Azimuth and Digression: Gavin Selerie interview part 5
7 January 2013
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catalogue of this site
part 1 of this interview is here
GS: I thought ‘Bone Metallic’ might be an interesting poem to look at because it’s one of my concrete poems and because it’s an evocation of someone’s life and work in 1, 2, 3... roughly 16 lines or something. Pretty condensed. Although I think Tony did a pretty good job of setting it, because of the typeface he used he couldn’t quite reproduce my original design. I could show you my original setting in Palatino which is closer to how I’d imagined it. The shape is essentially intended to evoke a skull and simultaneously with that a grenade. It concerns Henry Moore’s life and work. When I was a boy, a teenager, my art master took me to visit Moore’s studio at Much Hadham in Hertfordshire, and I got to meet Moore and some of his assistants. And saw some of the work, the little maquettes, the slightly larger models and then the full scale one. And some full-scale bronzes. And then most impressive of all the plaster casts he’d shed. There was a big sloping field at the back, full of them, he’d arranged those. They looked like they’d gone back to some Stone Age context. My art master was a friend of Moore’s, this was how this came to be. I suppose this was 1964. I was still pretty young. Let’s say 64 or 65. Among the sculptures I saw was one called ‘Atom Piece’ and that’s what it looked like (exhibit), it’s not a very good photograph. As you can see it’s a bit like a skull. By a complete coincidence (although I remained very interested in Moore’s work) when I was in America in 1968 I went to the University of Chicago. I went there in 1968. Not as a student but just to visit. And outside one of the science blocks there was a sculpture, which I’m pretty sure was then entitled ‘The Atom’, which was a version of this, blown up. There was a whole back history to this. The University of Chicago wanted a piece to commemorate the first atomic fission, which happened there in ...
AD: The first chain reaction.
GS: At the University of Chicago in 1942, made the first controlled nuclear fission, in a temporary building actually. And they asked Moore for a sculpture, and he said I’ve got something which I’ve done completely independently which could form the basis for something to commemorate atomic energy, and he said it’s called ‘Atom Piece’. But the university authorities didn’t like the connotations of ‘piece’ because it could summon up ‘peace’ and they were worried about controversy around that and protests from anti-nuclear people, and they asked if it could be renamed to ‘Nuclear Energy’, so it acquired that more neutral title. But I’m pretty sure that when I saw it in 1968 there was a plaque in front of it said ‘The Atom’, so I think there was an intermediate title. What I wanted to do with this poem was to convey Moore’s concerns and his working method and his background, he came from Castleford in Yorkshire, which was, is mining territory. And he fought in World War One, it seems inevitable really that this must have influenced his way of seeing the world. Hence the grenade dimension to the concrete shape. So this is an evocation of his life and work but with that ‘Atom Piece’ particularly in mind. Moore himself said about this, a fortnight previously... I think there are some dates here. 1964 to 1965. It was probably 1965 then that I saw this. And Moore himself said “I’d been working in my little maquette studio and the story reminded me of a sculpture I’d already done, about 6 inches high, which was just a maquette for an idea, and I said to them, I think I’ve done the idea as far as I would be able to, and I’m going to make this sculpture into a working model. I showed it to them when I’d done the idea, and they liked it because the top of it is like some large mushroom or a kinky mushroom cloud, and it also has a head shape like the top of a skull, but down below it is more like an architectural cathedral, and one might think of it as more a protective form and constructed for human beings, and the top being more the destructive side of the atom.” I wanted to evoke both those aspects. But also I wanted to work into the poem his Mother figures, his figures of women with holes, that are I imagine very influenced by primitive sculptures of the mother goddess and of fertility goddesses. So what I’ve done is to create a skull grenade shape as I went along with a hole in the middle, with a kind of passage coming down to the larger hole, which could be for a wick if it was a grenade. And that also suggests mining territory, going down deep into rock. It’s also got a slightly phallic suggestion. So I start the poem “What story holds here”, investigating the image. I say ‘pebble-human half polished.’ Those seem to be apt terms for his sculptures. ‘A little piece every contour learnt/ to gross up’ as in to make a big version from a little model. ‘And win at point of chisel’ in terms of defining in shape. ‘a curve of hill mossy crag with mine-shaft/ or stark fault.’ I’m emphasizing there the territory he was familiar with as a boy. ‘this is home a childhood / for bluff recall’. ‘other lamplight lode’, geological but also carrying association of load, a weight carried. So I’m already moving onto his mother-figures there. Maybe a miner’s lamplight or just a lamp at home. ‘bearing on throne’, a lot of his sculptures seem to be, well, they’re placed on a base. But throne is more apt perhaps for something involving a mother-goddess figure. Thinking of those, this is Roger Berthoud (exhibit) Well, there’s one on a base. I should have said as well as just visiting him as a schoolboy, partly because of my mother’s interest in his work I went to exhibitions of his work as a boy. The main habits of his sculpture were familiar to me. Getting back to the detail of the poem where I stopped. ‘as long neck/ reaches from shoulder’ then there’s a kind of pause. ‘a castle tower over ward’, that must be partly a reference to Castleford in Yorkshire. ‘never to admit what strain’, this is exactly halfway through. ‘has some trench to scoop’. This involves a shift to his First World War experience. So many WWI soldiers repressed their experience didn’t they, weren’t able to talk about it, and it went into other elements, went sideways, leaked out somehow. 