(2) The North Staffordshire Poetry Universe


In 1967 I went off to the University of Keele in Staffordshire, just outside The Potteries (Newcastle-under-Lyme & Stoke-on-Trent), to read Psychology and English – I was moving away from natural sciences, which I coped with, but which seemed to give little to me. This university offered a general first year with a wide range of subjects as tasters, including American Literature. I had the pleasure of attending Andrew Crozier's first lecture at Keele, on Scott Fitzgerald (only The Great Gatsby would do – a rather restrictive judgement I feel now). He delivered it in a somewhat nervous but very intense mumble, unscripted, while picking at a cigar end. Now, this was good. Psychology turned out to be the study of the behaviour of rats (and how to write it up in dead language). English was fine in terms of content – practical criticism is always a good thing – but delivered by largely uncharismatic sub-Leavisites.

So I changed to American Studies and English, a choice aided by my girlfriend's choice also of American Studies. And Andrew became my guru.

1967 was of course an intensely exciting year to start University. It was "The Summer of Love" (and yes, I do have a copy of Scott McKenzie's "Are You Going to San Francisco?"). Very few could claim to be hippies, and such people were impressive, but scary: some older girls with long black clothes, and in our yeara couple of young Freaks from Liverpool with Afro Irish curls. But the sense of potential for change, and the duty to release creativity to produce an alternative culture, were unbelievably strong, and doubtless mark my sense of things still. My dress sense came from music: Dylan, and also The Incredible String Band (who Andrew thought "lacked masculine vigour").

1968 added political debate. I was a rather silent member of the vociferous minority (though I did write a couple of political fliers, and took part in two out the three occupations at Keele). Marching out of the Student Union, to the sound of "The Times They Are A-Changing" (put on the PA by one of the young anarchists) was a magnificent and empowering moment. Politically, the people my girlfriend (Ginie, soon after University my wife) and I were closest to were labelled "libertarian socialists". Individuals from the CP, the Trotskyist IMG and IS, even the Maoists, were OK, though the Labour Party was the right wing. The only time I was going to speak in a Union debate, in support of one of Keith Forrester-Paton's (later Motherson's) motions, the CP and Labourites walked out to render the meeting inquorate. Curiously, subsequently, I've come far closer to the Communists – the outright dissolution of the CPGB in the 1991 was a calamity the British left has never recovered from – and then inevitably, supporting Labour.

I didn't do drugs, though. I was a cowardly soul. I also guard my mental stability – not something I take for granted and wish to risk. I had a period of dope smoking after I started work – useful to achieve a relaxation I'd not had before and desperately needed. But I can't take come-downs – they plunge me into depression.

The poetry scene at Keele hinged around ephemeral magazines and the English Society. There was a poet-in-residence when I arrived – he did standard workshop things I'd probably employ myself now, but I didn't take to this at all. The main man on a student level, in my eyes, was Phil Maillard, a year or so above. I got involved in a couple of magazines and Eng Soc roles with various collaborators, especially Ian Ross and Paul Grainger. We got poets and others (LC Knights for some reason) to read or talk, and published each other.

The real stuff was picked up from Andrew Crozier of course. He and Jean were generous hosts, and the centre of a circle of writers, combining visitors from Cambridge (especially John James and Doug Oliver), and poets living locally (eg Roy Fisher, who subsequently taught at Keele, Peter Baker and David Chaloner from Manchester way). Other poets visited, with readings often paid for by the Eng Soc – Lee Harwood, Barry MacSweeney, Peter Riley, Tim Longville, John Riley I remember.

Other poetry worlds also. Jazz poetry performances (the jazz better than the poetry). The Liverpool Scene poets – I liked them, would still put some value into their work (and not just the successful three – anyone reading Spike Hawkins still?). I did a reading in the early 70s in a pub in The Potteries with Brian Patten.

Little from the English Department. Milton I took to, but missed out an essay, which cost me a First. The one interesting figure, and he was very good, was Francis Docherty (– I hear our Dublin-born friend Eileen's pronunciation of his name). He was spellbinding and informative on both the Eighteenth Century, and Joyce and Beckett. Beckett was actually a big influence on me – Peter Riley described my writing as a mixture of Beckett and Olson.

I studied with Andrew the American Nineteenth century, particularly the Transcendentalists, and Twentieth Century poetry – the classic Modernist lineage: Pound Williams Stevens (never got excited by him) Eliot Zukofsky and the Objectivists Olson. My early comments on Olson were very embarrassing. I did my undergraduate thesis on Williams' concept of the imagination (though I still don't think I understand it – but did Williams?). The important text to me at this time was the great Donald M Allen anthology, The New American Poetry.

I followed the degree with an MA in American Literature. This involved at times reading the latest poem in the post from New York – the Second Generation New York poets were the guys. Yes, very sexist language – all too typical of the times. I hope I redeem myself by having done my MA thesis on Gertrude Stein – not a Crozier favourite, though he took the choice well. Discussion in classes was not always rigorously theoretical – I remember informed student speculation as to what drugs particular poems were written on. The third major anthology of this time for me was Ron Padgett and David Shapiro's An Anthology of New York Poets.

It was this year and the next (when I did a PGCE teaching qualification at a rather rubbishy little Training College a little further out in the country) that a slightly younger guy called Bill Symondson and I started up Great Works magazine. This was the golden era of A4 mimeo. My model was Peter Baker's Skylight, a delightful well-edited and neat production. Ours was never that good in production terms. Also important was Richard Downing and Andi Wachtel's neat little printed A5 Sesheta. Andi was from New York, thus sophisticated, moreover at one time Phil Maillard's girlfriend (I was drunkenly sick on the floor of their Silverdale house once), then had a relationship with Lee Harwood (The Long Black Veil concerns this), and subsequently with Richard (who was part of an originally South London based group of poets including Chris Torrance). "Do you think Kenneth Koch is serious, Peter" I can hear her ask.

Andrew Crozier assisted us with material he had gathered for a final, but never pursued, issue of his magazine, The Park. This had a wide range of material, including a Rochdale autodidact, Melvyn Biddulph. We also, of course, asked people we had contact with. The first issue we produced at the premises of a market research firm in Stone, a country town to the South of The Potteries. Terry Darlington, who ran it, had moved out of London to the much cheaper Staffordshire to be able to engage in artistic activities as well. I remember a poetry reading at his place with Tom Pickard, in which I became so pickled with country wines that I slipped, cut my eye open, had to go to hospital, and wore an Odinic eyepatch for days. Also, driving back in the rain in Bill's old Post Office van, in a similar state, both of us goggling at the psychedelic shapes made by the lights on his wiperless windscreen. We used the equipment and paper, in return for running off some reports for his firm. Thus I learnt the art of the stencil duplicator.

I have set out what Great Works published, both in the magazine, and as books and pamphlets, separately. There is no remaining stock.

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