that a lot of people are happy to accept. This, of course, meant that I didn't do well at school, but I did come across a lot of fascinating writers, painters, musicians. Later, it just seemed obvious to me that, for example, not everything worth reading was to be found in the books that get highlighted in the press. The writers who don't become famous often have worthwhile things to say.
Can you recall some of the first things you were drawn to?
Jazz was a key thing I was drawn to and in 1950 or so it wasn't respectable, so it was like entering into a strange new world. Bebop was, for me, and I'm quoting Gilbert Sorrentino here, an entry into a whole new world of culture. It took me into art and literature that seemed different to the official versions of those things. But the cinema was an influence, too. and I always loved to read history ,and still do. Again, though, I often just prowled around the library and read whatever took my fancy, so I wasn't reading what you might call orthodox history. I liked to find books about obscure events and personalities.
So the library was a real haven for you? Was this in Preston? What years would these be? How early in your life did jazz enter the picture? I recall your stories of listening to Symphony Sid on the radio, •was that radio Luxembourg?
Yes, the Library was important and it was the place where I could find out about things that schools didn't teach and most people didn't talk about. As for jazz it was around 1950, when I was fourteen, that it entered my life, primarily in the shape of bebop which provided a kind of entry into the world of the avant-garde in art and literature as well as music. I don't think I ever heard Symphony Sid on the radio in those days. As for Radio Luxembourg, it was a pop station and I don't think it ever broadcast jazz unless it was the watered-down form of traditional jazz that was popular for a time in the 1950s. I tuned in to radio stations in Paris and Cologne and there was Hilversum in Holland. The American Forces Network in Germany also had a few jazz programmes and I recall "Hot House" on AFN, which is where I heard about the death of Charlie Parker. But I was in the army then and stationed in Germany.
So this was a 'further education' for you. Could you have gone to university? Or did army life put a block on that?
I left school in 1952 when I was sixteen, worked for a couple of years in a cotton mill and joined the army in 1954, came out in 1957, and went back to work, though in a variety of jobs. University wasn't really an option and most people didn't go in those days. In any case I didn't have the kind of qualifications required for university entrance. But if I'm asked which university I went to because people often assume I must have I like to reply, BAOR (British Army of the Rhine) because it was an education, not just in terms of the books I read but also because of the people I met and the experiences I had. I've never regretted not going to university and think that finding my own way through literature and art and music suited me. I'm not knocking the benefits of a university education, simply saying that I doubt it would have suited me.
I was three years in the army, from early 1954 to early 1957, most of that time in Germany, and it was useful from the point of view of being able to get a lot of American paperbacks which in those days weren't available in Britain. I read some of the obvious established writers like Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, but also less well-known ones like Leonard Bishop and Willard Motley. As for jazz, the German shops had American LPs and, of course, you couldn't get them in Britain because of import and currency restrictions, so I picked up Blue Note and Savoy discs. I don't think people nowadays realise how restrictive life in the 1950s was in many ways. You really had to work at finding the stuff you wanted. I wasn't writing myself then and it just seemed important to read as much as I could. But the New American Writing wasn't around or not obviously so, and I doubt that many people outside the USA were taking much notice of it, and even there the audience was small. It was only in the late-1950s that Beats and Black Mountain and San Francisco Renaissance poets began to be better known. I did come across Kenneth Rexroth while I was in Germany because he wrote an introduction to a Signet collection of Henry Miller's short stories called Nights of Love and Laughter, and I found that in a little German bookshop. Rexroth was such a powerfully influential figure wasn't he?
Yes, I started to search for Rexroth's work and he had been published in some British magazines in the 1940s. What interested me about him was the spread of his writing. He didn't just write poetry, and his essays covered all kinds of subjects, including politics, jazz, religion, and much more. I read his articles about the Beats but he was from an earlier generation and his involvements in 1930s radicalism, for example, intrigued me. My own interests ran to much more than poets and poetry, so Rexroth was, in some ways, an example to follow. But I'd like to add that his essay about the influence of French poetry on American writers, and his book about American poetry in the 20th Century, provided me with lots of information about poets who weren't mentioned in official histories. And he knew about the history of American bohemianism which is a subject that interests me. Someone said that Rexroth's An Autobiographical Novel is more fiction than fact, but it's still marvelous to read and there's a lot to be got from it if you take it in the right way. His book on Utopian communities is also worth looking at.
Backtracking just a little, you mentioned Rexroth and his book on Utopian communities. What was that? Looking at the Transcendentalists, Thoreau & co & maybe Morris? Rexroth was ahead of his times?
Rexroth's Communalism: From its Origins to the Twentieth Century was published in Britain by Peter Owen in 1975- It looks at Utopian communities from early Christian ones through the Anabaptists in Munster in the 16th Century, Winstanley and the Diggers in England at the time of the English Civil War, communities in Russia, the Shakers (chased out of Manchester in the late-18th Century), American groups like the one at Brook Farm that Nathaniel Hawthorne satirised in his novel, A Blithedale Romance, as well as the communities based on the ideas of 19th Century French thinkers like Fourier and Cabet. Much more besides what I've listed. Fascinating book, but Rexroth wasn't the only one to write about such things and he certainly wasn't the first. There were earlier studies of the Owenite communities in Britain and America, and of places like Oneida. But Rexroth's book is a good, brisk survey.
Were you writing in 1957? I would imagine you were beginning to pick up on the Beats?
No, I wasn't writing in 1957 and just thought it more important to keep reading and trying to find out more about things that interested me. I don't want to lecture anyone about it, but it always struck me that too many people start to write before they've read enough. And the way to learn to write is to read. I didn't publish anything, or even try to get anything published until 1962 when I had a couple of poems in a little magazine. I was reading the Beats and the Black Mountain and San Francisco writers, but along with lots of others, both British and American, and there were poets and others who didn't fit any sort of group who I came across and found interesting. As for the Beats generally, they interested me, too, but I was never under any illusions about their work. It wasn't all good by any means. I think they aroused my curiosity partly (I'm talking about many of the minor writer around the beat scene) because I could see links to earlier bohemians. Had it not been for the beat tag they would have just have been thought of as bohemians. Labels can be a nuisance.
What sort of jazz music first attracted you? When did you first connect with bebop?
It was around 1950 that I first began to listen to jazz seriously and it was bebop that really interested me. It wasn't a popular music and it's a mistake to assume that it had the sort of mass audience that pop music has now. You had to listen to bop, not just use it as background or expect to hear it often on the radio. I think authentic bebop even now probably tends to bother a lot of people, it's too intense and doesn't make any concessions to the listener. You were never going to charm your girlfriend or chat with your friends to a background of bebop. Charlie Parker or Fats Navarro or Allen Eager on top form demand your attention.
Can you recall particular bop records purchased when you were in Preston & how did you get them? Were they spoken of in music magazines?
Charlie Parker's "Stupendous," Howard McGhee's "High Wind in Hollywood," Charlie Ventura's "Boptura," Dizzy Gillespie's "Manteca, were a few of them. I had to order them from a little record shop in Preston. It wasn't the sort of stuff they stocked. All 78s, ofcourse. The Melody Maker ran reviews of jazz discs and the monthly Jazz Journal was somewhere to find out about new discs, etc. I got to London in 1952 so I could visit the jazz shops and sneak into Studio '51 club to hear some British boppers like Johnny Rogers and Dizzy Reece. Then to Dublin in 1953 to hear Stan Kenton's band with Lee Konitz, Conte Candoli, etc. Exciting days for a 16/17 year old. American musicians couldn't play in Britain before the mid-50s so going to Dublin was the only way to hear them.
Were there 'kindred spirits' in Preston then, to share your interest in jazz in? That's quite adventurous for a youngster!