'Strain' there effort, but also the sound. ‘so comes a pierced skull/ better absent belief.’ I suppose the stoic would feel that. ‘all in mustard haze’, mustard gas. ‘Sings quiet by day’, the intervals between the fighting. ‘the bolder legend/ not after a medal’, fight not for the glory but for the practical purpose. So he doesn’t want a medal but it feeds into his work as an artist. I suppose what I’m doing here is conflating his First World War experience with the unleashing of atomic energy in the Second World War. ‘when shorn limbs speak on plinth’. Shorn limbs obviously suggests wounds of war. ‘a dale myth there t’remember’, recalling his Yorkshire experience. ‘The force drives on afresh’. A typical I suppose Forties image, in Dylan Thomas’ poem, as in Graham Sutherland’s work, Keith Vaughan. ‘where tube sleepers/ go abstract in green.’ Well that does push things to the Second World War, with Moore’s underground shelter drawings. In common with a lot of my poems, it involves a caesura, a split, between the two parts of the line. I seem to be habitually inclined to pair-type structures, double structures. Although of course it does unify towards the end at the base. I hope that this although it’s arranged in a specific shape does have a lyrical flow as a poem. I’ll just read a little bit of it. Although these (lines) are arranged to fit a pattern, the intention is to have a flow to it and not be concrete in some inflexible, stationary mode. Can you hear that more lyrical music when I start reading it? Or is it subdued to the dyer’s hand of its visual project?
AD: Lyric is such an overused word. I’ve just been reviewing this book called Beyond the Lyric. I don’t think lyric is the adjective to apply to this poem. Maybe there’s a whole suite of adjectives missing for different emotional qualities of poetry. I don’t think you could get people to vote, saying This is a lyric poem.
GS: There is another word I’m searching for then to suggest something that isn’t just still. Maybe fluent is too strong a word. In one sense it is still as a sculpture is.
AD: The visual design imposes that, because the visual design is over the entire poem, all points are present in one moment. There is a flow of meaning in the words as opposed to the visual. And yes it is emotional, profound emotions are being broached here. They’re not really first person.
GS: Except insofar as I’m imagining my way back to those war experiences. And obliquely drawing on my perception of this as a young boy, as a teenage boy. Of that particular sculpture. [dropout]... probably was as well as wanting to emphasize the readability of it, I was wanting to register the fact that, deep emotion here. I agree. No doubt it also taps into memories of my father’s war experience as witnessed by me in the wounds I could still see and his stories.
AD: Is the realization of the sculpture in Chicago in metal?
GS: In bronze, yes. The little maquette I saw would have been plaster. It’s so long ago... No, it is bronze actually. ‘120 cm’. It would have been more striking in bronze. This is an example totally different from the two we’ve looked at so far.
AD: Yes. I expect that’s why you chose it.
GS: Do you feel in this case or more generally that the concrete form is too limiting?
AD: I think you’re writing two different grades of the poem. I mean this is much easier to animate because it’s about one specific object, contained within the object. You walk around it and it holds still. It’s quite easy for the reader to figure out what holds it together. With ‘Stromboli’ that’s true to a slightly lesser extent. The narrative object of the poem is more complicated. With ‘Roxy 46’ the whole situation is far more complicated and I would think the whole poem is far more ambitious. And it has much more momentum because its own assumptions are changing in the poem. I’d say that’s the difference between ‘Bone Metallic’ and ‘Roxy 46’ or similar poems.
GS: The subject of nuclear energy is a major concern in the other poem that you wanted to look at, isn’t it? ‘Faust Variations’?
AD: (looks up poem) Oh yes, Freeman Dyson. I’ve just been reading a book by his son, actually.
GS: What page is it in Music’s Duel? the main advantage of the Days of ‘49 setting (of ‘Faust Variations’) is a slightly broader left and right column. So this is an example of you could call it a prose poem or just a text which juxtaposes imaginary in the left hand column with documentary in the right and column. The context for Days of ‘49, the book that I and Alan Halsey wrote about 1949 - this text being mine and not his, incidentally - the launching point for this is the fact that 1949 was the year of the Goethe Bicentenary celebration. And also it was the publication date of the English version of Mann’s Doktor Faustus which I draw on at times in the left hand column. The right hand column involves a lot of things that were going on in that year and you could say are germane either to the Faust story in its various version or to atomic energy, that being a scientific equivalent of the dilemma that Faustus is faced with. In terms of possibility for a better world or more power and the limitation of that power. It starts with a very, ‘terrible is the way you pronounce good’. That could be either ‘the way you pronounce ‘good’ is terrible, or terrible is the way you pronounce good. A syntactic ambiguity. I’m sure that is both to do with the Faust situation and with the Frankenstein scientist forging new possibilities for human power, new techniques, because we have here ‘a little cut in the hand will release in a jar what fuels the stars’. This is very like ‘Roxy 46’, isn’t it, it’s a bit like my image of the statues coming to life.
