The Argotist Online
Tony Frazer was born in England in 1951 and is editor of Shearsman magazine and publisher of Shearsman Books. He edited the anthology A State of Independence (Stride, 1998) and Roy Fisher's Interviews Through Time, & Selected Prose (Shearsman, 2000), and co-edited Chicago Review's New Writing in German anthology (2002). He is also active as a translator of poetry, mainly from German, but also sometimes from Spanish. His translation of Lutz Seiler's In the year one: Selected Poems was published in 2005 by Giramondo Publishing, Sydney; forthcoming translations include work by Sabine Scho, Sabina Naef, Albert Ostermaier, Vicente Huidobro and Elsa Cross.
Tim Allen lives in Plymouth, he is the editor of
Terrible Work a major poetry reviews magazine. He is the author of two pamphlets,
Texts For A Holy Saturday (Phlebas ’96) and The Cruising Duct (Maquette ’98) and his poetry has been featured in
magazines such as First Offense, Oasis and Shearsman. His essays have appeared in
Binary Myths (Stride) and Eratica magazine. With Andrew Duncan,
he is editor of the forthcoming Don't Start Me Talking, a book of interviews with modern poets from Salt.
Tony, let's start with an obvious question. You are one of those rare people
involved with poetry who are not poets themselves. Is this true?
Yes, it is true, despite rumours to the contrary. I did write 5th-rate
derivative poetry as a student – it's a common student disease after all. I
had absolutely nothing to say that was of any interest. I've translated things,
off and on, since those student days; translating someone else absolves me from
having to create my own text, I suppose.
I'll return to the translation topic later. What formed your taste in the early
days, when you were afflicted by the “common student disease”?
I was pretty omnivorous as a student
reader, but with a heavy bias towards the Black Mountain and the earlier part of
the British Poetry Revival, as Eric Mottram called it.
most poetry lovers, I was introduced to it at school by a sympathetic teacher,
who ensured that we read interesting stuff off-syllabus as well as the core
reading material. The great leap forward occurred later, when I decided to look
for poetry that wasn't anywhere near the school syllabus, and I found two books
in Plymouth’s only bookstore: the Penguin Four Greek Poets, and a
paperback Collected Day Lewis. The latter is best forgotten, but that in
itself was a lesson worth learning. The Greeks (Cavafy, Seferis, Elytis and
Gatsos) are still on my shelves; Elytis, above all, blew me away. It was my
first encounter with European literary surrealism, and the poem called 'The Mad
Pomegranate Tree' still rattles my timbers, apart from the fact that it has one
of the all-time great titles.
1970 I went up to Essex University and found myself in a hotbed of American
poetry: Davie had founded the Literature Department; Dorn had taught there; Tom
Clark had been a postgraduate student, as had Andrew Crozier and Tom Raworth
(who was still living nearby); Robert Lowell came in my second year as Professor
(though effectively writer-in-residence). The campus bookstore was stacked with
small-press publications: everything from Jargon, Fulcrum, Trigram, Cape
Goliard; magazines like Alcheringa, Ant's Forefoot, Second Aeon,
Stony Brook. Likewise the library was well stocked and had the complete
run of Black Mountain Review, and most of Origin. For a couple of
years I ran the Poetry Society, in a singularly amateurish fashion, and our
workshops were not of much use until Doug Oliver came as a mature student and
took it by the scruff of the neck in 1972/3. He was instrumental in getting us
to read Prynne. At the end of my time Ted Berrigan was there, with Alice Notley,
and Ralph Hawkins was an undergraduate.
came away idolising Niedecker, Duncan, Oppen, Williams, Pound (of course), Dorn
and Eigner. Of the Brits, I was fascinated by Fisher and Harwood, above all, but
also followed what Raworth, Turnbull, Chaloner and Oliver were doing. I admired Hill's Mercian Hymns and Hughes' Crow, both 1970/1971.
Beckett's late prose was also important to me then.
