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Peter Finch Interview

 

Peter Finch works in both traditional and experimental forms and is a regular performer on the reading circuit. In the sixties and seventies he edited the ground-breaking literary magazine, Second Aeon, exhibited visual poetry internationally and toured with sound poet Bob Cobbing. From the early seventies until the late nineties he was treasurer of ALP (the Association of Little Presses). Between 1975 and 1998 he ran the Arts Council of Wales's specialist Oriel Bookshop in Cardiff. In 1998 he took up his current post with the Welsh Academy. He runs The Academi, The Welsh National Literature Promotion Agency and Society of Writers.


He has published more than 20 books of poetry including Food, Useful & Poems For Ghosts (Seren), Antibodies (Stride) and The Welsh Poems (Shearsman). His New & Selected Later Poems is forthcoming from Seren in 2007. 

His prose books include a number of critical guides including How To Publish Your Poetry and How To Publish Yourself (Allison & Busby) He also compiles the poetry section of Macmillan's annual Writer's Handbook and the self-publishing section for A&C Black's Writers' & Artists' Yearbook. He is a regular book reviewer and writes articles on Cardiff, Wales and the business of poetry. His poetry and criticism is widely published in magazines and anthologies. 

 

Ian Davidson is a lecturer at the University of Wales, Bangor. His poetry collections include: Harsh (Spectacular Diseases), Human Remains and Sudden Movements (West House), At a Stretch (Shearsman), No Way Back (West House) and As if Only (Shearsman). His poems have also appeared in magazines such as Poetry Wales, New Welsh Review, Chicago Review, Shearsman, The Gig, and Masthead.

 

Zoe Skoulding teaches creative writing at the University of Wales, Bangor. Her work has been included in various anthologies and translated into Slovak, Bosnian and Bulgarian. She has been involved in several cross-media projects, and is currently working on poetry and soundscape with the psychogeographical ensemble Parking Non-Stop. Her collaboration with Ian Davidson, with whom she also co-edits the literary magazine Skald, has extended from poetry to film and performance. Her most recent collection is The Mirror Trade (Seren).

 

 

 

Q: Can you tell us about when you started to think of yourself as a writer and something about the context in which that happened?

 

A:  It’s so long ago it gets hazy in the mists of time but there was a distinct moment when I worked this out. I’d decided that what I wanted to do was to be a singer, and this was in the time of the singer/songwriters, the Phil Ochs and the Bob Dylans; and what you did was expressed yourself by turning up with a guitar and sang things. So I went out and bought the guitar, I bought the harmonica harness, and put the harmonica in it and the kazoo in next to that and got some bottle caps and tied them to my feet with rubber bands so I could clip clop with the rhythm as a one man band would do, and set about being a singer/songwriter. Trouble was I couldn’t really play and my voice was hopeless. In fact I was so bad I got thrown out of a number of the disreputable pubs I sang at, and I came to the conclusion I couldn’t really be a singer songwriter after all. I was left, instead, with the thing that I could do which was the writing of the lyrics. So I did a bit more of this, and tried sending lyrics off to singers I admired, and there was deafening silence from every approach I made, including the one I made to Willie Dixon, Howling Wolf’s bass player, who, when I met him after a concert in Bristol, nodded his head at me, took the manuscript and screwed it into a ball and shoved it into his pocket. I eventually realised that writing songs as songs wasn’t the way forward. Songs as poetry might be better. It was what poets had always done, wasn’t it?

 

Q: Can you tell us anything about the literary context of your work at that time?

 

A: The work of significance from the 60s for me, that was around in Cardiff, where I was brought up, came to me not from the work from school or college or from officially sanctioned government literature departments but from America, the Beat Generation: Corso, Ginsberg, Kerouac, Snyder, Ferlinghetti, and so on, the writers who wrote about their amazingly exciting lives. It was totally different from more traditional work I’d encountered before, completely different from, for example, Walter de la Mare, and I realised there was something in all this which connected poetry with real life, my life.  There was the feeling that you could do what you wanted to do with poetry, you could push at boundaries. Ginsberg, for example, had decided that what he wanted to do was invent a new form and would write out in a single line what he could speak with one breath. When the breath ran out that would be where the line would end, and he had these big long lines that came in blocks, and this seemed to me to be a new and very exciting approach. Ginsberg had just invented this, plucked it out of nowhere, and moved ahead. I thought "I want to do this". The Liverpool Scene arrived, and with it the merging of  music and poetry with Roger McGough, Brian Patten, Adrian Henri and others. I eventually met Adrian Henri, who was also a painter and the most interesting, I thought, of the three. We became friends and he pointed me in some new directions. That was the very early period when I was just starting in Cardiff.