AD: The proving ground is Los Alamos? It’s a nuclear test?
GS: The cut in the hand is the blood he has to give making the bargain.
AD: Physicists like Oppenheimer are making a Faustian pact with, well, ultimate evil, mass death in order to achieve something, and that’s like signing a soul away? Jar. Is that a test jar or a jar as in vibrations?
GS: It could be either a test jar or the jar that Mephistopheles places beneath him when he signs the bargain. In one of those versions, maybe Murnau’s film, Mephistopheles places a jar beneath him and the blood flows into the jar. Or am I thinking of Dreyer’s film Vampyr, which I used in Le Fanu’s Ghost. It’s a conflation of Carmilla and The Room in the Dragon Volant, two stories by Le Fanu.
AD: Carl Dreyer. So the devil captures either his blood in a jar or his soul in a jar?
AD: The devil has lots of souls on a shelf? Like preserves?
GS: I wish I had my notebook here for this period because a lot of these things would be clearer. I’m struggling to recall some of the generation of particular phrases. Maybe it’s good because I won’t get too bogged down. Let’s move to the right hand column. As you can see even though that’s slightly longer they do relate to each other like paragraphs. We have EM Butler again.
AD: We do. Hi Elsie.
GS: Whose book The Fortunes of Faustus, it languishes. Oh no it’s a third volume. It’s languishing in the basement of the Cambridge University Press offices, as books can do. HD - Hilda Doolittle - ‘sees Silver Wings as a theft from life when all is coincidence‘. Can you wait for me to drag out, it would only take two or three minutes, that notebook?
[Dialogue about clipping mike on.]
We are discussing ‘Faust Variations’, at pp. 41-3 of Days of '49. Elsie Butler wrote a 1949 book about The Myth of the Magus, which discusses the original Faust, a late-mediaeval magician.]
AD: It’s rolling.
GS: I’ve now rummaged around in one of my cupboards and found the notebooks that I was using at the time. The trouble with any particular text is that I am drawing on notebooks that I'm using concurrently, so they tend to be strewn around the place. The references that I might need, but I’ve just found in one of them a reference to Silver Wings. In 1949 HD was visited by EM Butler - they’d been introduced via Bryher. Her book Fortunes of Faust, published in 1952, and the novel Silver Wings, finally, were major influences on Helen of Egypt. Silver Wings must be by EM Butler, I’m sure I got it out of London University Library. When the two women first met in 1949 neither book had been published. But Butler must have discussed with HD Goethe’s use of the legend of Helen having fled to Egypt and her double appearing on the walls of Troy. So the 1949 context fits there doesn’t it. So HD sees Silver Wings as “a theft from life when all is coincidence”. But that’s a common experience of writing, isn't it, when you think things are actually based on something. If someone writes about you they might think that everything's based on literal instances and it turns out that actually half of it’s imagined and that the person couldn’t have known X Y and Z.
AD: We think that there is something in HD which is also in Silver Wings, but HD saw it as a theft from life. In life if there are coincidences everywhere then the same thing in two books really means nothing.
GS: I must check. I could go and check. I’ve got various books on HD. What I omitted to say is that the opening of that column, EM Butler was a friend of Aleister Crowley. Friend may be the wrong term, acquaintance would be more fitting.
AD: Old Crow is Crowley?
GS: Yeah. And that must be a quotation from Crowley, ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law. I am the Magician, and the Exorcist.’ The exorcist reference comes in the next paragraph.
AD: This is the story that William Friedkin’s film, and William Peter Blatty’s novel, The Exorcist, were drawing on.
GS: Yes. That was in 1949. August 49.
AD: And in Washington State, whereas in the film it’s somewhere in the north-east, I can't remember where.
GS: I actually have a quotation from The Fortunes of Faust. Part of a documentary type discourse. Lining up a series of events that happened in 1949. Faust staged in the open air in Regents Park, with the final scenes from Part II. That is juxtaposed with the more imaginative type of language, in the left hand column. ‘What does dead mean when flora grows so rankly.’ I don’t know whether I’m literally referring to the processes of fission, probably more the paradox of decay and as in dry rot, when you get that kind of abundant growth that is actually a kind of deadness too.
AD: The fungus is more alive than the house.
GS: I don't know if that’s a factor too. I’m missing a crucial notebook here. (Dan Brown style drama of enigmatic clues while the notebook is retrieved.)
