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Tony Frazer Interview

   

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.

 

 

 

TA: 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?

TF: 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.

TA: 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”?

TF: 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.

Like 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.

In 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.

I 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.

TA: 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 mention.

TF: 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.

I 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.

TA: 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 terms meaningless?

TF: 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 doing.

Away 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.

I'm 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.

TA: What about German and Hispanic poets. Where do they fit into this?

TF: 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.

I 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 since.

I 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).

I've 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.

TA: 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?

TF: 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.

I 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 English.

TA: OK Tony, take me back to early Shearsman, what made you start it? Was there a predecessor?

TF: 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 at The Poetry Library Magazines site where copyright permits. I'm still rather proud of them.

I 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.

TA: 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?

TF: 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 we operate.

Let's 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 requires it.

The 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.

Now, 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.

The 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.

The 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.

TA: 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?

TF: Ah, the easy questions at the end, I see. I'll take these as three different questions:

1) 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.

2) 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.

Unfortunately 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 and isolationism.

3) 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.

 

copyright © Tony Frazer &Tim Allen