Wednesday, November 7, 2007

12 or 20 questions: with Lawrence Upton

Lawrence Upton: Born 1949. Poet; sound and graphic artist; performer: has been making poetry for over forty years, prolific in a variety of genres. The diversity of his artistic practice increases with the passing of time.

Previously a computer professional (networking, database design & an academic head of department), he has been a full time artist since the mid 90s when he resigned his academic post.

He divides his time between Greater London and emptier places, particularly west Cornwall and Scilly.

He made solo and collaborative sound works (1974 - 1978) at Föreningen Fylkingen, Stockholm, then West Square Studio, London. In that decade, too, he co-founded jgjgjgjgjg; and, later, Bang Crash Wallop.

His collaborators include cris cheek, Erik Vonna-Michell, Lilian Ward, Bob Cobbing, Alaric Sumner, Jennifer Pike, Rory McDermott, John Levack Drever and others. His wide-ranging collaborations with the composer John Levack Drever are continuing, his second largest collaboration so far.

Upton worked extensively with the late Bob Cobbing, first in the 1970s and then from the early 1990s until Cobbing's death, producing 12 collaborative poem / books, including the massive, sometimes infamous, visual poem “Domestic Ambient Noise”; and co-editing “Word Score Utterance Choreography in visual and verbal poetry”, a primer on performance from visual poetry, all from Writers Forum.

He was elected twice as Deputy Chair of The Poetry Society in the 1970s, resigning the second on principle.

He directed Sub Voicive Poetry from 1994 for ten years.

He has been co-convenor of Writers Forum Workshop and co-director of Writers Forum since 2002.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

I am not sure that it did change my life greatly; although almost every act one makes may make a change. Must do.

I recall Mutation (not my first book, but one of the earliest I still list as being worth reading) being published in 1977; and the effect on me when I realised the amount of time the publisher had spent on it, trying to get it just right and as good a production as he could, getting the papers right, hand-binding it etc. It shook me. It shook me to be treated with such respect as a poet. Poets are too often taken for granted.

Having that book increased my confidence in a number of ways; but perhaps the most important was the awareness that someone other than me wanted my work to be read!

2 - How long have you lived in London, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I was born in London and have been based in the area for the bulk of my life. My birth was at what was then called “General Lying In” – St Thomas’s Hospital. By the river. My mother had been born in Vauxhall, nearby.

Her parents came from southern Ireland (mother) and Scilly (father).

My father was born on the other side of the road from her. His father came from West Sussex; but both sides of his family are said to have come from “near Falmouth” a generation or two before.

Over my life I have moved steadily towards the periphery of southern Greater London – I am typing this there now, on the edge of the North Downs, having just got in from Hampshire.

I was on a beach below Tennyson Downs on the south coast of the Isle of Wight this morning. Shelter from the wind and growing cold aside, I wish I was there now!

I have been back a few hours and, already, I want to get out of Greater London! and I haven’t yet been to bed yet.

During the 1990s, and in this decade, I spent increasing amounts of time in Cornwall, land of my mothers at least, which is not really England; but I came back up to Greater London frequently – for small visits, workshops, for instance, often going back within the 24 hours. It takes between 5 and 8 hours each way; and, noisy passengers permitting, I get a lot of writing done on the trains, in both directions. I like looking out of the windows.

Geography impacts on my writing in every way. Yet I am not sure how to explain.

I see the voices I invent and write up in my poems as persons in landscapes. The landscapes may be urban (e.g. in my book Wire Sculptures Reality Street 2003) or rural. We don’t have wildernesses any more.

The landscape(s) are not just big relief maps to be peopled. They are part of and products of socio-economic systems; so there is an historical dimension. e.g. Cornwall is not, despite what many believe and the tourism advertisers encourage, mysterious, legendary and so on – a bit Celtic (undefined) and hazy. The decaying mine buildings that some rave about are signs of economic decay resulting from changes in world markets. They are also the remnants of ecological destruction which the owners just left for the community to clear up. A few years ago a whole block of social housing began to sink into an undocumented mine shaft. The owners did not care what they were doing; their attention was fixed on what they got out of what other people were doing for a low wage.