GS: I'll probably find now that the quote about the flora is from Mann’s Doktor Faustus. I don’t know how much it’s going to help me having these notebooks in front of me. There’s so much detail there that I can't necessarily pick out the right things. But it may occasionally stimulate my memory to be more exact. ‘Lying in the dark with irksome mygrym, retching and spewing’. Yes. I imagine this is the Faust figure being tempted. ‘To the sofa corner comes my visitor in a white collar and a bow tie.’ The phrasing is more modern here. I’m actually conflating Mann’s Doktor Faustus and Shakespeare’s Love’s Labours Lost. I’m trying to think what connects them. I think part of the book does involve reference to is it Biron from Love’s Labours Lost. Whatever the source of this stuff, the essential situation is clear enough, of being tempted towards some further knowledge and pleasure. ‘Are you afraid of yourself? Plesure is yet yonge.’
We’re still with the soul bargain. 'Let us say XXIV years.' In the right hand column adjacent to that we have as you rightly said the Exorcist story from 1949. Mainly I think drawing in the newspaper, the original newspaper account, Washington Post, but I’m sure I’m working in a bit of Friedkin’s film. Ah yes, look. Page 162 in the 1949 edition of [Mann’s] Faustus: ‘Don Armado a consummate figure of opera. The despair of the witty Biron. Then the judgment on Biron.‘ So definitely Love’s Labours Lost is a work referenced in Doktor Faustus. And Rosaline. There’s a lot more about her later on.
So Rosaline is a kind of Helen figure. Or the dark lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I mean that would be typically modernist, wouldn't it. To interleave that with a text such as Love’s Labours Lost. The Faust book would be early Renaissance, wouldn't it.
AD: In a different, Northern European context. Fifteenth century perhaps? (The Faust-Volksbuch was printed in 1587.)
GS: As I say I think I can pick out the main context here. The third left hand column is still to do with the enticement and exotic charm. 'Her touch burns on my cheek.' Rosaline being Biron’s beloved in Love’s Labour’s Lost. It's interesting how having glanced over Roxy section 46 I'm seeing all kinds of connections with this. ‘With theatre in the blood one bespeaks another, like Moon-gold. Out of number magic you jump the chord obsolete.’ That almost sounds like memory theatre to me. There is number magic in Faustus I suppose. The main tradition of magic certainly involves number, doesn’t it. But also in atomic power, it’s all numbers.
AD: The difference between uranium 235 and uranium 238.
GS: “In American-occupied Frankfort on Main, all parties, inclusive of Communists, pay homage to the memory of Germany's greatest son." But the author of Emil and the Detectives isn't impressed.
Sweet Black angel, that's obviously the blues phrase. Tampa Red, I would think, 1949. It might be Robert Nighthawk.
AD: Was Tampa Red Hudson Whittaker?
GS: I don't think so. There’s a limit to how I drag things in completely without relevance so there must be a 1949 blues context. ‘Like the way she spreads her wings.’ That’s either direct quotation or expanding somewhat from a blues context. Again a lot of this reminds me of that Roxy material of the idealised feminine. In the right hand corner is a kind of Frankenstein dream of moulding a creature to fit your dreams. The right-hand column here refers to the explosion of the first atomic bomb. And what was going on in China - the proclamation of the people’s republic. J Robert Oppenheimer’s statement that it would be ethically wrong to develop the H-bomb and his advice being overruled. Still in the right hand column, controversy surrounding Thomas Mann and his place in German culture. Since the war he was thought by various powerful figures to have behaved with a ‘lack of piety towards his fatherland’. Said in Germany to be ‘blatantly devoid of true inner culture (Herzensbildung)’.
AD: During the war he said bombing Germany was a good idea to win the war. Actually Brecht wrote a poem criticising him. And then he wouldn’t return to Germany. Lack of piety. Well, given that before the war they burnt his books.
GS: And they didn't want them in the 40s either.
AD: It was before repentance. There was a big transition and Thomas Mann became canonised. It became very difficult to express patriotic feelings about the Second World War. In 1949 that hadn't happened.
GS: In the left hand column, the imaginative column. We have nightclub matter here. The Cococello Club and the Great Nike Room. It’s possible here that I’m drawing on 1930s German expressionist films. I don’t know. But certainly it was sparked partly by reading of Thomas Mann.
AD: (reading) ‘Riddle me in a Zip-pan like the debauch of exchange.’
(end of tape)
AD: While the tape was being changed the author explained what ‘Riddle me with a Zip Pan’ actually means.
GS: I’m pulling out all the stops to be zany here. Melodramatic, isn’t it. ‘Avernus lit by the dance of the roaring flames. Nuff, he cries!’ And then in the right hand column, continuing with the documentary, I couldn't resist getting this in. ‘Freeman Dyson enrols as one of Hans Bethe’s post-graduate students. Four years later Thomas Pynchon studies Engineering Physics.’
AD: Along with, well he was a friend of, Richard Farina, isn't it?
GS: We have an anticipation of Gravity’s Rainbow here. “The bunch of weaponeers includes many Los Alamos physicists. "I’ll be damned if I'll let any Washington or any politician dictate what work not to do" says Norris Bradbury, director of Los Alamos.”