I suppose it might seem a bit academic – excuse the pun – but what do you
think would have happened if you hadn't gone to Essex? I ask because the
influence of Essex was obviously huge, on you and many others who went there at
that time. Those who went somewhere else seem to have mostly gone down a
completely different path and are oblivious to the work of most of the poets you
Well, I really have no idea. I tend to be
somewhat contrary, and I might well have ended up in non-standard territory
anyway. There's a counter-argument, I suppose, that my involvement with things
American blinded me to things happening over here.
should also say that I WAS an impressionable youngster from the boondocks and
was a bit wide-eyed about everything that was hitting me. The decisive
engagements were probably Williams and Bunting, maybe David Jones too. When
everything's new, though, you can't legislate for what impact great art is going
to have on you.
I think I characterised your selections
for Shearsman once as being largely the lyrical edge of postmodernism, or the
more literary edge of the linguistically innovative. Do you agree? Or are the
Loaded terms. As with “innovative” or
“mainstream”. I think you mentioned Oasis in the same terms, and that
would be about right. I suppose it can get a little self-consciously literary
here, but I certainly have a taste for what might be called the experimental
lyric – writers like Gustaf Sobin, Forrest Gander, Peter Cole in the US;
Anthony Barnett over here, Peter Riley, Lee Harwood. Then there’s Christopher
Middleton, whose work always excites me. He's Very Literary, I suppose. No women
mentioned, so how about C. D. Wright, Karin Lessing and Pam Rehm in the US;
Frances Presley, Elisabeth Bletsoe and Harriet Tarlo here. Then I like the late
modernists or retro-modernists, as Roy Fisher has called them: Fisher himself,
Tom Lowenstein and R. F. Langley, to name but three. Postmodern as a label gets
us into hot water, I think. I've always avoided using it to describe what I'm
from the lyrical edge, I find Allen Fisher's work, and Tom Raworth's,
fascinating. And I always read Prynne and Wilkinson, albeit with a fair degree
of puzzlement. Prynne would classify as Very Literary too.
not sure that I have a taste that can be boiled down to an easy definition, but
I tend to be turned off very quickly by gobbets of chopped-up prose. I'm with
Pound that poetry needs to be as well-written as prose, and I fear that much of
the mainstream (with some valiant exceptions of course — Burnside, Oswald,
Kinloch and Herbert come instantly to mind) writes bad prose instead of good
verse. I do like to see some evidence of rhythm, careful diction, and an
avoidance of the prose sentence as a governing device. On the other hand, I
reserve the right to publish arhythmic prosaic poetry if for some reason I like
it. By contrast, I've recently been most taken with the poetry of Robert Saxton,
who writes rhyming, metrical verse with great panache.
What about German and Hispanic poets. Where do they fit into this?
In some ways they constitute a separate
strand running alongside the main one, but as I learn more about what's
happening, so they begin to have more impact. I've found it very instructive to
engage with other poetic traditions that have not developed in the same way as
the Anglo-American, and where concepts of centre and periphery are different.
guess it all started when I first encountered Celan. For many years I looked for
further interesting poets in Germany and could find very few, mostly very
elderly or dead. The ones that had an impact were Bobrowski, Huchel, Nelly Sachs
and Rose Ausländer. I guess it could be said that I sided with the outsiders
again: I had little time for Benn or Brecht. I almost despaired of it all by the
late 80s but I then started hearing about East Berlin’s “underground”
poets, and I also came across a list of poets who were said to be experimenting
with form and language. The authors ranged in age from their late 60s down to
their early 30s, and many of them have been at the core of my reading ever
came to the Hispanics much later, as I didn't learn Spanish until 1991, which
was when I moved to Santiago. Chile is proud of its poets: Neruda and Mistral,
of course, but also figures like Huidobro, de Rokha, Parra, Rojas, Lihn and
Zurita, a much more experimental figure. I first got very excited by Huidobro, a
figure from pre-war avant-garde Paris. For quite some time the only Hispanic
poetry I read was by Chileans, and by García Lorca. A few years later I was
working in Mexico and found some more interesting stuff. Aridjis and Paz I knew
already, but I found that Mexico is over-run with terrific women poets, above
all in the 45-65 age-range (e.g. Gervitz, Cross, Bracho, Boullosa, Volkow).
since gone back a bit and have tried to teach myself more about the earlier
phases of Spanish and Mexican poetry, but my reading is still very patchy. It's
a massive universe of writing, and I've only scratched the surface of it.
The reason I read all this stuff is that they don't write like
Anglo-Americans. The consensus is different, the possibilities different, the
variety of the work really exciting.