There must have been a few other people in the town who liked bebop, but I don't recall
meeting many of them. A few of the musicians in local dance-bands obviously listened to it, but I always found that traditional jazz, the New Orleans kind of thing, held sway in the pubs which had live music. A bit later in the 1950s, after I'd left the army, I had friends who were very much involved with traditional jazz as musicians, record collectors, etc.. and some of them were broadminded enough to listen to modern stuff, too. But in the early days, before I went into the army in 1954, I always felt that I was on my own, which is why I headed for London and Dublin and tuned in to those foreign radio stations. Ofcourse, being only 16/17 I was too young to get into the pubs in Preston (they were stricter then about such things) where I may have met some fellow bebop enthusiasts, if they existed. There was a local saxophone player I talked to years later and he had obviously been keen on Bird, Lester Young, etc., and said there were a few others like him in the dance-bands in the late-1940s and early-1950s, but not many.
So you're heavily immersed in discovering new jazz, how did you go about discovering new writers? Did you try and pick up poetry journals, how did you go about that? And what were those publications?
When I left the army early 1957 I started to pick up little magazines here and there in London and Manchester. Interestingly, the library in Preston had New World Writing, which is where I first read Kerouac, though I didn't know I had because his "Jazz of the Beat Generation" was under the name of Jean Louis. And I read Rexroth's essay about the Beats, etc. There were often advertisements for little magazines in publications like the TLS and the New Statesman, so I just sent off for copies. It was trial and error just to find the magazines that were publishing work that interested me. You could get Evergreen Review in shops in London and Manchester and there were British magazines like Satis, Migrant, New Departures, Sidewalk, Jabberwock that were publishing British writers of interest and were also connecting with the new American writers. With American magazines, which weren't always easy to get locally, I subscribed to The Outsider, Big Table. I've written about all these publications at one time or another in Beat Scene, Poetry Information, and other places, and the essays
have been collected in one or other of my books. It was quite a lively time, and things were coming in from all directions and sorting through it was great fun and a kind of continuing education and a period of discovery.
You subscribed to The Outsider!. You must have been one of the few in Europe who did this. Can you recall how you felt receiving your copies of that beautiful publication from the Webbs. They really made an effort didn't they?
Yes, it was exciting to get something like The Outsider partly because of the writers it was printing, and it needs to be said that they weren't all Beats because the Webbs as old bohemians were not going to be overawed by the newcomers. Exciting, too, because the level of dedication needed to get a magazine like it produced and circulated was something to be admired. I was aware, too, that the magazine was in a grand tradition of little magazines, something I've always been fascinated by, and I'd started tracking down copies of some of the great little magazines of the 1920s and 1930s like Transatlantic Review, This Quarter, and Contact. I think I was lucky because you could find copies then which weren't too expensive. So, The Outsiderwas well in that tradition of bohemianism and its magazines.
Was there any dialogue between you and the Webbs? You mentioned Kerouac in New World Writing. Could you see him becoming the figure he emerged as?
I recall a note thanking me for subscribing and something (a postcard, maybe) explaining why they hadn't done a fourth issue. I remember, too, that Jon Edgar Webb offered me a signed copy of Bukowski's It Catches its Heart in my Hands for $7.50 which sounds reasonable but at the time I was using my available funds, which weren't exactly booming, for things like those old 20s and 30s magazines I mentioned and for other new magazines and books.
As for Kerouac, I can't honestly claim that I recognised him as someone who would make the impact that he did when On the Road finally appeared. I read his New World Writing piece because it was unusual to find someone writing about jazz outside the jazz magazines in those days.
You mentioned the English magazines Migrant and Satis. Were you tempted to send them writing? Or was that still off in the future? You were in your mid twenties at that point?
No. It seemed to me important to read widely and I didn't send anything to any magazines until 1962 and Satis and Migrant had already folded by then. The first magazine I was in was called New Voice and it only lasted one issue but Anselm Hollo was also in it and at that time he was active in Britain and also had contacts with American writers. I remember meeting him a few times in London in the early-60s. I also started sending stuff to Ambit, one of the leading British magazines and got some poems published in it which led to a 50 year association with the magazine, contributing poems, articles, reviews. Around the same time I began to review for Tribune, the left-wing weekly paper, and that led to a 30 year association with them. And I also started writing articles for/^zz/owrwa/and doing a few pieces for The Guardian. And I recall getting a short story in something called Storyteller which used to be sold at W.H. Smith bookstalls on railway stations. It wasn't a particularly good story and is rightly long forgotten, but the fact that they liked it, published it, and paid me, did encourage me.
Were you making contacts •with other poets at this point? The contact with Martin Bax at Ambit was a significant point for you? A long connection - what was Ambit like back then?
Yes, I met Roy Fisher, Gael Turnbull, Michael Shayer, and Dave Cunliffe, David Chaloner, others I can't recall. Chris Torrance called on me in Preston, and Andrew Crozier also. I went over to Manchester to see Tony Connor, a fine poet who later moved to the USA. I had exchanges by mail with Gilbert Sorrentino and Seymour Krim. The Ambit connection was important because Martin Bax was very friendly and I used to stay with him and his family in London and through him met all sorts of writers like Alan Brownjohn, Edwin Morgan, J.G.Ballard, B.S. Johnson, Alexander Trocchi, and around the same time I met Jeff Nuttall. Ambit was always a magazine that didn't push any particular group and its policy was flexible and open, so it suited me. I've never taken part in the kind of silly "wars" that some literary people seem to want to fight, setting up one group against another and all that. I met poets like Peter Porter, George Macbeth, and Edwin Brock through Ambit and got along with them. Edwin Brock was a first-rate poet. Some people saw Porter and Macbeth and Anthony Thwaite as part of an "establishment" set-up, but they were always ok with me. It amused me later when all the trouble started around the Poetry Society and its magazine, Poetry Review, and Eric Mottram and Tom Pickard and one or two others took control for a time. I knew Mottram and he published my poems in Poetry Review, but I was also in the magazine when it wasn't edited by Mottram. I could see value in all kinds of poetry. Poets like Edwin Brock and Edwin Morgan wrote poems that were, in their own way, as interesting as anything coming from the USA.
Martin Bax and Ambit. Started in 1959. Writers such as JG. Ballard caused controversy apparently with stories that offended Randolph Churchill, who thought that it denigrated President Kennedy? And artists such as Ralph Steadman, always associated with Hunter S. Thompson, so it was never an establishment publication? You must have been pleased to be in it?
Yes, you're right, Ambit never was an "establishment" magazine and over the years had its problems with would-be censors and others. Martin Bax was a writer himself (novels, short-stories), as well as a highly-respected medical consultant, and I always thought that having involvements outside the literary world helped him have an independent stance when it came to editing Ambit. And some of the people who were part of his editorial team, like Ballard, Edwin Brock, and the fine Liverpool poet, Henry Graham, were equally independently minded so the magazine was open to contributions from a wide range of writers. And Martin was interested in art, too, so the magazine included a variety of drawings and other illustrations,
with people like David Hockney and Peter Blake providing stuff in its early days. So, yes, I was happy to be in the magazine and more than happy to stay with it for fifty years. Martin Bax retired in 2013, though the magazine carried on with a new editor.
Did you ever think of moving to London at that time?
No, I never thought of moving to London. I was married and had a couple of sons by 1963 and it seemed important to make sure they grew up in circumstances that benefited them, and my wife wouldn't have wanted to move, anyway. I also figured that living in Preston would keep me apart from literary groups, cliques, etc., and their squabbles, and give me time to get on with my writing. I suppose being in London would have allowed me to develop contacts, but I've no complaints about how things worked out.
Eric Mottram was very much a connector with America wasn't he? It seems that way to me. And Tom Pickard brought a lot of Beat poets to Newcastle?