 

Q: Those influences were coming from outside, from Liverpool and America. Did those places seem a long way away at the time?

 

A: Well America was a long way away at the time. And American culture was very influential. Anything American was first, and anything British a pale imitation. And if it was Welsh you just didn’t hear about it. That’s not the situation today. But I then turned my attention to the whole business of getting published. There were very few outlets for new writers, and particularly if you wrote outside of the dominant pastoral English line of poetry. I decided that since no one else would publish me I would do it myself. so I started a magazine: Second Aeon. Issue 1 contained something like 90% of work by Peter Finch and 10% by my friend down the road. By Issue 2, I’d decided I needed other contributors and this opened me up to new areas of creative activity in the UK.

 

Q: The magazine Second Aeon became very influential. Do you want to tell us something about its development?

 

A: It ran to 21 issues. The first issue was 6 pages and a cover, and the final issue was around 300 pages and perfect bound. As the magazine went on, it developed a circle and we began to put on readings in south Wales which attracted other writers, and by the time I got to issues 3, 4 and 5 I was in touch with writers from all over the UK, and had managed to tap a very small grant from the Welsh Arts Council.  I had also become associated with writers centred around both the Poetry Society, in its revolutionary phase, and the London Musicians Collective. All this was a tremendous stimulus to what I did next. This was the point at which schizophrenia arrived. In Wales, we celebrate our schizophrenia. We have north/south schizophrenia, we have urban/rural schizophrenia.  We permanently seem unable to work out who we are. When two people from Wales get together they start talking about their origins. I’d met quite a number of writers of significance from Wales, who were then known as the Anglo-Welsh: Harri Webb, John Tripp, John Idris Jones, Herbert Williams, Sally Roberts Jones, John Ormond and others all of whom had attended or taken part in readings I’d put on. Or if they hadn’t done that, then they’d contributed to the magazine. I’d also got to know Geraint Jarman who introduced me to a range of Welsh language writers. All this material began to appear in Second Aeon -- American, London metropolitan, Welsh. At the same time I also found myself attracted to the work of the more outlandish experimental writers in the UK at that time: Dom Sylvester Houedard, Nick Zurburg, Bob Cobbing, Andrew Lloyd, Henri Chopin, and others, who became a tremendous influence on me because they demonstrated a completely different way of handling poetry. On the one hand there was the writing I encountered in Wales, where in some way you had to have a plot, where a piece of writing began, went through some story, event or sequence, and had a culmination, a revelation, or a resolution. On the other hand writers such as Henri Chopin would talk instead about the "micro-particles of language" and the way that process was more important than content. Not the beginning, not the end, but the way you got there. So I found myself between these two polar opposites. I decided to bring the one that was from outside Wales, the modernist notion of making poetry from the things around you (text, speech, things found), to Wales and tried it out. The result was total derision. Not amongst my immediate contemporaries, but from the wider Welsh cultural world. Comments such as “monkeys jumping on typewriters would produce better work than this” was on an early pamphlet of mine by, ironically, someone who, thirty years on has been seen praising my achievement in the pages of the UK nationals.

 

Q: Could you say something a little more about the work of Henri Chopin and Bob Cobbing for those here who are not familiar with their work?

 

A: Henri Chopin was, as his name suggests, French while Cobbing was, as his name suggests, English. And they used to kid each other; Cobbing would call Chopin ‘Henry Chopping’ and Chopin would call Cobbing ‘Bob Cobin’. The field they both worked in was what later became known as sound text composition. They would work on the notion that you could make poetry by extending language beyond meaning. Chopin experimented with tape recorders. He speeded up and slowed down voices. He used objects such as the stiffener for a shirt collar to manipulate the recorder tape head. And then he made assemblages of these through multi-tracking, inversion, repetition, cut and splice. Cobbing discovered you actually didn’t need a machine at all and worked by letting his voice imitate the technology. So while Chopin would appear on stage with a tape recorder and microphone, Cobbing would turn up and perform his verse ad lib. Cobbing progressed to the  position where he declared that he now longer needed a printed text. He would read (perform might be a better word), for example, a pile of stones. He would look at them and find letter and word shapes and vocalise those. Each progressive stage of all this takes us further and further from the written text. By contrast, in Wales, things appeared to be returning further and further back to the roots of written text, the revival of strict metres and arguments over how Dylan Thomas had used Cynghanedd (and, indeed, if he had) and how the past influenced the present and so on and how all this could be progressed.

 

Q: You mentioned early protest singers as an influence and then your involvement in the alternative London scene. All these were politically motivated. Were you? And if so have you sustained that political motivation?

