Good times, bad times

Posted by Ken Edwards on Friday, April 1, 2011 Under: writing
Through my letterbox plops a package with two enticing looking books from Shearsman: Robert Sheppard's latest poetry collection Berlin Bursts, which is very welcome, and also a new collection of his essays, When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry. It's the cover picture that jolts me first with its familiarity.

An ever youthful Maggie O'Sullivan, all in red, holds her own with the redoubtable Bob Cobbing (1920-2002), "performing" Maggie's A Natural History in 3 Incomplete Parts in June 1985. (NB That book is now included in Body of Work.) I can hear Bob's voice booming out of that picture even now, believe me. And you can hear it for real if you hurry - a half-hour BBC Radio 4 programme, Make Perhaps This Out Sense Of Can You, including interviews with Iain Sinclair, Peter Finch, Alan Brownjohn, Paula Claire, Lawrence Upton and others, is available on the BBC iPlayer until Sunday 3 April (UK listeners only, though, I think).

But back to Robert Sheppard's book. The slightly clunky title (it seems to derive from an Iain Sinclair poem) is a reference to the period between the catastrophic ousting of the radical poets' rather ramshackle collective from the Poetry Society (1976 - definitively documented in Peter Barry's Poetry Wars, Salt, 2006) and, well, perhaps the mid-80s, around the time Maggie was launching her book - though Robert's exact time-frame is a little fuzzy. Politically, I look back on that decade with some gloom: it encompassed the high point of the Thatcher government. For adventurous poetry and small presses, following the brief, heady episode of the Poetry Society revolution and Eric Mottram's editorship of Poetry Review, it was a period of retrenchment - or, in Allen Fisher's phrase, "entrenchment and awe". Public funding was withdrawn and what had been the "British Poetry Revival" (that's Mottram's phrase) went underground.

And yet, in London at least - where Robert Sheppard and I were living at the time - it was also a period of furious activity well below the public radar: the SubVoicive readings, which were hugely inclusive of innovative poetries from London, Cambridge, the USA and elsewhere; Bob Cobbing's Writers Forum workshops; events featuring language and sound at the London Musicians' Collective in Camden Town; the RASP readings I organised with Allen Fisher and Paul Brown in South London; and much do-it-yourself small press activity. The period almost exactly matches the lifespan of my own journal Reality Studios.

When Bad Times Made for Good Poetry "is offered as an artefact within the poetry scene". What Robert means by this is that, while it is in part a series of critical studies of a range of poets and writers at that time - Allen Fisher (who is treated twice), John Hall, Tom Raworth (twice), Iain Sinclair (twice), myself, Bob Cobbing, Maggie O'Sullivan - the book is not being marketed (or priced!) as an academic text, as was his earlier The Poetry of Saying, and is furthermore cast in the form of a personal memoir - an eye-witness account by a participant, in other words. In an epilogue, Robert regrets the paucity of other such personal histories, a lack that risks obliterating the avant-garde's origins, or hiding them under the few partial, invented narratives that survive.

He also regrets the British reluctance, compared with North American writers, to develop poetics and "speculate about the kinds of poetry we want". If I may put my oar in here ... as I've said, the period he's looking at encompasses the lifetime of Reality Studios, which I developed out of an enthusiasm in part derived from the explosion of writing and writing about writings I saw across the Atlantic from the late 1970s on: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, Hills, Roof, Poetics Journal.

One of my regrets is the lack of understanding, the anxiety and even hostility towards this phenomenon on the part of many (not by any means all) innovative poets in Britain. I won't name names. It was a delayed phenomenon, peaking around the time of the Bernstein/Perelman/Hejinian/Welish British tour in May 1994 (though they got a rapturous reception at a packed SubVoicive reading). Sometimes it shocked me. It seemed to take the form of cultural resistance to the perceived hegemonic political dicta of a few US poet-theorists - Ron Silliman and Barrett Watten were usually taken to task. How limited a picture this was of the ferment of writing going on across the Atlantic can be gauged from the contents of Charles Bernstein's issue of Boundary 2 (Fall 1985/Winter 1986) - ie just around the time of that Maggie O'Sullivan launch on the cover of Robert's book - which have now been put online.

Subtitled 43 Poets (1984), the issue includes many Language-associated writers, including some I was introducing to the UK in the pages of Reality Studios around that time - as well as Bernstein himself, Bruce Andrews, Larry Price, Rae Armantrout, James Sherry, Ray Di Palma, Bob Perelman, Lyn Hejinian, Diane Ward, Alan Davies - but the range of writers is immensely diverse, encompassing Joanna Drucker, Michael Palmer, Fiona Templeton, Stephen Rodefer, Erica Hunt, the wonderful short-story writer Lydia Davis, and the much-missed David Bromige, whose collected poems Reality Street will publish next year, in collaboration with Silliman, Perelman and New Star Books.

During the 1980s I was all agog at this writing and wanted to bring it together with the exciting stuff I was reading and listening to in London at the time. But I also wanted to get some discourse going around poetics. Contrary to what some people might have you believe, the meta-writing across the Atlantic was primarily neither a monolithic, hegemonic American-Marxist supertanker nor a slick marketing exercise (though it has to be said the Americans were smarter than us in placing their writing in the cultural marketplace), but was full of disagreement and diversity. Read the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E archives if you don't believe me.

Robert Sheppard devotes a few pages in his chapter on me to "The We Expression", the talk I gave at SubVoicive in May 1984. He says I "sacrificed a poetry reading" to do this, which makes me sound terribly noble; but the truth is, I wanted to pursue some ideas about writing, identity and community which were beyond my grasp, and decided to do it in the form of a "talk", modelled on those pioneered by Perelman in the Bay Area, as Robert correctly surmises. There was also a notion of performativeness in the intention, inspired by the popularity of performance art at the time as well as the Writers Forum ethos of off-the-page energy. It felt quite strange at the time. There were fifteen people in the audience - I have the photos (colour transparencies only - I don't currently have the means to digitise them). They did respond, and my further thoughts went into my essay "Grasping the Plural" in Denise Riley's Poets on Writing (1992). But the event was a one-off, really.

We're in a different world now. What the younger innovative poets of early 21st century London, Brighton, Cambridge, Manchester and elsewhere make of all this I don't know. I loved those active times in London in the 1980s, despite the severe lack of resources and the limited means of communication compared to today's ubiquitous internet. I wouldn't want to go back there.

For more evidence of those times, you can do no better than obtain a copy of issue 4 of Jed Birmingham and Kyle Schlesinger's fine magazine Mimeo Mimeo, which looks at the British Poetry Revival. There's a long lost statement by the legendary Asa Benveniste of Trigram Press, interviews with Tom Raworth, David Meltzer and Trevor Winkfield, articles by Alan Halsey, Richard Price and me again, and three letters from Eric Mottram to Jeff Nuttall which seem to have no context but are highly amusing. No info about the magnificent cover either, which I guess is by Trevor Winkfield.

I have a spare copy of this issue which I am happy to send free to the first UK-based reader of this blog who claims it.
(PS: This was claimed within minutes by Luke Roberts, of Cambridge.)

In : writing 

Tags: "british poetry revival" 
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Ken Edwards This blog is written by Ken Edwards, co-founder and editor/publisher of Reality Street, and it's mainly about the press. Ken's personal blog can now be found at