Eric Mottram, and yes, he taught American literature and wrote about it, and he obviously knew American poets, but he was also something of an activist on the British scene and supported poets like Lee Harwood and Barry Macsweeney. I remember reading at a Modern British Poetry Conference at the Central London Poly in 1974, and I think Mottram may have had something to do with organising that. Basil Bunting was there and the old Scottish radical poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, as well as Ken Smith, Andrew Crozier, and others. There was a lot going on in British poetry in the 70s. There was a second similar event a couple of years later and I recall I read at that with David Tipton, an under-rated poet. Tom Pickard did invite Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti to read at Morden Tower in Newcastle, but he also had British poets there, too. I think Tom had moved on when I read there with Edwin Morgan in the 70s and Connie Pickard was running the show. But Tom Pickard deserves credit for getting poets to Newcastle.
You mentioned Andrew Crozier. He seemed to build on links with the emerging American poets, Black Mountaineers like Charles Olson? And his publishing ventures, part of a flowering in presses such as Fulcrum, Goliard, Trigram, Ferry and the like. That must have been a good period?
Andrew had spent a year or so in Buffalo studying with Olson, and he was also largely responsible for contacting the 30s poet Carl Rakosi and encouraging him to start writing again. Rather like Tom Pickard did with Basil Bunting. While Andrew was in the USA he edited an issue of Sum which featured a dozen or so British poets, such as Charles Tomlinson, Gael Turnbull, John James, Tom Raworth, Pickard, etc. I was happy to be included, too. Andrew was also active with his Ferry Press which like the others, such as Fulcrum, Trigram, helped to bring some American poets to the attention of British readers, but also published the work of British poets who were operating outside what might be called an establishment framework. But I want to dispel the idea that the British poets were sitting around waiting for the word to come from America. It wasn't like that at all. There was an interest about what was being done in the USA, but poets here weren't necessarily overawed by it. Someone like Andrew Crozier wasn't at all interested in the Beats, for example.
Surely the 1965 Albert Hall event with Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso and all the English and European poets was a big leap forward in momentum for poetry in this country? And maybe events such as the Dialectics of Liberation thing at the Roundhouse in the same mid 1960s era? Where Ginsberg again appeared, Burroughs was hovering in the background, Olson was in London?
Well, there were things happening in the UK, anyway, and not all poets and and readers were necessarily interested in the Beats, or the New American writers generally. I don't think a lot of British poets thought that they needed a visit from Ginsberg, etc. to stimulate them. I was personally happy to go to the Albert Hall event, but I was interested in what was happening in the USA and I got a lot of magazines and books from there. But I knew plenty of people who read and wrote poetry but if they read American poets preferred Robert Lowell, John Berryman, James Dickey, Anne Sexton, etc. Have a look at the Contemporary American Poetry anthology, edited by Donald Hall, published by Penguin in the 60s. Yes, the later, revised edition has Ginsberg, Creeley, Dorn, Snyder, O'Hara, etc., but lots of others, too, who weren't Beat or Black Mountain or New York School. I think visits from Ginsberg, Olson, etc. were probably useful for those British poets who were operating outside conventional areas of poetry, though I wonder how many people actually read or related to Olson. Very few, I suspect. And I doubt there was a great deal of interest in, say, Michael McClure's work. Ginsberg was a celebrity, of sorts, and Corso, Ferlinghetti, Burroughs had received some attention, but the lesser-known writers were probably only known to a minority of readers like myself. As for something like The Dialectics of Liberation, that had more to do with the 60s atmosphere of the underground, protest, hippies, and all the rest of it. Had it much to do with poetry? Probably not. I'm not trying to set up sides by challenging some of the assumptions about events and personalities. Some of the problems arose because people did take sides and want to fight wars, as when Eric Mottram, Tom Pickard attempted a takeover of the Poetry Society. I'd just like to see an accurate record established. From a personal point of view the 60s were exciting and productive as I edited Move and exchanged copies with other magazines in the USA and the UK, and met various poets and writers. But I was always conscious that other things were taking place and what I was reading wasn't the only writing being produced.
You mentioned the magazine MOVE that you founded. Can you tell us more about that?
Move was very much a part of what was referred to as the 60s mimeograph revolution. It was cheaply produced on whatever equipment was available, which ran from a small hand -operated duplicator to Dave Cunliffe's better-quality machine, with along the way help from a sympathetic union member who had access to the facilities in the branch office and another friend who worked in the local town hall. It didn't attempt anything fancy and was limited to 20 pages per issue. The idea was to use it to put people in touch with each other, and from that point of view it worked, especially in my own case. Lots of other magazines, big and small, from around Britain and from America started to exchange copies with me and poets sent their work and copies of their books. I was influenced in some ways by the example of Gael Turnbull's Migrant magazine in that the audience I wanted to reach was largely made up of poets and a few interested readers. I wasn't under any illusions about how many people were likely to be interested and ran off only 200 copies of each issue. I'd guess about a third of them went to the USA and one or two other places abroad and the rest were distributed here. I didn't charge anything for the magazine and just asked people to send a stamp or two if they wanted the next issue. The magazine ran for eight issues, from December, 1964, to April, 1968, and there was a supplement, produced in the same way, published in November, 1966, under the title Thirteen American Poets. The magazine itself always had a mixture of British and American poets and I wasn't concerned to project any sort of Beat image, nor that of any other group. I just read what came in and printed what I liked. Just a few of the poets who were in the magazine and the supplement were Anselm Hollo, Roy Fisher, Lee Harwood, Carol Berge, Charles Bukowski, Jack Micheline, Andrew Crozier, Chris Torrance, Fielding Dawson, Larry Eigner, Tom Clark, Joanne Kyger, Robin Blaser, Michael Horovitz, Max Finstein, Wes Magee, David Tipton, and quite a few more. And it was sometimes a pleasure to give space to a quirky, older poet like Hugh Creighton Hill, whose short poems didn't fit into any category but were a delight to read. There were other poets, too, probably now long-forgotten and who perhaps didn't publish much more than a poem or two in something like Move, but who came up with something I liked. I wasn't looking for names and sometimes rejected work by better-known writers if I didn't find it interesting.
How on earth did Bukowski end up in Move? And Kyger, Tom Clark, Blaser - The Bukowski must have been a very early English appearance for him?
The Bukowski poem ("Old Man, Dead in a Room") was in the Thirteen American Poets supplement that came out in November, 1966. Most of the material for it was collected by Kirby Congdon who was in New York and edited a magazine called MAGAZINE that I contributed to. He was also involved with Crank Books which published my Some Poems in 1965. Kirby actually had poems from eleven poets and I added Jack Anderson and D.V. Smith who had sent poems to Move and which I thought fitted in with the others. I think the Bukowski poem may have been an early example of his work appearing in the UK, though I have a memory that a magazine called Iconolatre published him quite early. And, of course, Satis had noticed Bukowski as early as 1962. I've written about Satis in my Beats, Bohemians and Intellectuals (Trent Books, 2000).
The poems by Joanne Kyger, Robin Blaser, Stan Persky, Richard Duerden, and several others, were in issue 5 of Move which appeared in March, 1966. Andrew Crozier was guest-editor for that issue and he got the poems from Open Space, a magazine published in San Francisco. I've got to say that I wasn't completely overwhelmed by some of the poems that Andrew chose, but he had a free hand to choose them. And, in any case, the idea was to publish some poets who weren't well-known in Britain. As for Tom Clark, I recall meeting him here and there in the 60s (wasn't he in Essex or Cambridge for a time?) and he knew Andrew Crozier, and he just sent me some poems that I found interesting. Like I said earlier, I wasn't looking for names; I was looking for interesting poems. And they were just as likely to come from someone unknown.
Was the Crank Books collection issued in USA? That must have been exciting for you?
