Talking 'Bout Their Generation

, ed. Geraldine Monk (254pp, Shearsman)

What a delight to read an (in-the-main) agenda-less colletion of poetry histories. Away from the dogma and infighting of The Poetry Society and the self-appointed guardians of the avant-garde, here are a generous number of individuals given space to share their enthusiasms, their stories, their version of poetry as it happened to them. And happen it did: in small towns and cities, pubs and clubs and halls, alternative bookshops, libraries and colleges, bedsits and studies everywhere. And I mean everywhere.

Of course, there is some self-mythologising here (well why wouldn't there be?), as well as plenty of omissions and a surprising amount of insularity. There's a lot of poets being introduced to other poets, meetings in pub corners, and earnest conversations standing by the shelves in the poetry section of  bookshops. Many, like myself, will breathe a sigh of relief that at least their name is in the index, their magazine/press/festival at least mentioned in passing; there are definitely many other stories to be told. Every reader of a certain age and poetic persuasion will probably want in... (Perhaps a volume 2 is in order?)

In her preface, editor Geraldine Monk mentions her surprise that there is little mention of the likes of Bob Dylan and other singer-songwriters; personally, I'm more surprised that there isn't more about improvised music or punk, about the many alternative bookshops that flourished for a while in out-of-the-way and often surprising places, or indirect links to the the thriving community arts scene of the time. (This would include experimental theatre and dance companies but also community printshops and cafes.)

For my money Peter Finch's chapter best captures the exhilaration and excitement of the time. I didn't know Finch knew David Toop, so at least there's a link to improvised music there, but then it seems Finch knew everyone. (I think he still does.) I was someone late to the poetry party, engaging with it in the mid 1970s and only starting Stride
magazine in 1982; Finch was one of the first to get in touch, him and the UCL small press librarian. Like Finch I became ensnared in a web of magazine trades, corrrespondence, rejections and acceptances, hate mail and excitement. I met him and the likes of Alan Halsey, Paul Green and Allen Fisher at a small press book fair in Shrewsbury. To me they were 'big names'; I was slightly in awe of these people with numerous books to their name, their knowledge of all things poetic and alternative, not to mention the skills to produce a spined book using only photocopies, PVA and bricks.

I soon learnt that book fairs were mostly about standing at the bar or coffee counter talking, followed by an exchange of titles mid-afternoon before one packed up. Readings too were intimate affairs in fearfully cold draughty rooms: I'm sure that my experiences in an upper room above Stoke-on-Trent's alternative bookshop (a decade before Nick Johnson's arrival in the city), listening to the likes of Ken Smith and Keith Jafrate are responsible for my dislike of poetry readings. (I should make it clear that the venue and event, not the poets, are to blame!)

I learnt early on, just how self-obsessed we as poets are. Mike Shields of Orbis
, Martin Stannard and I, having just met, spent a jolly time at the bar at a Small Press convention somewhere (Birmingham? Nottingham? Manchester? Actually, Corby rings a bell...) whilst an endless succession of unknown poets enjoyed their five minutes of fame: four or five hours of mind-numbing mumbling and shouting in the hall where we had come to sell (or swop) our books and magazines. Of course, no-one dared to move around the hall and interrupt the sacred word... only the publishers slowly slipped away to the bar or into a deep trance behind their tables.

But I digress, as some of the author collected here also do – but more wittily and engagingly so. Time has allowed a perspective and distance to emerge; self-deprecation and a sense of humour has arrived; key writers/publishers/performers are now recognised and can be acclaimed and contextualised: Lee Harwood, Roy Fisher and Ric Caddel are of course acclaimed here, along with several others. And if some poets mentioned aren't very much on my radar, and there's perhaps a colluding silence about the very real problems of the day (Getting money out of Compendium or the Poetry Society for books sold anyone?), and there's still a sniffiness about how much good the populisers of poetry such as McGhough, Henri and Patten did (Cusp
contributors prefer the Beats), it doesn't really matter, because this book is an important and generous first step towards what Monk calls 'a collective autobiography' of poetry on the cusp.

I hope there will be space for future projects like this. For the generation of authors like myself who arrive after most of this history is done, who were growing up as this happened and were at the edges of things rather than the centre, who followed in footsteps and dealt with the collapse of the counterculture and its mutation into something else; and also for today's young writers, dealing with the complexities of the digital age. Cusp is an enjoyable, exhilarating and annoying book which I recommend to all.

     © Rupert Loydell 2012