AD: He got the job when Oppenheimer was pushed out?
GS: Meanwhile EM Butler delivers a lecture on Byron and Goethe, ‘seeking and never finding each other and yet (half obsessed the one)’ etc. ‘aware of a strange affinity’. She actually wrote a book on Byron and Goethe. Now in the left hand column still working with magic. ‘A piece of gold can make you see different.’
‘The sentence is scraps stolen from a feast’, I think what I’m talking about three is the juggling power of language. I think that is to do with Love’s Labours Lost, is it Holofernes, his exaggerated language? One of the other characters says ‘your words are scraps stolen from a feasts’. I can explain another reference - Zolo Go is I think Lightnin' Hopkins. It was a mis-hearing of zydeco, zydeco being like cajun
AD: ...only Black.
GS: So on the label it said ‘Zolo Go’. This is mine, I did this one (collage).
AD: Subject produces an exhibit here: on the Gold Star record label. ‘Zolo Go by Lightnin' Hopkins, king of the hillbillies’, who is no-one’s idea of a hillbilly. Houston, Texas. And it says on it 666. Can you explain that, Gavin? Who owns this label exactly?
GS: Is that a superimposition by me? I don't think it is.
AD: Maybe he sold his contract to the devil along with his soul!
GS: In the right hand column, concurrent with that, ‘what if MacNeice were propelled to write a Goethean line or two’. He did a radio version in that year.
AD: Of Goethe’s Faust?
GS: In six parts. And there’s a picture of him, or at least I imagine it’s him, ‘Gripping a Guinness at the bend of the bar’. Refusing to look at Shelley. “Slipshod and not much of a poet." That must have been the BBC pub, the George.
AD: If it was MacNeice, it was one of many pubs.
GS: I think he sat there with his dog. And then the last documentary column referred to René Clair’s ‘La beauté du diable’, which is being filmed in Rome. “at that time he referred to Heine’s comment, ‘Every man should write a Faust.’ I’ve got the screenplay of that film which I made notes from at the time. Oh, ‘zip-pan. Momentary blur wiping clear the image’. But maybe that’s not from the film. (reads aloud) In notebook 37, “see also small blue notebook with Clair’s own comments’”. So zip-pan is presumably a technique used in ‘La beauté du diable’. There you are, everything can be explained.
AD: So there was a reason for it.
GS: There always is. There’s a reason for everything. But you can't hold it in mind forever.
AD: The great zip-pan of time.
GS: But it is a great phrase. Oh, it’s pan in the film sense-
GS: Panorama in the film sense. Not a pan as in something you would cook with.
AD: Don’t think so, no.
GS: It makes perfect sense. That finishes with the figure of Mephisto in ‘La beauté du diable’: ‘Vanquished by his own devices, he vanishes in a column of smoke’. The column of smoke obviously recalling an atomic plume. ‘Magic is music’. I think I am probably ... The marginal note there must be self-referential in the sense that the whole right-hand column could be marginalia. ‘A marginal note is not so marginal.’ ‘The flying messenger seeks guidance. 'And here everything leaves off.' As it does. That’s the end of the text. ‘The flying interviewer wants guidance’.
GS: I suspect part of what I was doing here was revelling in a language feast and getting into some Dylan Thomassy-type heady view of sound. The main context is plain enough, that it’s Faust juxtaposed with the scientists developing atomic energy and indeed moving towards the H-bomb. From one bomb to another.
I’ve got notes here from EM Butler’s book Byron and Goethe. (pause of 2 minutes while subject locates a notebook from the time)
I'm drawing on Barbara Guest’s excellent book Herself Defined: the poet HD and her World: ‘Butler’s influence on HD extended into her novel Silver Wings. [...] One person relates the events and gives his explanation. Then we proceed through several interpretations of what may or may not be the real story. Finally an explanation of what has really occurred is given by someone who we have every reason to believe. This presumably is the final truth, but is it? Are we not finally returned to a realm which would be seized upon by HD where the dead dream their dreams, and who can read them?”
And I suppose explaining why I’m using this Helen being such a significant element in the Faust legend is whether she’s a spirit or not is very relevant to the whole idea of what you can get after you’ve sold your soul. Is it real or not? Or are you just being deluded by this phantom?
There’s one more thing I wanted to say about that text and that is that I performed it at Café Otto with some jazz musician friends of mine. It does lend itself to performance although it is a complex and multi-layered text. Tim Fletcher promised me a copy of the recording we made.
(GS recovers info on Silver Wings and confirms that it influenced HD)
(Penda’s Fen is the original form of the place-name Pinvin and was a TV play in 1973. A couple of hours after the interview was over Kevin Nolan turned up and after a while began talking about ‘Penda’s Fen’.)