Yes, Some Poems was published by Crank Books in New York. A small book in a small edition of 200 copies. Kirby Congdon and Jay Socin ran Interim Press and I think Crank Books was Kirby's little offshoot. I never met him and only knew him through correspondence, so I may be a bit vague on some details from 50 years ago. But it was good to suddenly get a letter from someone who had seen some of my short poems in magazines and thought that a batch of them would go together in, well, what was essentially a pamphlet rather than a book. It helped, though, because it was my first collection and the following year Some More Poems was published by R Books in Cambridge, so I had one small book out in the USA and one in the UK, and both happened simply because people had seen the short poems I was contributing to magazines and decided they liked them enough to want to put them in a book. I have to admit that I have a fondness for both books and the poems in them, mainly because there was a directness and simplicity about the poems that was hard to sustain. There's a story about Thelonious Monk being asked to demonstrate a difficult musical passage and doing it without a problem, and then asked to play a simple passage and making a mess of it. As he said, simple things aren't always easy to do. He was right.
This wide mix of poets collected in MOVE is reflected in something like a little paperback I have here, C'Mon Everybody: Poetry of the Dance, edited by Pete Morgan and published in 1971. You are in it alongside Kenneth Patchen, Jerome Rothenberg, Ginsberg, Leonard Cohen, Robert Duncan, Philip Whalen, Denise Levertov, Tom Raworth, Michael Horovitz, lan Hamilton Finlay. This is in the wake of The New American Poetry!
I think Pete Morgan had a wide appreciation of what had been happening with poetry in the 60s, though as he made clear in his introduction to C'mon Everybody, it didn't present the work of any one group or school of poets. You mentioned some Americans and others, but Morgan also included poems by Alan Brownjohn, Henry Graham, Stevie Smith, and other poets who were independently-minded. I knew several of them, and though they were aware of what was coming from America, just as I was, I don't recall that they went overboard for it all the time. Alan Brownjohn had written about Robert Creeley long before most people in Britain had heard of him, and not too long ago I had a conversation with him about a fine American poet, John Logan, who we had both read in the early-60s, so as I said, poets here were aware of what poets in the USA were doing, and I don't just mean the Beats, but that doesn't mean to say that they thought it was all wonderful, or that they were influenced by it. I met Pete Morgan a few times, and recall going over to Leeds to take part in a television programme he was involved with, and obviously he had read a lot of American poets, but I think he basically had the same attitude that I had when I edited Move, and he just looked for interesting work from whatever source. The contents pages of C'mon Everybody indicate that. Philip O'Connor was an old Soho bohemian with roots going back to the 1930s, and what about John Updike, better known for his novels, and the Scottish poet, Alexander Scott? I think C'mon Everybody came out of a lively time for poetry (there were several other anthologies around the same time, including Mike Horovitz's Children of Albion and Pete Roche's Love Love Love) in Britain and it always struck me as one of the best.
Not quite sure of the date, but I recall you were the subject of a BBC film documentary directed by a young Alan Yentob? Can you tell us a little of that? They came up to Preston?
Yes, there was a TV programme in 1972 in which I was featured. Perhaps I ought to fill in the background to it. My first book, A Single Flower, was published in 1972. There had been several small collections, and I'd been widely published in magazines in Britain and America, prior to that but A Single Flower was the first full book and published in hardback and paperback editions. It attracted some attention and Raymond Gardner, who was then doing a series of articles about British poets for The Guardian, came to Preston to interview me. The article, when it was published, described me as a "poet, critic, and shop steward," because I was then working for an oil company and was involved with union activities. It also pointed out that I wrote for what was described as "the big time liberal/left-wing press (New Statesman, New Society, Tribune)," as well as a variety of little magazines. The BBC picked up on the article and got in touch. I must admit that I always suspected they expected to find a brawny docker because the oil company was located at Preston Dock. Anyway, they were producing an edition of the Omnibus programme, which in the 70s focused on different aspects of the arts, and this one was looking at poetry in Britain, so they wanted plenty of variety. As well as me, they had features about Alan Brownjohn, Adrian Henri, Peter Porter, John Betjeman, Adrian Mitchell, and Mary Wilson, the wife of the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. I think he was still Prime Minister, but his wife wrote poetry and had a book out. Alan Yentob, who was then just starting with the BBC, came to Preston for three days with a camera and sound crew and they filmed me around the town, at the oil company, and even in Blackpool because a pub in Preston that I frequented wouldn't let us film there and the nearest equivalent to it was in Blackpool. It had to have a kind of Western look to it to tie in with one of my poems.
It was an interesting experience and the publisher of my book was happy with the publicity that the Guardian article and the TV programme brought. It was interesting to see how much time was spent setting up scenes and filming and then, of course, it all gets edited down to about ten minutes of airtime. I had a few more involvements with TV, but they were either filmed in a studio or, in one case, just done as a straightforward interview in the house. As for the BBC programme, and the Guardian article, they made the oil company bosses look at me a bit warily. I wasn't too popular with them because of my union involvements but the fact of the BBC and journalists from The Guardian coming around perhaps inclined them to be a bit careful in case I used those connections. But they made me redundant a few years later when they closed the place down. Interestingly, the TV programme had something of a lingering effect because a couple of months after it was shown in November, 1972, The Sunday Telegraph Magazine sent Bel Mooney, a well-known journalist, up to Preston to interview me and they ran a fairly large piece on me in March, 1973. There seemed to be a lot going on in 1972 or so and looking up dates to answer your question I came across details of a three day seminar at Holborn Library around the subject of The Poet Life - 1972 Style. The advertisement has me alongside Edwin Brock, Barry Macsweeney, and Edwin Morgan for the Saturday night reading, though there were around twenty poets involved over the weekend seminar. This was an Ambit event, the magazine being one of the key publications. Looking at those poets I mentioned brings me to the sobering thought that they're all dead now.
Looking back to the early/mid 1970s, it seemed to me, at least, that Jack Kerouac was mostly forgotten, even derided in some quarters. Times had changed, a lot of his books were out of print. But the American/English poetic exchange system was very much thriving, with Fulcrum Press and others providing a healthy alternative to mainstream publishing. Is this why you decided to begin Palantir?
No, Palantir had nothing at all to do with British/American exchanges, or anything like that. To set the record straight, it was originally started by people at Preston Polytechnic in 1974, and one of the lecturers, Stuart Brown, got two good issues out. The problem was that it took two years to do that, so in 1976 the Poly approached me and asked if I could take over on a temporary basis and get the magazine going again. I wasn't connected with the Poly, though I knew some of the staff there, and I had a free hand, so I just wrote to a few poets whose work I liked and asked if they had anything they could let me have. Most of them responded and I selected poems by David Tipton, Wes Magee, Edwin Brock, Matt Simpson, who was a very fine poet from Liverpool but often overlooked because he wasn't part of the so-called MerseyBeat group, Harold Massingham, Gavin Ewart, Henry Graham, and a few others. They were all what I would describe as individual voices and not linked to any group or theory of poetry, and perhaps with the exception of David Tipton I doubt that any of them had more than a passing interest in the Beats or most of what was coming from America. I wasn't bothered about that and just wanted interesting poems. Obviously, I still kept up with magazines and books from the USA, and when the Poly asked me to carry on editing Palantir I did indulge myself a little and wrote to John Clellon Holmes, Seymour Krim, who I knew from correspondence in the 60s and had met in London, and Carl Solomon. Holmes sent some poems, and Krim and Solomon came up with quirky prose pieces. I was also getting review copies from New Directions, Black Sparrow, and other American publishers, so I printed reviews of books by Kenneth Rexroth, Jack Spicer, Paul Blackburn, David Meltzer, Robert Creeley, and others. But I want to stress that these reviews were printed alongside reviews of British poets. And most of the poets in Palantir were British and not from any particular group or school of poetry. I tried to vary the contents as much as possible because I knew that the majority of the readers probably wouldn't want a solid diet of American poetry or poetry by British writers who might be influenced by the Beats or the New York poets or the Black Mountain poets. I also tried for variety by printing reviews and articles about films, the Spanish Civil War, bohemianism, politics, art, and writers like B. Traven who are difficult to classify. That's what I liked and looking back at the magazine I'm proud of having published a poet like Paul Edwards, totally forgotten now but very lively and witty and knowledgeable about surrealism. I also published a long translation of Andre Breton's "Fata Morgana" by Roy Edwards, Paul's brother and a man with a fascinating background with people like George Melly and the surrealist movement in Britain. Roy knew all about the great little magazines of the past. I could carry on picking out things from Palantir, like a funny story by the old anarchist, Arthur Moyse, or the poems by John Ash and the material provided by V.J. Sverak, a Czech writer living in Manchester. But I hope I've got across the point that, while my own interest in American writers continued, I didn't think Palantir was there just to promote their work.
