Sunday 12 July 2009

Flashback: Poetry Of The 1970's

Andy Robson (editor of 'Krax'), me, & George Cairncross (editor of 'Bogg')


Is the 1970’s the decade that poetry forgot?
Following the media high-profile of the 1960’s Counter-Culture,
but before the Alternative Cabaret & Rap Scenes of the 1980’s,
its uniqueness seems to have fallen between the crack of the decades.
But there was a mass of fine independent magazines publishing some
fiercely uncompromising poets throughout those lost ten years.
He remembers the whole period with warped affection...

‘WAY BACK IN THE 1970’s...’

The numerical progression sixties into seventies should form a smoothly sequential flow.
But impacting on from the hyper-turbulent art-social convulsions of the 1960’s the decade-line switch-over to the ‘70’s could never have been anything less than seismic. In fact music was still acting and reacting from its sixties base, with Mod, Northern Soul and Ska revivals clear through to Oasis. Visual Art was still working out the implications of its shock-playful Situationist pranks and provocative Pop Art Happenings. So it was inevitable that poetry should run into its own decade-end readjustment problems too. From the high point Albert Hall festivals, to the near-Pop Star status of the Liverpool Poets - and actual Pop-chart hits achieved by Scaffold (Roger McGough), Cream (Pete Brown), and Liverpool Scene (Adrian Henri), to the stratospheric beatific presence of the American Beat Poets - especially the high-visibility Allen Ginsberg setting the pulse, it all began with poets relevant in ways they’d seldom been before, at least since Byron - or would be again.

An awkward social misfit I’d always imagined outsider sub-groups to bond with. But - like Groucho Marx, seldom wanted to belong to any club that seemed likely to accept me. A Mod until I met the dick-head Ace Face with a less passionate knowledge of Stax-Volt than I had. A Hippie without the necessary sartorial extroversion. Then I fell in with poets. And with a growing repertoire-bag of poems and a City Lights edition stylishly scuffed into my back-pocket I began hitch-hiking to readings, to meet the names on letterheads and colophons, sleeping uninvited on their floors, driving 150-miles to read to twenty-five drunks in the back room of a pub, then getting high listening to the Grateful Dead in contrived bohemian squalor. From Cheltenham to Skegness. From Dorset to the Sheffield ‘Crucible’. From the Oxford ‘Inklings’ to Liverpool and Keighley.

It begins like this. I find a slim glossy ‘Sad Traffic’ in a teetering mag-stack in the Leeds headshop on Hyde Park corner where I buy ‘Mole Express’ and vinyl by Amon Duul 2 and John Cage. They respond to my instant submission by accepting the first poem I’d ever writen. Eager for contact I contrive a meeting with the magazine’s perpetrators – a poetry editor and publisher like grizzled fusions of Jethro Tull and Che Guevara, and we initially talk in a pub where Barnsley whores negotiate with their punters. Uninvited, I immediately moved into their squat, which was called ‘Seaview’. And by ransacking their review listings I contact two more small-press titles - ‘Bogg’ and ‘Headland’. Then, through a chain-letter process, from them I reach yet others - ‘Viewpoints’, ‘Continuum’, ‘Gargantua’. That’s the way it works.

Initially I assumed a magazine published in - say, Leeds - like ‘Poetry & Audience’, would sell to a geographically-confined readership within Leeds. While a Liverpool magazine - like ‘Smoke’, would sell to a predominantly Liverpool audience, and so on. I was soon disabused of all that. Magazines attached to, and sold at gigs or readings might have some local roots. But predominantly the people who subscribed to small-press magazines tended to be themselves editors or contributors to other magazines. In this sub-world, there were few passive consumers. But conversely, this created a virtual community with national - and even global reach. A wealth of inter-linked eccentric individualists.

There have always been fiercely independent private presses. Little Magazines. Small-Presses. DIY publishing. The William Morris’ Kelmsecott world-vision is situated somewhere near its utopian apex. On through its self-regarding Bloomsbury manifestation. But more to my taste are the surrealist magazines ‘Minotaur’ or ‘391’, their fracturing of both typography and linear thinking into wonderful constellations even more stunning for their being printed from unwieldy lead moveable type. But with mimeo and spirit duplication came new technologies which democratised and devolved it all down to a typewriter and a matrix-sheet. Until by the 1950’s and 60’s Indie publishing could operate as a low-cost, small print-run, cheap postally-distributed Xerox-internet. Budget photo-litho took it even further allowing zero-cost cut-&-paste art and Lettraset cosmologies of available print-styles able to replicate Dada-esque page-layouts on your kitchen table.

