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The Good ElfA Bit of a Journey: Some memories of Lawrence Upton 1949-2020  






Peter Finch


We are in the White House next door to the Poetry Society in Earl’s Court Square. The bar is full of poets.  It’s the early seventies and the poetry revolution has just begun. Horovitz has been in arguing with Bob Cobbing. Kit Wright, the Society’s Education Secretary, and probably the tallest man in poetry, is explaining to Keith Armstrong that a free print shop is certainly part of the future but the money has to be found first. Peter Mayer’s yin yang cube poem has appeared in International Times and someone is trying to assemble it at the bar. I’m in the corner with the Good Elf. This is Lawrence Upton, as fresh-faced as I am and both recently embarked on the small press little mag trajectory that will ultimately engulf our lives.

We talk small mags, furiously, endlessly. The ones we likeThe Curiously Strong, Joe DiMaggio, Iconolatre, Global Tapestry, Earth Ship, and then, at length, the ones we abhor.  Lawrence’s own magazine is full mimeo and running right on the crest of the Tolkien, Gandalf’s Garden, Unicorns, hippy wash that the streets are full of. The content is soft but he is determined to make it harder. Up at the bar Klimo, the Polish poet with whom I hitched a lift up here from Cardiff, has challenged Bob Cobbing to a drinking contest.  Cobbing has agreed. Lawrence and I cheer as ultimately, 8 shorts and two pints of Guinness later, Klim wins and Cobbing slowly sinks to the floor in an uncharacteristic silent sprawl.

Earlier, Cobbing, Upton and I had put in place plans for a small press book fair and attendant readings (on the hour, every hour). Cobbing favours the experimental, the sonic over the sensible. He’d read his Alphabet of Fishes to Lawrence as a prime example of the way he thought poetry should go. Lawrence is unsure. For now he’s happier with the hippies. But that, of course, will change.

In the decades I’ve known him, right up to his untimely death this year, Lawrence Upton has ploughed the Cobbing-championed sound-text furrow.  From performing with the great man himself as part of the poetry group jgjgjg  to managing the continuation into the new millennium of Cobbing’s press, Writer’s Forum.  

We’d pass like ships in the night, Lawrence and I, arriving at a port somewhere every decade or so for another get together and boost of creative function. In the later Seventies and early Eighties we had bookfairs, often managed together, in Cardiff and elsewhere. Great sprawling things where not much was sold but great times were had and lots of poetry got read. From 1994 to 2005 Lawrence ran Subvoicive, a series of readings and publications from verse’s wilder reaches. At his instigation I reengaged myself with that universe. In 1996 I read for Lawrence upstairs at the Three Cups and published a Subvoicive booklet, Math. The early years were back.

His greatest achievement was Domestic Ambient Noise, a seemingly endless collaboration with Cobbing that appeared in many guises to eventually number some two thousand pages spread across three hundred separate publications. Rumours were that this mammoth work had actually been performed by the duo although quite where and when and how long it all took has never been made clear. I failed to witness it and the work is now out of print.

The Association of Little Presses, an organisation that, as a force for small press good, had its origins back in those early White House days. The ALP was run by Bob Cobbing with help from a variety of hands including Palpi (Poetry And Little Press Information) editor Bill Griffiths, Paul Green, and Stan Trevor with me acting as treasurer.  Lawrence was recruited as Chairman in 1997 and elevated to co-ordinator in 1998.   This group spent hours ensconced in Camden’s The Engineer and other taverns arguing about how things should be and how, for the usual reasons, things clearly were not. Palpi was a centrepiece of dissent.  Poetry and Little Press Information was the association’s magazine, a vehicle of small press data, profiles, reviews and mentions of new and recent publications. Getting each issue out was a massive job manageable only by the truly competent.  Mostly ALP failed on this score until Bill Griffiths agreed to become compiler cum editor and took the thing off to Seaford from where future issues emanated. Lawrence scratched around for help and then appointed Jethro Cadbury as co-ordinator. Somewhere in the fog after that ALP fell off the edge of the table.  

My last contact with Lawrence was in 2010 when he began an extended interview with me all to be done by email. The work stretched on into the distance, the telling Uptonian questions steadily raining down on me.  We never really finished the project either. His final question to me was this:

In my own work, I feel that it’s both all one and the same in different modesa continuity; and a discontinuity, if only because in my private working spaces I can rework or even throw away, if I want, and there is no record; whereas, in performance, with an audience, what is done has been done more emphatically or perhaps more irrevocably. (In making a recorded sound work, for instance, one decides whether or not to make the work public.) Does that matter?

I replied:

Does public vs private matter? It might have done if you were a traditional poet but since in this field we operate almost internally I think there is little difference. What matters? Getting there?  No, the journey.

He’s off on that now, the Good Elf, off on yet another journey. Sail on Lawrence.



 copyright © Peter Finch