Palantir ran for a few years? I recall that was the reason for my first contact with you. You had essays on people like John Garfield too?
Palantir ran for 23 issues between 1974 and 1983, with me as editor for 21 issues from 1976. I decided to end it when I left Preston in 1983, even though the Poly wanted me to continue it. But they'd become less involved financially because of cutbacks in their budget and it was more and more left up to me to find the money and then get the magazine printed and distributed. I just couldn't see it working any further and in any case I wanted to get on with my own writing. I had enjoyed editing it and, yes, it gave me the opportunity to publish things that might not have appeared in print. The John Garfield article was an example. It was written by someone I knew in Preston and he was knowledgeable about Garfield, though I had to put on my editor's hat and re-write some of it. The same person also did an interesting review of a book about Nunnally Johnson, the Hollywood screenwriter, and an article about Nathanel West, the American novelist who wrote The Day of the Locust, one of the classic books about Hollywood. As I said earlier, I didn't want Palantir to be just another poetry magazine, so I tried to vary the contents as much as I could. I asked S.E. Parker, who edited a curious magazine called Minus One, to write an article about Max Stirner, the 19th Century German philosopher who is admired in anarchist circles. Poems came in from all sorts of poets, known and unknown, and I just chose the ones I liked, no matter who they were by. Of course, I knew a lot of published poets and encouraged them to send work, and I did make contact with some people whose work I'd seen and found interesting. John Montgomery was one of them and he turned out to be an entertaining correspondent as well as a witty poet. And there was Dan Propper, who had been in various Beat anthologies. Also, an American poet called Marc Harshman who is now Poet Laureate of West Virginia as well as a very successful writer of children's books. Which reminds me that I published poems by John Harvey, now better known as a writer of crime novels. Well, there were all kinds of things. I asked an academic philosopher friend to review a book about the philosophy of art, and Gregory Stephenson contributed an article about "Howl." I suppose some of the poems I used will not have stood the test of time, but others are still worth reading. There was a lady called June Ella Harris who I know nothing about, but she used to send very short, carefully written poems and it was always a pleasure to put them in the magazine. And a man called Frank Wood who had his first book published when he was in his eighties. He had been in the navy during the Second World War and told me about seeing Frank Sinatra singing in a New York theatre. I used to encourage him to write about his experiences, but he never did. I could carry on reminiscing, because it always struck me that quite a few of the contributors to Palantir had interesting backgrounds. And wrote good poems.
Having packed in Palantir you speak of wanting to concentrate on your own writing? There are a string of small press books from you in the period after Palantir. Internal Memorandum, Take It Easy, Poems for Tribune, The Gift, The Real World, Confessions of An Old Believer and more. The floodgates opened?
I'm not sure that the floodgates opened. If you look at what I published before 1983 there were two full-sized collections (A Single Flower in 1972 and The Goldfish Speaks From Beyond the Grave in 1976), and several smaller books. There were a couple of books published in translation in Germany which got me to the Berlin Literature Festival and the Zurich Poetry Festival in 1977, as well as giving a reading in Cologne. And I was contributing poems, reviews, articles to a variety of little magazines, and writing my regular reviews for Tribune. Did I write any more after I finished with Palantir3. Perhaps not, but I certainly kept just as busy and there were several more small-press pamphlets and books. Not having to worry about getting Palantir out did give me more time to focus on my own stuff, but then, almost by chance, I got drawn into running some adult education classes. I almost said teaching some adult education classes, but if I'm honest I have to say that I never thought of what I was doing as teaching. I have too much admiration for good teachers to want to place myself among them. I just tried to create a friendly kind of atmosphere in which people would want to come along and participate in discussions about poems and stories I brought to the group, and sometimes contribute their own work. Like I said, they were adult education classes and very informal and with no requirements for anyone to produce anything. I had one man who came for several years and never wrote a single thing, though he was quite astute when he joined in the discussions. And I met some fascinating people who had stories to tell. They were mostly retired people and their experiences often involved places and events that made me realise how much we tend to think that only the well-known have anything interesting to say. I'm reminded of an old lady, a retired nurse, who lived just around the corner from me when I was in Preston. I used to see her going to the local shops and she just seemed like any other old lady, not too well-dressed and walking slowly. It was only much later that I found out that she had been in Russia in the 1920s and had met Stalin and other Bolshevik leaders, was a nurse with the International Brigades in Spain in the 1930s, and had worked in a London hospital during the Blitz. There were people like that in my classes with stories to tell about Vienna in 1934, and Budapest in 1945, and so on. There were also some people who did have a talent for writing and one or two of them went on to have poems and stories published, and a couple had small collections. I also used to travel around, giving readings and talks, and I ran a few Saturday day-schools for the University in Manchester, one of them about the Beats and another about Kerouac. But I eventually decided to stop running the regular classes when the University said that I had to start grading people and requiring them to produce work to be marked. I think it all had to do with qualifying for funding. Well, I wasn't going to insult my students, some of who were retired teachers and business people, and one a professor, by treating them like that, so I quit.
Alongside poetry, jazz, you've always had a big interest in politics of a certain kind. You wrote for The Tribune. Political themes crop up often in your •writing?
Yes, I always was interested in politics of the left-wing kind, and as mentioned earlier I got involved in union activities. The history of socialism and communism fascinated me and still does, and some of that interest does come through in many of the poems I wrote. It intrigues me now, reading about the debate concerning the teaching of history, that very few people ask, "Whose history are we talking about?" It seems ok to say we should know about kings and queens and what happened during the First World War, but if I suggested that schools should also teach the history of the unions and the Labour Party there would probably be an uproar among Conservative politicians. As it happens, and friends will back me up on this, I know about the history of the British Army going back to its formation, so I'm not against that being taught, too. Anyway, yes, I wrote for Tribune, the weekly paper, for around thirty years, doing lots of book reviews on a variety of subjects, and also contributing regular columns about little magazines and small-press publications. And I did articles and reviews for a number of other liberal/left-wing publications, ranging from the New Statesman to The Industrial Unionist (an IWW magazine) and some local union papers. I used to contribute poems to Tribune which picked up on current affairs. Some people say that poems like that have a limited life, and that may be true, but it's still valid to write them as far as I'm concerned. I never did see poetry as some sort of precious activity that should only deal with personal matters or big subjects like life, death, and all that. It can come in a variety of forms and be about a variety of subjects and there's nothing wrong with a little poem that raises a smile at the shortcomings of politicians or the contradictions of their policies.
What you say about politically slanted poems having a limited life, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Hirschman, Patchen, and to an extent Gary Snyder, have written much in this vein. You could probably think of many more?