By the 1970’s early issues of ‘Bogg’ were mauve spirit-duplicated. While in Huddersfield, ‘Ludds Mill’ was done sharp photo-offset - but production-operated by a disabled-person’s print-collective which existed within its own unpredictable time-space, working at its own variable speed. While ‘Viewpoints’ was still being done from traditional letterpress using a treadle-operated platen and just four line-engraved illustration-blocks, which were recycled for each issue, patiently awaiting their turn for the envied cover-spot. Its ancient type in the single galley becoming increasingly round-shouldered. Elsewhere, Tina Fulker’s debut issue of ‘Moonshine’ was typed directly onto oblongs of cut-up wall-paper and stapled together as demand required.

But also, if you had ambitions to move your work upwards, out of the incestuous Indie-publishing ghetto, it was also possible to infiltrate your poems into ‘Tribune’, or one of the various incarnations of ‘IT (International Times)’ or ‘Frendz’. Or Mike Butterworth’s stylishly experimental Manchester-based ‘Corridor’ or ‘Wordworks’. Or Martin Bax’s prestigious ‘Ambit’. Opal Nations even infiltrated one of his pictogram poems into the ‘Observer’. While sideways there were alternate universes of traditional SF-zines, New Wave Sci-Fi, proto-Goth Dark Fantasy, anarcho-libertarian politics, and music-zines - some hunting the ‘Zig-Zag’ or ‘Jamming’ cross-over route into the mainstream, others content to merely define zones of cult obsession. But all of them with cross-over points and mix-&-match weave-paths, all co-existing in an ecology of diversity.

Some poets dip in and out this scene briefly. Most don’t. Many of those who broke-through in the sixties remained - and many remained as pro-active participants. For - like the Jazz underground, or the Folk Music subculture, the small-press had its own major stars, who remained stubbornly totally unknown outside their exclusive circles. At the start of the seventies the giant stars were still the likes of Adrian Henri, Adrian Mitchell, or Spike Hawkins, who exploded into prominence during the previous decade. The landmark ‘Children Of Albion’ anthology defined it all, collated by the incandescent Michael Horovitz, a mesmeric performer, the organiser of the Poetry Olympics, and publisher of the voluminous ‘New Departures’. Elsewhere there was the intimidating Jeff Nuttall, artist, poet, author of ‘Bomb Culture’ which achieved so much to define the emerging counter-culture. Jim Burns, urban Be-Bop Beat exponent who - above all others, breathed those influences in a down-Beat wry northern-English accent. Dave Cunliffe, fierce, grizzled, multi-sexual, mystically mad, cellebratorily Blakean, the living embodiment of the English radical tradition, a riot of anarchism prosecuted for his poetry in the 1960’s - publisher of the invigoratingly irreverent ‘Global Tapestry Journal’ ever since. And Steve Sneyd who - although he began appearing in the 1960’s magazines, became omnipresent in the seventies, continuing through to today as probably the world’s most widely published poet. A distinctive, provocative, often puzzling voice that is timelessly northern, yet as at home in the mythic Celtic past as it is in the Sci-Fi extravagances of the fortieth century.

More exclusively of the new decade, George Cairncross was an unlikely mischievous Rene Magritte-respectable subversive. Tall, and speed-talking, he hooks up with like-minds in Leeds, performing as Exploding Umbrella, before retreating to an outfitters in a Yorkshire-rim seaside side-street to hatch ‘Bogg’, enlivened by Joe Hirst’s irreverent cartoon-art out of Bamforth comic-postcards by way of a wistful Benny Hill. George also circulated his single-copy typescript novels in samizdat parcels and numerous aka’s - humorous, surreal, and bizarre by turns, detonating his native Filey into poetic shrapnel. At the other side of Yorkshire, perpetrating the equally irreverent ‘Krax’-magazine, Andy Robson may be an infrequent if original and inventive performer, but he’s also attracted by some instinctual gravitational force to every notable reading and small-press event of the era, becoming a presence at each Lit-Fest, Small-Press Fair, Pub, Bar and Club-reading across the North, adding to his voracious publishing input by interviewing Lit-activists from memory alone. In fact, he would be factually better qualified than I to archive it all.