GS: Often the most useful things are not great works of literature but they spark you into doing things. They could be pulp materials, they offer ways in or resonant phrases. I think this is a case in point. The reason I’m using this is that we were talking about ways of using information and different sources, and the four poems that we’ve looked so far (today), all four, offer different approaches, although there are continuities. In Le Fanu’s Ghost which is I suppose an encyclopaedic type work in one sense, I wrote each text in a different way. Each of the individual texts that make up the book.
AD: There must be a hundred.
GS: Actually what I’m doing with Harriott Double is almost the opposite of that now, as a reaction against that. One of the texts in Le Fanu’s Ghost is called ‘Amarantha Takes’ and this was inspirited by an erotic version of Carmilla, Le Fanu’s vampire story. The Amarantha of the title refers to the pseudonym of the author, she calls herself ‘Amarantha Knight’. I discovered that her real name is Nancy Kilpatrick, and she’s an academic, I think an English professor. And she’s done a whole series of erotic takes on classics. The way I acquired this, I had a long conversation with a person to go to a particular shop in Southend, it was like brown paper bags on the counter, he had a whole warehouse of bizarre materials. Anyway I did eventually acquire it. It was very hard to get hold of. I thought it would be interesting to use phrases from this erotic version and produce a poem. So I’m somewhat mischievously stealing phrases from the book to conjure up the events and the aura for this vampire story. It has takes on a female voice, the female Laura. It has things like ‘Rub through the fabric to chestnut curling my cunny-hole.’ ‘leave your bloomers off, you see what comes of strangling people with him.’ ‘Assumed? To assume is to make an ass out of U and me.’ This was to create amusement and variation upon a more serious strand of the book. It’s just written as loose phrases in a long column. It starts ‘lace ruffs spell a story about the cuffs and neck.’ I don’t think it’s all found texts. ‘You are the girl from my dream.’ Because there is a possibly Lesbian subtext in Carmilla. ‘May I enter the library? Squeeze and the panel opens.’
In Harriott Double I am reacting against that mode. It’s effectively a narrative poem but it juxtaposes two narratives which are almost coincidental, about two people called Harriott, except they had a lot in common. The first section deals with Joe Harriott the jazz Jamaican saxophonist who settled in London. It goes from his birth to his death. Then you get a section called ‘Into Mean’, which is the present. The third section is the life of Thomas Harriott, the Renaissance scientist and astronomer and jack of all intellectual trades. And that goes from his death to his birth, so the book performs a cycle. Although I set out to make it narrative, inevitably it’s become more complex and the level of interference and there’s looping back and there are interruptions and gaps. One of the parallel features is that they both died of tobacco-related cancer. And in fact Thomas Harriott was the first person known to be recorded in the Western world, he got cancer of the nose, which was really grim. He went to the New World with Raleigh and brought tobacco back and it killed him. And Joe Harriott was also a heavy smoker and died in agony in hospital. So that’s one of the grimmer features of the book. I’m always alert to layers of history, particularly London history, and in one of the sections in this book, it’s called ’Spectrum’, you might think it’s a bit formulaic actually. I told Frances about it, I suspect she thinks it’s a bit formulaic. (exhibit) So that’s New Orleans trad type jazz, it’s an evocation of New Orleans, that’s bebop. And that is free jazz. And they’re kind of laid in apposition.
AD: So that’s where Joe Harriott was acoustically?
GS: He draws on all those things at the same time. Here I refer to ‘Tunisia in New Compton Street’.
AD: Like ‘A Night in Tunisia’?
GS: And I do mean New Compton Street not Old Compton Street. Jazz is mainly associated with Old Compton Street, western Soho. It’s a stretch of the imagination to call New Compton Street Soho. That club, I don’t think Harriott played there, at least in that incarnation. It was the first club to feature bebop in Britain. Don Rendell reminisces about this. It was called the Fullado. That became ‘The Metropolitan Bopera House’. It had another jazz incarnating as well. Just yesterday I was trawling the Web to make sure that it was in New Compton Street, and I did some more research, and that very building, it was 6 New Compton Street, and before it was a jazz club it was a theatre, the Players’ Theatre Club, and that’s where Peggy Ashcroft made her debut in 1927. It’s interesting that a jazz club should have that as part of its history. I suppose the space would lend itself.
AD: I suppose you have a certain kind of room, the architecture and so forth. I guess it wasn’t very big.
GS: I discovered that there’s a picture of 6 New Compton Street on the web, from something like 1908, and it was called Dollman and Son. What it says is ‘picture framers’. So I’m now considering doing something with that knowledge to create an extra layer in the book. I don’t know quite what I'll do. I think it was probably demolished in the 1960s.
One other, I could just mention this text.
AD: (exhibit) ‘Calypso Gloriana’.