The idea that political poems might have a limited life isn't mine, but some people do raise the question from time to time. Those poets you mentioned did write political poems, of one sort or another, and so did Kenneth Rexroth and Jack Micheline.I remember Ferlinghetti striding across the stage at the Albert Hall reading in 1965 to shake Adrian Mitchell's hand after the latter had read his anti-Vietnam War poem. But there's a whole tradition of political or socially-committed poetry(that might be the better term) and, of course, much of it has proved to be of lasting value. Lines from Shelley's "The Mask of Anarchy" always come into my mind when I'm walking through St Peter's Square in Manchester. The poem is Shelley's response to hearing news of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 and it happened not far from what is now St Peter's Square. I could go on pulling poets and poems out of the hat, but there's a good anthology, Red Sky at Night: Socialist Poetry, edited by Andy Croft and Adrian Mitchell, which may give a broad idea of some of the political poetry produced by British poets. Or there are the anthologies that Walter Lowenfels edited in the 60s, one of them was called The Writing on the Wall: 108 American Poems of Protest. Lowenfels was an old radical, a friend of Henry Miller in the Paris of the early 30s and,later, a member of the American Communist Party. Which reminds me that there's a fine anthology of left-wing American poets called Social Writings of the 1930s: Poetry, edited by Jack Salzman and Leo Zanderer. Has anyone heard of Sol Funaroff, Michael Gold, or Joseph Kalar? They're all worth reading. The poems I wrote for Tribune were all short because that's what the paper needed, space being limited, and they had to make an immediate impact because the readership wasn't a literary one and they weren't likely to want to puzzle over the meaning of a poem. Some of them may still work. There was a small book, Poems for Tribune, published in 1988, and that may have some of the best of them. And in 1975 another small collection, Fred Engels in Woolworths, also had some left-leaning poems. But there are similar poems scattered around all my various books.
Your Poems For Tribune, a number seem from the mid 1970s, a turbulent time in this country, prolonged power cuts and so on. The supposed optimism of the Albert Hall era of 'love' a long way away?
Was it really all love, peace and optimism in the 60s? I never saw it that way. Yes, there were some social changes underway, but the whole concept of "Swinging London," and all that sort of stuff seemed to me to be largely hyped up by journalists and others in London. I wasn't seeing things from their perspective because as much as I was in and out of London during that period I always headed back north to the realities of work, family, and the day-to-day routines that most people have to follow. And to a broader awareness of what was happening in the world outside London. The Vietnam War was hotting up and there were major protests against it in America. There were riots in places like Berlin, and of course the events of 1968 in Paris which have now attained a kind of romantic status. I'm not sure there is anything romantic about being clubbed and teargassed by the police. The Russians moved into Prague when people there tried to give communism a human face. I could go on, and as far as most people were concerned there was not much "swinging" about the 60s. You know, I grew up during the Second World War and the austerity of the late-1940s and early-1950s, and when the problems of the 1970s started to occur, the oil crisis, strikes, power cuts, etc., it just seemed to me that the 1960s had been something of a brief interlude between major periods of crisis. The 1960s? A bubble that was sure to burst. But I will say this about the 1970s, that it was a time of productive activity insofar as British poetry, and American poetry, too, was concerned. There were a couple of major British poetry conferences in London with Eric Mottram playing a key part in those. I remember reading at both of those, and at the Cambridge Poetry Festival in 1977 which brought together a whole stack of British and American poets like Robert Creeley, Roy Fisher,Tom Raworth, James Koller, lain Sinclair, and many others read. It was quite an impressive event and being part of it was quite exciting.
Just to backtrack a touch. Speaking of politics and writers....in your book Radicals, Beats & Beboppers you have an essay on a writer who played his part in the very early reading of a socialist leaning young Jack Kerouac, Albert Halper. An author who fused social concerns into his novels. Little read today?
I doubt that Halper is read at all today apart from by academics who are studying the literature of the 1930s and 1940s, or perhaps by one or two individuals who find his name in books about those years and are curious to know a little more about him. Even then it's unlikely they'd want to tackle his proletarian novels like The Chute and The Foundry which are very much of their time in the way that they have a social realist style which might seem dated to readers today. It's interesting that Halper's early novel, Union Square, was fairly satirical about radicals, the Communist Party, etc., and Mike Gold, a reviewer for the Daily Worker and New Masses, was very critical about it. Anyway, Halper published in some of the best magazines of the Thirties and Forties, and wrote several more novels, though I have the the impression that none of them were as interesting as those I've mentioned. I know I wasn't carried away when I read Only An Inch From Glory and Atlantic Avenue. It might be useful to know which Halper novels Kerouac had read. I've always found Halper of interest, partly because of his radical involvements, and his memoir, Goodbye, Union Square, which was published in 1970, is valuable for his comments on the Depression Years and the writers he knew. He mentions having met Whittaker Chambers and just now on my desk there's a copy of a little pamphlet, Can You Hear Their Voices, a short story by Chambers which was published in 1932. Chambers, who was a Communist Party member and admitted to having been involved in some underground activities, later became notorious when he accused Alger Hiss of having been a Russian agent. That was in the post-war period when what became known as McCarthyism was starting to build up and the Hiss/Chambers case caused something of a sensation. Halper got partly involved and was questioned by the FBI because he'd known Chambers and a literary agent named Maxim Lieber who was reputed to be a spy. Halper's account of being questioned is worth reading because it indicates how a sense of fear affected writers and others in the USA. He describes how he hid any books or magazines which might point to an interest in left-wing politics or Russian writers, a terrible thing to have to do in a supposedly free country. But to get back to your original question, Halper is probably almost forgotten now, along with many other writers like him. Does anyone read James T. Farrell, apart from his Studs Lonigan trilogy? And how about Erskine Caldwell and Howard Fast? I could carry on with a long list. I suppose it shows how fragile literary reputations are.
This whole communist thing, both here and in America, to me at least, has cast a long shadow over art, literature, film. As you mentioned the hysteria in the McCarthy era in America. In this country, forgive me if this is simplistic, writers and artists, anyone creative, seemed unsure of Communism Post War, until the extent of Stalin began to filter out. Orwell, Koestler, writers seemed riveted by the topic.
Yes, for a time the experience and idealisation of communism certainly affected many writers in the "free world," as well as those in Russia and the countries like Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and others where communists ruled. There you really had to be careful about what you wrote because you knew you were watched and if you didn't conform you wouldn't get into print and might even end up in prison, or worse. As for America and Britain, you might have easily found your access to publication restricted if you seemed to be too left-wing, though it's foolish to imagine that the penalties were likely to be anywhere near as severe. But some writers did go to prison in America. I'm thinking of people like the Hollywood Ten, the left-wing screenwriters who refused to answers questions when they were called to appear before HUAC. And Dashiell Hammet and Howard Fast were jailed, too, though some people will argue that they didn't get sentenced because of their writing. Other writers found that publishers suddenly didn't want to handle their books. There were artists and actors and musicians who suffered during the McCarthy period and there is now a whole library of books documenting their experiences, though they're mostly American. The British attitude seems to be that we didn't go in for anti-communism in the way that the Americans did, so blacklists and people being fired because they were communists wasn't our way of doing things. But there were blacklists here and people did lose their jobs and were sometimes hounded by journalists. Some British communists did hang on, but the Cold War, the evidence of Russian designs in Eastern Europe, the hot war in Korea, the disclosures about Stalin and his abuses of power, and the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising, all combined to drive people away. I think a lot of people were disillusioned and others just kept their heads down.
You mentioned Orwell and Koestler and they were anti-communist from the 1930s on, Orwell partly because of his experiences in Spain where he'd gone to fight with the POUM, which was a Marxist organisation but not aligned to the Communist Party. It had links to the Independent Labour Party in Britain. And Orwell saw at firsthand how the communists were trying to take over and were eliminating the other left-wing groups, like the anarchists, socialists, and the POUM. So, of course, he spent a lot of time when he got back from Spain and in the 1940s writing anti-communist material like Animal Farm and 1984. Koestler, too, became very anti-communist, though unlike Orwell he had been heavily involved with the Communist Party in the 1930s. But he eventually realised what the communists were getting up to, and quit. There was a book published in 1950 called The God That Failed and Koestler was one of the contributors and wrote about why he eventually became disillusioned with communism. It's still worth reading.
You wrote an essay in one of your collections, Radicals, Beats dr Beboppers, about Kerouac and communism.