Let's talk translation then – so many issues connected with the monster. To
begin, how do you choose, out of all that richness you've just mentioned, what
to translate? What are the determining factors?
Well sometimes I just start playing
around with the texts, sort of see what will happen. I need some more
discipline, which is why a commission sometimes helps: a deadline and a concrete
list of things that have to be done. It helps focus the mind.
regard translating as a kind of very deep, or ultra-close-reading, and it helps
me get my head around some poets that might not appeal more quickly. Then
there's the desire to break new ground, to say to people "Hey! Look at
this!" I have a translation of Huidobro's long poem-in-prose Temblor de
cielo (Sky Tremor, 1931), which is intended for a Selected Works
of Huidobro in English that I’m editing. I translated that, (a) because the
text blew me away, (b) I wanted to get into the nuts and bolts of it, (c) it had
never been translated and it's one of the author’s most important works and
(d) Anglophone readers ought to know it. The piece is wild, a kind of OTT
quasi-surrealist narrative, and that kind of work just does not exist in
OK Tony, take me back to early Shearsman, what made you start it? Was there a
Yes, there was. I lived in Hong Kong in
the late 1970s and a friend wanted to start a literary magazine. I helped him
out by rustling up some old contacts and also some poets I'd always admired. Imprint
ran with a three-person editorship for four issues. By the time the last one
appeared, I had moved and my co-editors wanted out. I was left with a whole
bunch of manuscripts, and decided to start up my own magazine. The six journal
issues from that first series of Shearsman are all now available online
Poetry Library Magazines site where copyright permits. I'm still
rather proud of them.
had to discontinue the magazine in 1982, when I moved to the Middle East. Ian
Robinson and Robert Vas Dias were also then about to discontinue their magazines
(Oasis and Atlantic Review); we decided to pool our resources and
start a new publication, Ninth Decade (later, Tenth Decade). This
enabled me to publish from a London address and to have at least some outlet for
the work I wanted to continue supporting. When TD finished its course in
the early 90s, Ian and I each started up our own magazines again, partly because
we had good unpublished manuscripts.
A different topic Tony, and one highly
relative to Shearsman books – the question of publishing on demand. The number
and quality of the books Shearsman have published over the past two years has
been astonishing. I know it seems strange that such a thing might be considered
negatively in some quarters, but that is the case, for a number of reasons. The
same applies to Salt of course. Would you like to talk about this?
You imply negativity in some quarters
with regards to p-o-d, and I've heard cheap shots being taken at Salt and
Shearsman by one of the Big Publishers, with the throwaway line that we're
"virtual publishers". Which is of course a misunderstanding of the way
spell this out: the books exist. They're printed. I have them here on shelves.
The difference between my current publishing methods, and my previous usage of
offset printing is mostly economic. With digital printing, you create a file
that can be turned into a book at any time. P-o-d is digital printing plus
distribution, whereby the distributors receive orders from the trade, upstream
them to the printer, which fulfils them one copy at a time if need be. I still
keep small stock levels and use these to fulfil orders from other buyers. I
still do things as I've always done, but I have the p-o-d channel bolted on as
an extra, with the added advantage of US printing and distribution for US sales.
The difference is that I can restock whenever I want, and whenever demand
real advantage using this system is that small print-runs are much cheaper and
the cash flow is maximised. In the traditional small-press model, you print
maybe 500 copies of a new title. Some go to the author, some to review outlets,
some to early buyers, a few to the legal deposit libraries. Then there's usually
quite a wait until reviews kick in, word of mouth moves more copies, or the
author does readings that shift yet more. The fact is, that sales tend to occur
in dribs and drabs over a long-ish period and thus, having stock sitting in
boxes is tantamount to tying up large amounts of cash. In the p-o-d, or
short-run-digital model, you spend only at the outset for what you need. There's
a certain minimum number of copies required for any title at the beginning, so
you print that number and restock quickly when you need more. The fact that the
cash flow is freed up means that one can produce far more titles than would
otherwise be possible.
let's get to one or two other fundamental issues. Apparently, only 20% of
poetry-book sales in this country occur through bookshops. This suggests that
there is a niche market for non-traditional publishers. There's no point in
having reps for most poetry books, because we all know that the big bookstore
chains rarely stock them. I'm happy with the level of sales I get through Amazon
and other online outlets as well as from direct sales. It could be better, of
course, but it's unlikely that the significant level of extra cost involved in
repping and traditional distribution systems would repay us in terms of earnings
from books sold. I'd rather advertise in key outlets, which I know will reach
the right audiences, and then sell direct or through online sellers.