GS: I had been wondering how am I going to get from the 1960s, early 1970s, which is Joe Harriott, to the Renaissance. Because the first section ends with Joe Harriott‘s death. And then I was in, I mentioned my friend Dennis Harrison who runs the Albion Beatnik shop in Oxford, in Jericho. He said to me, I was talking about my fascination with Jamaican jazz musicians who use calypso, Joe Harriott did draw on calypso, so did Harold McNair, and so does Harry Beckett. Dennis suddenly said Oh, why don’t you do a ‘Calypso Gloriana’. I said, Gloriana, you mean Britten’s opera? It was like a challenge to me. So I waited about six months and then suddenly I thought of a way of doing this. And I thought, well, the courtly dances from Gloriana, I had a recording of them by Julian Bream. So I listened to them again. March, Coranto, Pavane... So I thought maybe I can create a calypso version of those dances. But I was also conscious of the fact that Thomas Harriott was one of only two people who read Chapman’s Homer in manuscript. Harriott may have known Chapman at Oxford, Chapman was slightly older but they might have overlapped a bit. I haven’t yet written a text involving Chapman’s Homer. But you know, Calypso, major episode in the Odyssey, so maybe I can work that into it. So I’ve got the myth of Calypso here.
GS: So you’ve got the Siren type figure, if one can call her that, trying to persuade, actually she saves him initially, but she wants him to stay and doesn’t want him to go back to Penelope. So you’ve got that aspect juxtaposed with Elizabeth and Essex. William Plomer did the libretto for Benjamin Britten. (discussion of failure of opera at its premiere at Covent Garden in 1953) I think it’s probably more interesting as a piece of music. It was based on Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex so I had a look at that. It’s not as bad as you might think.
AD: It’s not suitable as the synopsis for an opera. Surely it’s a work of camp blasphemy before anything else.
GS: Surely you’re saying it’s not suitable for an opera at the Coronation! (anti-royalist laughter) It might be suitable for a different kind of opera. It went down like a lead balloon at its premiere. But critics since have given it a much more distinctive place in Britten’s oeuvre. And then I thought well how am I going to get calypso rhythm into English. So I thought of calypso, kyzo is the West Indian word. Brathwaite says that calypso rhythm is essentially dactylic. I find dactylic rhythm hard to read, but I thought I would at least approximate it. So we’ve got bumbaba bumbaba. And lots of percussive effects. So we have the Calypso figure, the woman, appearing, and her cave. And then, 'Is all my fellows lost?', Odysseus. Reflecting. And then we have the courtly dances but given a calypso interpretation. Dem slow hesitation steps. We’ve got the reference to the La Volta dance. ‘Both a dem you can’t coin proud diva. Take way yerself oh take and scud as a roller. To glassy fields must go home.’ ‘glassy fields’ is a Homeric expression for the Mediterranean.
AD: I should know what the phrase is but... Hyaline is the English literary equivalent. I’m sure the Greek phrase for glassy in that phrase is something very like that.
GS: I was talking about hearing about that pornographic version of Carmilla. I love it when you get a suggestion like that, when you come across some article in maybe a tabloid newspaper on the Tube late at night, you look at it in glazed fashion and suddenly you think Bloody hell! That’s interesting! All these things can spark the way a poem goes on.
AD: Britten missed a trick by not writing a calypso piece in Gloriana.
GS: ‘Party Talk’, this is in the Joe Harriott section, this is based on actual background talk at a party that Joe Harriott went to, which was recorded. I wasn’t transcribing it literally so there’s a lot of imagined stuff. This is on the tape though: “We haven’t got any petticoats on. I haven’t got one on at all. Don’t tell anybody though!” It’s a bit like some of the stuff I do in Southam Street. I’ve got another shape poem here, it’s called ‘Space Monkey’. It’s got a Rosicrucian poem, because one of the things about Joe Harriott was, he was a Rosicrucian.
AD: Oh good heavens. So that takes you back to the seventeenth century?
GS: Well, sixteenth and seventeenth, but particularly seventeenth as Frances Yates describes. A big motif in the book is the moon, because Thomas Harriott was an astronomer who actually did drawings of the moon before Galileo. I’ve got this text called “Mariner’s Mirror”, which is all about him observing the moon from Sion House. He had this little observatory at the top of his house. And then that links with various moon poems that I’ve written about Joe Harriott. Joe did that song ‘Polkadots and Moonbeams’, is it an Irving Berlin song? Maybe it’s van Heusen and, I get mixed up. So that provides opportunities. I’ve got a poem that describes Joe Harriott living off the Edgware Road. [omission about another pub] I imagine him on Edgware Road looking at the moon. Then I’ve got some found stuff. ‘Thomas Harriott etymological alphabet.’ He constructed an etymological alphabet, dictionary really, for Algonquian speech. He was a real pioneer doing this. Then I’ve got this mini dictionary of Algonquian terms which is quite a good text for reading aloud. Oh, this is ‘Subterrene calendar’ is, I’m imagining Thomas as a student at Oxford. ‘the pancake bell of St Mary’s’. He was at St Mary’s College, which was adjacent to Oriel.
AD: It sounds too Catholic a concept for politics in early modern Britain. I don’t think you’d get many Anglicans going to a college named after Mary.
("Bells of St Mary's" is not about this St Mary's.)