I did write an article some years ago asking "Was Kerouac a Communist?" and I tried to show that he was probably influenced by the atmosphere of the time, the 1930s and into the early-1940s, and probably by some of the people he mixed with, and had a shortlived enthusiasm for left-wing politics. Was he ever a member of the Communist Party in the USA? Alien Ginsberg claimed that Kerouac had joined it, and there was an interview with Seymour Wyse some years ago in which he said that Kerouac had a "brief flirtation" with the Communist Party around 1944. Which is interesting because that's around the time when the American Communist Party was dissolved and became the Communist Political Association with a policy of working alongside non-communist groups. I suppose it was something like what later became known as Eurocommunism in Italy. But the Communist Political Association didn't last long and when the Second World War ended the word went out from Moscow that its leader, Earl Browder, had to be kicked out of the Party and replaced by William Z. Foster and the name changed back to the Communist Party of America. Ginsberg seemed to think that Kerouac's involvement with communism was probably around 1939 to 1941 or so, and that might tie in with what Kerouac himself wrote in Vanity ofDuluozwhen he says "In those days we were all pro-Lenin, or pro-whatever Communists." But that 1944 reference by Wyse is intriguing. I have to say that I doubt that Kerouac was ever a deep political thinker and was most likely swayed by his enthusiasms for people he met. You know, talking about all that makes me think that a lot of younger readers of the Beats perhaps don't have much of an awareness of the political backgrounds of people like Kerouac and Ginsberg, or even of the politics of the 30s, 40s, and 50s generally. But Ginsberg had a background with a mother who was a communist and a father who was a socialist. Carl Solomon joined the Communist Political Association in 1944. Stuart Perkoff was a member of the Party for a short time. Jack Micheline had some links to small, left-wing groups. And Gary Snyder had leanings towards the Wobblies. Bob Kaufman was an activist in the National Maritime Union, which in the 1940s was very left-wing. John Clellon Holmes wrote about frequenting left-wing bookshops in New York and wanting to write for left-wing magazines in the 1940s.
Yes, didn't Gary Snyder suffer because of it in his work as a forestry worker in Northern California?
I think Gary Snyder applied for a job with the Forestry Service, which was a Government organisation, and was turned down on security grounds. This was around the time that he was a student at Reed College and he'd been active politically, though he was never a member of the Communist Party and, in fact, was opposed to what he described as a "strong pro-Soviet" group at Reed. Snyder's grandfather had been a member of the IWW, and his father and mother had been on the fringes of the Communist Party in the 1930s but were never members. This sort of background and Snyder's own leanings must have been known by the authorities. I recall that he said that when he couldn't get a job with the Forestry Service he approached a private company doing similar work and got a job there, so there obviously wasn't a complete blacklist. But Snyder wasn't the only poet to have problems and some were fired from teaching jobs. The very fine poet, Thomas McGrath, lost his position at Los Angeles State College and had trouble finding another job. John Beecher refused to sign the Loyalty Oath and was fired from San Francisco State College. I wonder how many people have read his Hear The Wind Blow: Poems of Protest and Prophecy*. Wonderful declamatory stuff. And Jack Spicer had to leave the University of California at Berkeley because he wouldn't sign the Loyalty Oath. But poets weren't the only ones to suffer and hundreds of government workers, teachers, academics, seamen, factory workers, and others were victimised because of their politics and their union activities. An old friend mine, the late Jim Lowell, who ran Asphodel Bookshop in Cleveland, told me that in his younger days he had some sort of government job and was called in one day and informed he was fired. When he asked why he was simply told that he had the wrong kind of friends. In other words, he knew some left-wing people. That was enough to get him sacked. You can understand why a lot of people chose to keep quiet and play down their earlier political activities, especially if they had families and needed to keep their jobs. There's a novel by Clancy Sigal called Going Away which is about someone driving across America in the 1950s and he calls on various friends and acquaintances from his radical days and notes how the atmosphere of the McCarthy years has caused them to retreat into a kind of silence. It's supposed to be a novel but is clearly fairly autobiographical.
How do you feel, did you feel, about jazz and poetry? Ferlinghetti, Rexroth, Kerouac with Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, Patchen with Alan Bailey et al?
This may be one of the shorter answers to your questions. I obviously like jazz, and I equally obviously like poetry, but I have to say that I never have been able to listen to poetry-and-jazz with any pleasure. If the poetry is good I want to listen to it without any sort of distractions from music. And if the jazz is good I likewise want to hear that without someone's voice getting in the way. I don't think Ferlinghetti was all that enthusiastic in the end and he reckoned that the jazz musicians were mostly indifferent to what the poets were saying. I know there were some serious attempts to marry the two forms, both in America and here where Christopher Logue and the Tony Kinsey group had a decent try at balancing the poetry and the music. There was an LP called Jazz Canto which Lawrence Lipton was involved in and that had poems by William Carlos Williams, Ferlinghetti, Philip Whalen, and Lipton read over jazz records by Gerry Mulligan, Chico Hamilton, and others. But the poems were read by actors or, in one case, by Hoagy Carmichael. It was a bit of a curiosity, but I don't think it was ever likely to be all that popular. But I have friends who've read poems to jazz accompaniment and they say it can be made to work, so it's perhaps just a hang-up of mine that I don't care for it. Of course, some people say that music enhances words and you can hear it being used all the time on the radio in documentaries and plays. To me it's often a distraction, but then I'm someone who thinks that music has become a bit of a tyranny and is pushed at us all the time and just becomes noise.
If you had to pick four or five jazz LPs out of your collection over the years, what would they be?
It's almost impossible for me to say which five or six LPs or CDs I'd select. I suppose Charlie Parker would have to be among them, but there are all kinds of different jazz performances that I'd want to include and they're often scattered over a variety of collections. The album concept is something that really only came in during the 1950s when LPs arrived on the scene, and even then a lot of LPs, and later CDS, were made up of tracks recorded in the 1940s and early-1950s which were often fairly short because they'd been made for release as 78s so usually had a playing time of maybe three minutes, or sometimes six minutes if stretched over both sides. So, in my case, a lot of my favourite performances come from that period. It fascinates me and I've made a point of collecting as much as I can of the modern jazz, bebop and cool, from the 40s and early- 50s. It would take up far too much space to start listing all the tracks I like by Bird and Dizzy Gillespie, Wardell Gray, Bud Powell, Fats Navarro, and many, many others.
And, you must have seen some terrific jazz players in concert?
As for getting to experience jazz live in clubs and concert halls, in the early-1950s American musicians were banned from playing in Britain because of union and other restrictions, but I managed to get to London in 1952 and I visited a basement club called Studio '51 which was in Great Newport Street, just off Charing Cross Road, and heard British modernists like Dizzy Reece, Johnny Rogers, Eddie Blair, and some others. And I used to catch the big-bands when they came to Preston and I'd go over to Blackpool when they played there during the summer seasons, and bands like Ted Heath, Jack Parnell, Vie Lewis always had several jazz musicians in their ranks so I was always waiting for them to take solos. The big thrill, though, was in 1953 when I made a trip to Dublin where Stan Kenton's orchestra was appearing and it had musicians I knew from records, like Lee Konitz, Conte Candoli, Zoot Sims, and Frank Rosolino. I was seventeen and walked on air for a week after I got back. I'd made an overnight crossing of the Irish Sea on the Saturday night, went to the concert on the Sunday afternoon, and then made another overnight crossing back on the Sunday night and arrived home just in time to go to work. But it was worth it.
By the time I came out of the army in early-1957 the ban had been lifted so American jazzmen started to come to Britain. I saw Dizzy Gillespie several times in Manchester and London, and Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Chet Baker, Coleman Hawkins, and I used to go to Ronnie Scott's Club and heard Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Rich, J.J. Johnson, Junior Cook, Walter Bishop, and Bill Hardman there. Manchester had a very good jazz club, The Band on the Wall, and Red Rodney, Al Haig, Sonny Stitt, Billy Mitchell, Teddy Edwards, James Moody, Howard McGhee played there. I saw the legendary bop pianist, Joe Albany, in a pub in Salford, and there was a cellar club in Stockport where Kai Winding, Johnny Griffin, Warne Marsh, and others appeared. I can't recall all the names. Al Cohn did a concert in Southport, where I also heard the wonderful guitarist, Tal Farlow. Another guitarist, Barney Kessel, came to Preston, and so did Dexter Gordon. You know, if you had told me in 1950, which is about the time I first heard him on records, that I'd actually see Dexter Gordon in Preston I'd have said you were mad. I was also listening to a lot of British musicians, such as Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott, Jimmy Deuchar, the fine bop trumpeter Hank Shaw, Joe Harriott. Again, I can't remember them all. And I always went to the concerts given by the Count Basic, Harry James, Woody Herman, Louis Bellson, and other big bands when they came to Britain. I figure I was lucky to have heard all these people.