monolithic bookshop chains tend to obscure the fact that the market for books is
changing: 50% of Amazon's annual sales are made up of books outside the Top 500
sellers. They call this The Long Tail, and its existence is key to niche players
such as poetry publishers, or indeed to those who publish wargaming guides,
guides to Barbie collectibles or any other niche which has sufficient numbers to
justify publication but which it is difficult to reach by traditional means. The
real losers in the current market, it seems to me, are the middle-ranking,
non-genre, non-blockbuster fiction authors. I assume we'll see a growth in small
publishers of literary fiction to counteract this.
basic message is: if you sell less than 500 copies of a given title or you sell
500 over a period of 12-24 months, or more, why the hell are you using offset?
There's a certain cost involved at entry – the software, basically – but you
can recoup this quickly from later savings. If you don't need full p-o-d, you
can go for digital printing, doing runs of 25 and up as required.
How do you see poetry developing over the next few years Tony? Do you think that
the poetry you and I, for instance, are enthusiastic about, is going to thrive
in the UK, or at least make more room for itself? Has the web changed things?
Optimist, pessimist or a don't know?
Ah, the easy questions at the end, I see. I'll take these as three different
As for question one, I just don't know. For the UK I guess I'm a pessimist right
now; for the USA I'm an optimist (so I'll be hoping for some transatlantic
cross-fertilisation); for Germany and Latin America I'm optimistic.
I really, really, hope that intelligent poetry of any kind will thrive in this
country; I don't actually mind if it's mainstream or if it's
"innovative" or "post-avant" (or whatever other term is
appropriate). Nor do I mind if it's published by Faber, Bloodaxe, Carcanet,
Salt, Reality Street or Shearsman. As I said in an earlier comment, I'm very
partial to the work of some supposedly mainstream poets, who write intelligently
and are sometimes innovative in surprising ways. I'm sometimes impatient with
the gestural overload of some putatively innovative work, with tired reworkings
of old avant-gardisms – sometimes by people who probably haven't read enough,
quite frankly. I'm a little bored with the "épater le bourgeois"
concept: it's old hat and just spirals off into an ever-more reductive set of
abusive gestures. What I'd most like to see is a second collection by Helen
Macdonald, and updated collected editions of Michael Haslam and R. F. Langley.
I'd also like to see better literary criticism, that is, well-written critical
approaches to difficult work, which might help a new audience begin to engage
with it. A lot of academic writing is quite unreadable by a general audience,
partly because it's appallingly written, but also because of academic
point-scoring or the obligatory nods to other authorities.
I can't actually see too much that's interesting right now in the UK. In the US,
I am much encouraged by the appearance of younger poets of real talent, working
in what we might call the avant tradition, but are not clones of the last
generation. I'm thinking of poets like Devin Johnston, Daniel Bouchard, Jennifer
Moxley, Deborah Meadows, Anthony Hawley, Elizabeth Treadwell, Tony Tost; of new
presses like Johnston's Flood Editions or Tost's online Fascicle magazine
and Bouchard's The Poker, which seems to be a home from home for the new
generation of writers. I have the first 5 editions of The Poker here, and
they're excellent. I see little like that in the UK, and I hear too much
defeatism, too many complaints about the world being against us. I've no
patience with that: if you think the world's against you, get off your ass and
protest, set up your own alternative press or magazine, shout from the rooftops
that you and your mates have the answers and the older generation is just a load
of old crap. Complaining is a British disease, often just leading to bitterness
The web? It has changed things in some ways. Firstly, there is even more bad
poetry around than before, which seems amazing, but as long as it's touted as a
self-help mechanism, I guess we'll have to put up with it. Secondly, there are
now wonderful magazines like Jacket, like Fascicle, like Drunken
Boat, and fantastic resources like palabravirtual (an online library of
Latin-American poetry). Given that libraries wouldn't stock this kind of thing
anyway, it's a great advance. But you do need to be able to sift through the
dross to find the gems.
© Tony Frazer &Tim Allen