 

A: The politics that derived from the 60s, the cold war, genuine fear of annihilation, the Cuba crisis, and I remember lying down in a park fearful that I could hear bombs above, the threat from the east. Those things are not relevant now. But they were very real then. Those concerns were echoed in the work of the Beat generation writers. Ginsberg in particular, was, for example, involved in surrounding the Pentagon as an act of peace, filling guns with flowers, and so on. It became part of the culture. If you were alive in the 60s you had to be dissatisfied with how you were being governed. The process that Ginsberg demonstrated with his breath pattern derived long lines, taught me that conventional techniques are not the only ones. The second part of your question asks, I suppose, if the politics and the motivation have got lost over time. The simple answer is yes. Since the sixties writers have shown surprising restraint in what they say, but then again that might be true of culture as a whole.

 

Q: Can you talk a little more specifically about the techniques you used in the poem A Well Proportioned Panorama and how you take some of the techniques of early modernism such as the cut up and use it in a high-tech way.

 

A: One of the things that’s happened to my writing in later periods has been the realisation that there is an audience. When I worked with Cobbing and Chopin the audience was somehow incidental to what you did. I remember Yoko Ono, who was due to appear at a theatre in Cardiff, sending instead a large photograph of herself. This thing – it was big, six foot by six foot -  was wheeled onto centre stage and left there. We all sat and stared in silence. It was an hour at least before people began to drift off. I then began to think about how a consideration of audience could be integrated into performances, especially performances which used modernist techniques. In recent times I’ve tried to make an engagement with the audience become part of what I do. A Well Proportioned Panorama uses cut up techniques. Quite early on I came across some translation software, I think it was on a cover-mounted disc on a computer magazine,  and I installed it on my home machine. It worked but the results were usually imperfect on a number of fronts. Such software is enormously literal. Later a rival company released a better suite and I obtained that too. Still imperfect but less so. I then sent a piece of R. S. Thomas text back and forth between the two translation engines. The later engine, the better one, would translate the words into French and then I’d return these back into English through the poorer engine. Then I’d send the resulting text back round the loop again. On each journey randomness would intervene and the text would move progressively further and further from its origin. I’ve used this technique before. I wrote a poem for the late Eric Mottram by photocopying his entire collected poems onto a single sheet of paper and then photocopying copy onto copy which ended up with a black blur looking like a blurred representation of the landscape of north Wales – a place Mottram loved to walk in. This was the same idea. Let the machine progress the piece. There was, however, human intervention in A Well Proportioned Panorama in so much that I chose some lines over others in particular, to bring out humour.

 

Q: You say you think of audience but you also place demands on the reader don’t you?

 

A: I do. I think that if you’re trying something out and pushing at the boundaries, to see what you can do with a poem and keep it as a poem then some things will be readily comprehensible and some won’t be. I think it’s being fair to an audience to give them things they can engage with immediately while at the same time giving them things they might find more of a challenge. The trick is to avoid impenetrability and get the balance right.

 

Q:  There is, of course, a long tradition of poets walking and writing about their experiences. What particular ideas are you picking up on or rejecting in these poems?

 

A:  I began this, what is now quite a long sequence, with the Wordsworthian notion that out there is an untrammelled wilderness to be engaged with. I’d also been meeting other writers and talking about whether there were any subjects that simply could not be written about. Subjects rarely seen in verse. We would challenge each other. Poems about death – easy.  Poems about pipeline regulations – slightly harder. It struck me that the activity of walking might be something I’d like to write about. I set myself the task of composing a sequence. This was at a time of much literary consideration of place: poets such as Allen Fisher and Chris Torrance, for example, who had begun creating a series of works which engaged with place in different ways.

 

Q: One of the things that strike me with the walking poems are the way in which you distrust the text. You’re always throwing guide books into brooks or coming across signs that send you the wrong way.

 

A: Part of it is simply to put humour in the poems. But of course distrust of the text is vital in all matters, and I have a general distrust of guide books which rarely give you all the information you want.

 

Q: Where does the form of these poems come from?

 

A: I was interested in speed, in getting across the idea of movement. I abandoned punctuation and began to put line breaks in places you wouldn’t expect them to keep the pace moving and the words close together. Those were the formal considerations.

 

Q: It also gives a physical sense of negotiating the landscape. You also include some elements that other poets might leave out.

 

A: Yes, that is entirely right. And I try to record the walk as soon as possible after the experience so the detail gets in. That’s pretty true, actually, of much of what I do. Use speed and then reconsider later. Didn’t Wordsworth actually say that poetry was all a bit like that?

 

 

 

copyright © Peter Finch, Ian Davidson & Zoe Skoulding