Around the turn of the nineteenth century, I believe, pilchards finally seemed to catch on that going inshore was a bad idea; and they have had to be pursued out into the ocean.

Whether they just fancied a different route or really did begin to pass on data to the next generation (cf Wm Burroughs on rats and mice telling their kids about traps and poisons), it damaged the economy too, from another direction.

Just now the well-heeled from S E England are trying to turn Cornwall into a park, as they ramble on about quality of life and indirectly tut about the Cornish still being there. We’re getting kerb stones and pavements across the moors.

So, I suppose it’s all geography… It was only after I left school and got a brain that I realised how useful a starting point for thinking the subject Geography could be.

Gender impacts directly. And how one does avoid the impact of “race”? Where do we start? (Those who would never think of risking general statements about those of African descent are quite happy to make racist remarks about the Cornish. I know, they make them to me sometimes. I have an English name and a London accent and am often in London; so they assume they know my racial self-image…

I think racism is to a great extent a part of us as a tendency, a product of our apparently innate desire to generalise from our experience. That is, not “it’s human nature” as some seek to explain away our behaviours; but, more, it is a perturbation of our natures which grows if we do not monitor ourselves. It’s not our nature; it’s one of our cancers, something which started benign and goes wrong.

Anyway… er… I am white and male. As well as being decidedly middle-aged.

When I taught secondary school in inner London, most of my class was black – but that is much to do with how sink schools’ intake correlates with economic discrimination and deprivation. The day after “the Brixton riots” in the early 80s, the bulk of my class wasn’t there. They were in police custody. That was a big problem both on the morning and, taking account of all the circumstances, in general.

It’s a problem to say the least.

Where I am in urban Surrey, on the edge of London, the racial mix is wide but different – what a difference a few bus rides make.

Walk south from here and quickly the houses get bigger and, at election times, the conservative party advertisements proliferate. What a difference human stupidity and selfishness makes.
Gender – yes, it’s there all the time. It’s in the language, in the perception. Often, when I say “I” I am not referring to me as such; but what mode of the first person singular might that indicate? (A first person singular being inherently gendered as well as classed –and inclined to see itself in terms of an idea known as race.) “I” / “we” must lead on to “us” and thus to “them”. It’s ok; but it needs watching.

At the very least one needs to ask if it might not be appropriate to ask if we have a male or a female speaking…

There is an impact there, yes, because I am aware that it matters, it being race, it being gender, it being class . I cannot write without that awareness being involved; but the how of that is very complex

3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

It varies; and varies somewhat according to the manner of writing and I use a range. Taking you literally, I would say that a poem usually starts when I am walking; or, hardly moving; but rarely anywhere in between.

I would say that I build up logically from small pieces and am wary of saying I am writing whole books until I have finished them or got very near to it – last time I did that the book stopped for months

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

I write to perform. Often, with solo work, I have no particular immediate prospect of performing that particular piece – apart from, that is, at the Writers Forum Workshop.

Collaborative work is more likely to be related to particular performance opportunities.

I write the solo work and it goes into a pool from which I choose what to read, with an emphasis on recent work

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

The practice precedes the theory. As to the questions, I try to work out what the questions were when I have the answers in the form of writing.

In Messages to silence, some of which I have read this weekend (Letter to Eric # 1), there developed a set of questions about the meaning and purpose of using personal autobiography. But I could also assert that the questions concerned narrative. Or metrics!

Really I work out what I am doing after I have done it; but I am daily / monthly / yearly becoming more aware of the theoretical possibilities of what I am doing. Currently, I am thinking hard about visual poetry as notation. I have been for some time.

In my collaborations with the composer John Levack Drever, we do tend to set ourselves new formal and methodological limitations.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Depends on the editor. A bad editor is worse than useless.

Just this weekend, I was speaking to a colleague about my frustration when the late Bob Cobbing assured me that he was confident he could trust me to know what I was doing as a writer submitting to the press – actually I tend to believe that he was trying to make me feel good rather than outlining an actual policy. No, I said, I want you to say what you think of it.
Magazine editors’ selections can be a good first test of new work, especially when different editors all pass over the same poems!