This looking for things outside the mainstream. It frustrates me that the media rarely look at a book by say, Michael McClure, or Gary Snyder. Yet we are fed reviews of some pretty dire stuff. I'm being simplistic, but it happens all the time. Our bookshops, especially the poetry sections, it's as if America hasn't yet been discovered.
Most poetry doesn't get reviewed in the bigger outlets, so it probably best to rely on little magazines and such places if you want to know what is happening with poetry. And bookshops will only tend to stock what they think will sell. I'm not sure I agree with you about American poetry not being given space in the shops or in reviews in publications like the TLS, London Review of Books, etc. It depends which American poetry you're talking about. When I reviewed poetry for Ambit, which I did for around fifty years, I and other reviewers did review books by American poets as well as those by British poets and poets from other countries. I don't think you can expect British magazines or newspapers to give too much prominence to Americans, though I do often see reviews here and there. How many British poets are reviewed in America? You mention Gary Snyder and Michael McClure, but they're not the only American poets active (are they still all that active?) and some people might argue that they're both more associated with what was happening years ago, and that the Beats are largely of historical interest now. Attention is now probably focused more on other Americans. Personally, I've always been interested in the Beats, but I never restricted myself to only reading them, and among my favourite American poets are Philip Levine, Harvey Shapiro, and Samuel Menashe. I can think of several other Americans, like August Kleinzahler and Billy Collins, who are worth reading. None of them are Beats. It's a mistake to think that the Beats were the only American poets of interest, even if for a short time they seemed to attract attention. In any case, most Beat poetry, like most poetry of any kind, wasn't ever going to last.
Will there be more volumes of essays from you?
Yes, more collections planned. I may have already mentioned one due later this year, and there are others. I hit 80 in 2016 and hope I'll still be working on something then.
Books like Brits, Beats & Outsiders and the more recent Bohemians, Beats and Blues People show that you are prepared to research obscure figures and write about them. Who the heck were Tom Hanlin, George Garrett, Bryan Winter, Hubert Crackenthorpe? They are mixed in with fresh aspects of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, B. Traven, Weldon Kees, The Red Drum etc, etc. Surely your broader perspective is playing a part in helping us see a bigger picture? The family tree of it all?
I never was only interested in the Beats and other related writers, and always wanted to dig into earlier poets,novelists, what have you. And it always seemed to me that there is a kind of continuity, even if it's only one of neglect, that can be investigated. There's also the plain fact that I've often just come across a writer and thought , he or she is good and I want to know more. That happened with Tom Hanlin, and as I said in my piece about him I just happened on an old paperback in a second-hand
bookshop and though it looked interesting. Or there's Ernest Haycox, a writer I'd read when I was a teenager, but who was never going to be given any serious attention because he wrote what are usually dismissed as "Westerns." But at his best he's a much better writer than many of those who produce what are known as "literary novels." It amused me when I first wrote the essay about Haycox that one of the editors of the magazine that asked me to provide a piece for a series on short-stories didn't want to use it because he thought it wasn't about a "proper" writer, whatever that was supposed to mean. The other editor insisted it was published. It shows how some people who ought to know better still have a snobbish attitude when it comes to literature.
What I've always been interested in, of course, is what might be called the literature of bohemia, not just the poets and writers, but the magazines and small presses that published them. And the novels and stories, one or two operas also, which focus on the lives of bohemians. There's a kind of tradition you can trace right back to the early 19th Century and Henry Murger's Scenes de la vie de Boheme and Balzac's Lost Illusions, and even before that, perhaps. There's a wonderful American historian, Robert Darnton, and he writes a lot about 18th Century French literature, and he found an old novel, published in 1789,which is about the kind of people who would be described as bohemians. It's called The Bohemians and the fact that the word was in use in that way in 1789 made me reconsider the idea that it only started to be used to describe writers,artists, etc. in the 1830s or so. That's probably when its popular use starts to appear, but Darnton showed how it was around before that. I'm fascinated by the bohemian tradition and I'm always looking for evidence of it in the shape of books, magazines, and so on. There are operas, too, and some years ago friends in Paris sprang a birthday treat on me and took me to the Opera House there for a performance of Puccini's La Boheme. There's a kind of fascination about seeing it in the city where the people it's based on lived.
Paris isn't the only place where the bohemians acted out their triumphs and tragedies, so there are books about Greenwich Village, Soho, and parts of other cities like Munich, Stockholm, and many more which have had novels or memoirs written about them. The artists who gathered in those places interest me, as do those who in the late-19th Century got together in Pont-Aven, St Ives, Staithes, Concarneau, and other colonies, as they were called, scattered across Denmark, Germany, America, and so on. The paintings they produced often focused on where they lived and worked, and as writers often turned up there are novels and stories about what took place. I think what I've wanted to show is that there's always been a lot more going on than the official accounts tell us. Not just in writing or painting, but in music, too, and politics. You see people flocking into the blockbuster art exhibitions that are so popular, and which focus on the names that we're told are important, and I feel like saying, why bother queuing to be shuffled around in a crowd when you can find a small gallery somewhere which may surprise you with what you can see. I feel that way about books and music, too, and I'd rather find my own way to something interesting than wait to be told what I should admire.
Children of Albion, edited by Michael Horovitz, was published in 1969. You were included in that big collection, looking back, how do you feel about it now and in comparison to Don Allen's The New American Poetry collection?
I was always happy about being included in Children of Albion. There were quite a few people in it whose work I admired. I'm thinking about poets like Roy Fisher, Gael Turnbull, Lee Harwood, Edwin Morgan, and several others whose company it was good to be in. Obviously, as with any anthology, when you look back at something, and it's 45 years now since it was published, not all the poems have lasted well. But they still seem typical of the time and I think the book does have value from that point of view. It's very evocative of a time and place. It's historically interesting and Mike Horovitz's long afterword helps to provide the background to how and why the poems, and they were very varied in all sorts of ways, were written. You know, it's useful to look back at the way in which Children of Albion was attacked by sections of the British literary establishment. Some of the reviews weren't just hostile, they were nasty in that class-conscious way that was, and sometimes still is, a characteristic of the supposedly well-educated in Britain. Few of the reviewers bothered to try and deal with the poems on their merits and chose instead to attack the people who wrote them for supposedly not conforming to certain social standards.
I think it may be a mistake to start comparing Horovitz's anthology to Donald Allen's The New American Poetry 1945-1960. The aims and intentions of the two books seemed to me to be different and Children of Albion is much more of a 1960s selection and influenced by Horovitz's idiosyncratic ideas and tastes. I don't think he was attempting to present a picture of British poetry, or aspects of it, in the way that Allen wanted to present aspects of American poetry. There are some older poets in Children of Albion who seem to me to be from a local bohemian tradition. Paul Potts, Bernard Kops, Philip O'Connor. I'm glad they were included because I felt a kind of affinity with them. And there were poets like Herbert Lomas and John Cotton who I knew and who didn't belong to any particular group. I think that was one of the good things about it, the fact that it was a highly individual selection. Donald Allen's book, and it was very influential, was I think more designed to place poets in groups and chart a kind of progression in the years it refers to. I don't get that feeling from Children of Albion. They were both useful books to have, and can still be read with interest and pleasure, though not everything in them has stood the test of time.