GS: So I’m playing with arrangements there and student games. They had these ceremonies. They had to ‘pluck off band and gown to plead on table form’, on top of a table. ‘Not fulminate or tonitruate but kiss the shoe to get a cup of caudle, or if dull get nothing but salted beer with tuck to boot.’ It is more straightforward, the structure I’m using, than in the other long works I’ve done. But I’ve got to keep feeling energized by variation. As well as pieces that are there by virtue of linking up I want to have these standalone pieces that I can read to audiences. The very last section of the book I’ve already written, involves imagining where Thomas Harriott was born and grew up. He was born somewhere in Oxfordshire. I’ve called that ‘Peep into Nowhere’. So I’m imagining without much evidence the world he was born into. I reckon I’m about halfway through writing it now. I’ve been working on it since the summer of 2009. (lists other literary tasks, omitted)
GS: As you just said Andrew we’re both getting a bit tired but as this is likely to be the last session I thought I’d just comment briefly on how important film has been to my writing. I think art forms which involve performance obviously relate to performance in behaviour throughout life.(repeats statement about theatre)
I’ve used a variety of films over the years which has influenced and affected me as source material. Partly for the subject matter, as in Stromboli (as before) but also I think the structures of cinema, which obviously derive from novel practice. I don’t think that’s recognised enough, actually. Anticipated in the novel. The possibility for sign different kinds of language within the text, and for using different devices in the text. I’ve used what you might call art film, continental film, quite a bit. I’ve also used American film noir. Recently a more prominent influence on my work is British film, mainly B films but also some A films. I think what attracts me to them is the combination of slightly stagey edge which comes from the theatre or it comes from a way of speaking, an art tradition of speaking, maybe a class tradition. The combination of that with a documentary realism, partly stylized and partly reflecting a documentary interest in small detail of life. You get that sense of the fantastic and that more elaborate staginess along with, often in the same film, a grainier realism. No doubt you could get the same combination in some American films, but that may be a characteristic element of British film. I was very interested to come upon the English version of They Drive by Night, directed by Arthur Wood, which precedes the American one, and in this one the lead male part is played by Emlyn Williams. But it’s an astonishingly powerful work and it’s about someone who’s been accused of something on the run. It involves a lot of travelling. That’s got just that combination I’m talking about, that graininess and that slight stylization. I was put onto that by one of Julian Maclaren-Ross’s film articles. Did you know he wrote quite a lot of film criticism?
AD: He actually scripted several B-movies.
GS: Also something I found in the past few years, which I’d been searching for and which I finally tracked down at a film fair, No Orchids for Miss Blandish.
AD: The English one?
GS: Directed by St John Clowes, and that is the predecessor of the American The Grissom Gang. But at the time No Orchids was released it was completely demolished by the critics, they hated it. I’ve also been very impressed by the Lance Comfort films that I’ve seen over the last few years, such as a melodrama, Hatter’s Castle. Have you seen that?
AD: It’s an AJ Cronin novel. Is it one of his Scottish ones?
GS: No, it’s set in England. I think, is it meant to be Yorkshire? Again, that’s extremely stylized but it has a grim dimension to it. It has a social realism, almost, within the melodrama, which is weird. Other directors I find particularly interesting, are John Gilling, who did The Voice Of Merrill, and Shadow of the Cat, a Hammer horror which wasn’t released by them but which was done by the Hammer crew. Gilling was incredibly prolific and he also wrote the screenplays for a lot of film directed by other people. Lawrence Huntington I also find interesting, Mr Perrin and Mr Traill and The Upturned Glass, with James Mason in. Going back to Lance Comfort, Bang You’re Dead, about the little boy who thinks he’s shot someone. He does actually have his father’s loaded revolver which he’s kept since the Second World War, and he shoots the gun off and thinks that he’s killed this chap. He goes on the run virtually. It‘s one of the few film in which Jack Warner really shines, as the father. We talked (off microphone) about Maurice Elvey, I particularly like The Late Edwina Black, have you seen that? It’s a drama. Roy Ward Baker, The October Man, I’d like to see that again. At the BFI recently I saw Thorold Dickinson’s Next of Kin, about loose talk. I thought it was beautifully acted, beautifully photographed. It was a perfect film but rather overlooked. A lot of the British ones for the 50s and early 60s have these beautiful jazz scores, so I’ve been imbibing that for my Joe Harriott. A lot of the small Bs feature people like Tony Kinsey and Tubby Hayes and people who aren’t credited at all, and in a lot of films you’ll get a sequence in a nightclub, so well evoked. What appeals to me is the juxtaposition between the deprivation and the privilege and comfort. The code of manners on the one hand and the undercutting of that on the other. These B films are permeating my way of writing at present.
(Post-session talk about British B-movies and illicit copies of unobtainable films being exchanged at shadowy collectors’ fairs.)
Tampa Red (January 8, 1904 – March 19, 1981), born Hudson Woodbridge but known from childhood as Hudson Whittaker, was an American Chicago blues musician.