And these magazines are also inhabited by Pete Faulkner’s lapidary symbolism which I so try to imitate, and fail. His flowing chapter-length letters embroidered with taped-in pre-Raphaelite or Hindu comic-book inserts. And Tina Fulker’s beautifully pared-down scarcity, valuably saved in a memory-cache of cassettes and books from Richard Peabody’s Gargoyle Press, before her unjustly premature death. Effortlessly competing for space there is Dave Ward’s knowing graffito, taking from the Liverpool Poets before him, interacting with the newer street-culture he lives among, and with his own distinctive voice conjuring it all into articulacy. His ‘Jambo’ sequence is among the most powerfully-realised poems of the decade. While Dave Caddy’s cool articulate intelligence finds its perfect mouthpiece through his stylish ‘Tears In The Fence’. Then there was a visiting Australian poet who took my poem-title to name his new magazine - ‘Real Poetry’...

After one reading in a psychedelic nightclub over a busy Bar a girl asks me ‘why are you so angry?’ - and I say ‘I’m not angry.’ But she’s right. And I am wrong. The creative memes of the time determined that a kind of insurrectionary anger is the air you’re breathing even when it’s expressed through humour. What you smoke and ingest, who you read and listen to, how you dress and grow your hair, your attitude to trees and alien life-forms, the way you treat and whether you eat animals, even - or perhaps especially, how you have sex, are all political, almost without thinking about it. This atmosphere is emphatically anti-academic. Anti-elitist. Anti-‘High’ art. Anti (that much-abused term) the Lit-Establishment - on the defensive then, but still more than capable of flexing its sclerotic influence. This - after all, is the decade that brings blasphemy charges against a poem published in ‘Gay News’.

So, during this strange and oddly distant decade, real poetry favours the accessible. Which sometimes means the honestly scatological. And if - now, poetry is up for grabs by whoever chooses to claim it, this is partially due to the seismic shifts away from strict academic interpretations, a movement that was all-but universalised during the 1970’s cultural realignments. By Hippies. By trendy liberal ‘History Man’ redbrick university tutors. By poets themselves taking their performance into pubs, festivals, clubs and arts-Labs.
So the writing imperative for all of these magazines is to invent for an uproar of voices, contraflows of interference patterns, exuberant jumpy decibels and hallucinatory smears. One that does not preclude diversity. At the time, it doesn’t necessarily know what it’s doing. But this is what it means. And it all looks a little clearer in retrospect, through this mouldering mound of now-collectibly antique magazines, bulging to the seams with all those half-remembered names. Those involved would - and did, and do, deny a common agenda. But it is there rifted with its own distinctive DNA-genome, its helix tugged this way and that in quick chaotic waves by events. And with its own entropic flow and decay-patterns moving inexorably towards decade’s end.

This is the way I remember it. And it should be remembered. Sure, someone else would write it differently. Substitute some of the names. Andy Robson might recall nights at the ‘Coberg’ or the ‘Grove’. Steve Sneyd the moveable feast that was the ‘Inner Circle’ in Huddersfield. I recall a take-out Chinese meal in Bridlington with Pete Faulkner while hitch-hiking down from Filey, draining a tub of cider with George Cairncross in his studio above his shop, strewn with half-completed collages snipped from soft-porn’s enlivened with bars of bright colour and paint-fragments. And an American poet with a bad cold, sleeping on our floor, who assumed the British National Front were about to seize power, enabling him to write himself into Lit-history as the Christopher Isherwood of the decadent new European Fascism. And even while pointing out that the N.F. were numerically the fourth most numerous political party - but that the third, the Liberals, could all travel to Westminster in the same taxi, it nevertheless gives some indication of the way the decade was darkening towards its bleak termination.
If it had begun with a naive anarcho-optimistic hang-over suggesting that the dying decade’s breakthroughs would form a golden unlimited pathway of progression extending limitlessly into the future... if that’s the way we imagined it would go, then the 1970’s would conversely end slammed up against the brutalist philistinism of Thatcher’s regime... but as the counter-culture infrastructure atomises, spinning off into fractel-storms of separate dissent, there are new Punk-zines in black photo-copied blocks of nihilistic energies emerging to rejuvenate it all. With other 1970’s names emerging up out of the small-press chaos, like Jools Denby, John Cooper-Clarke, Billy Childish, Ian McMillan, Stephen ‘Seething’ Wells.

The numerical progression seventies into eighties should have formed a smoothly sequential flow. Inevitably, it wouldn’t...

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