In the case of my critical writing, I have had pretty good editorial intervention which has improved my writing.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

In so far as I am beginning to learn, harder

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

Sunday lunchtime, I think. My hostess advised against the apples.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Don’t trust anyone. Sooner or later they will betray you. Or let you down.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between your own writing and the time you spend as a publisher? What do you see as the appeal?

The movement between writing and publishing is easy enough for me.

I am not sure about the appeal…. I want to see the press continue…

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I get up. I write. I go to bed.

Sometimes I go to bed in the middle of the day and then get up and work into the night. If it helps me write, I am for it. The edge of dreaming is particularly productive of metaphor, I believe.

If I am on the move, I take a notebook.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I try to avoid that. If I stall I do something else – switch from one ongoing set of writing to another. Always at my back I hear…

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

How does it compare in what way? I wonder. There are so many viewpoints on any piece of writing.

I must answer regarding unpublished books as I have a number available and awaiting a publisher! They are very different from each other. I have a book of Snapshots; and a book of Portraits; and a book of descriptive pieces. There are others, but that’ll do.

I can see, as I learn (I like to think), changes of ability and method running through the sets; but because I do tend to keep revising, those changes – their strata lines -- are quite complex. Often what I learn in one set can be applied to another.

Re the descriptive pieces, they currently have the title St Ives Harbour from The Malakoff and other poems. Catchy, no? It started as a thing I did while I was waiting at the Malakoff Bus Station at St Ives, which is a good viewpoint for the harbour, the bay and the ocean beyond. I did that for some years – largely throwing the outputs away – but recently added some other viewpoints – across St Ives Bay from Barnoon Hill, for example.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I made a set of writing called Written Graphical which did start theoretically to some extent – as I tried to find, if I could, ways of writing that were like the apparent ways of telling in the films of Dziga Vertov, Stan Brakhage, Chuck Jones and others. What I am doing now is more to do with my interest in being a painter if only I could; and also to see what it’s like to take a process from one area of artistic activity and try to use it in another. It’s less programmatic, more direct and visually tactile (if you’ll allow me such a phrase)

The current writing feels very different to that of 15 or so years ago and I am happier now with my writing.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

All of that, particularly nowadays music and painting

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

So many. Including those I have been concerned with in publishing, what I have written about…

And Peter Riley is in my mind at the moment. I have a lot of time for his poetry. But so many more.

For my work? Well, to answer that well, I would need to see my writing objectively.

Browning. Auden. August Strindberg. MacDiarmid. Shelley. Robert Duncan. These are in the order that I decide to include them. Oh blimey, Bob Cobbing.

Denise Riley. Maggie O’Sullivan

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I’d like to be a writer in residence – one of those where you can get on with writing without being sidetracked (but without fear of the bailiffs, thanks to being paid). I don’t mean not having to do anything. I do mean not being expected to dissipate one’s energy on nonsense or inessentials. Productive demands just encourage writing energy


I’d like to go to Greenland and / or Spitzbergen


I’d like to spend time in other parts of Cornwall!

Come to that I’d like to see more of Canada. I have seen very little of it; and I suspect that many of my cousins are spread over the continent.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be?

A musician.

I could also have said “archaeologist”

17.5 - Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

A basket case

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

See above -- I go madder if I don’t make poetry

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I really don’t know about greatness. I was very impressed indeed by Adrian Clarke’s Possession (for which I made the cover images). I was very impressed by Confidence in Lack by Allen Fisher, which Writers Forum published.

I reread Pinter’s The Birthday Party not long ago. It is very good.

Films…I have no TV and find it hard to afford the cinema. I go in Cornwall, where it is cheap, when something decent turns up there – Pirates of the Caribbean # 2? Maybe Wallace & Grommit and the were rabbit. I’m serious, but I am laughing too. If “great film” means anything then The Third Man is a great film and I saw it not long ago; but that was hardly the first time I had seen it

20 - What are you currently working on?

More than one thing. Including --

John Drever and I have a performance next spring (2008) and I am working on possible texts for that – for discussion for that – while John is engaged on other projects

I am writing a set of poems around and about the person of Elidius, a Celtic saint known only on Scilly. The poems are about him and sometimes spoken by him.

This has involved me recently in writing some prayers for him. That may seem surprising to those who know me personally!

I can talk about that if you want.

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