Peter Robinson and James Peake in conversation

  Visions, Revisions, & Publishing

  Peter Robinson in conversation
  with James Peake

  Britain, 2015



Paragraph One Follows 1:

James Peake: You’re a writer with an extensive and enviable bibliography, your poetic and critical work having appeared in many stand-alone volumes and sporting the badges of many imprints. Having worked with numerous publishers and editors, perhaps you could share any views you might have as to what makes for a successful poet / publisher relationship? I’d be interested particularly in your opinions on small presses, why the good ones succeed in terms of reputation and identity, and even what constitutes success for a small press in England now?


Peter Robinson: I’m reminded of a remark of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s: ‘Truth will find a publisher at any time, complaisance usually only for a year. That is why when you write you should always do so with courage and candour.’ I was so struck by that back in the early years of this century that I referred to it in an attempted aphorism of my own, adding: ‘Of course he’s right in his conclusions, whatever the outcome, but would he be so sanguine about finding publishers if he were writing now?’ Still, what I really do hold to in all writing, but especially poetry, is that you absolutely must first produce whatever you are prompted to compose, as indifferent as regards its future publishing prospects as you can manage to be, and only when you’ve got it to a reasonable state should you try to solicit interest in it from the publishing world.


The obvious drawback to this view is that you will set out on projects that take years to complete with no guarantee of ever seeing the light of day. My novel September in the Rain looked until recently as if it were a perfect example of those, and for many years The Selected Poetry and Prose of Vittorio Sereni looked like being one too, though Chicago did eventually bring it out in 2006, and then paperback in 2013, thanks largely to the good offices and understanding of Randy Petilos.

Cover image of The Selected Poetry and Prose of Vittorio Sereni
Cover image of The Selected Poetry and Prose of Vittorio Sereni


In such a light, when I think of my bibliography, in pretty much every case it involves a relationship with someone who has taken a chance or followed a hunch. In the late 1970s the most important of these was John Welch of the Many Press, whose publishing archive has now gone to the University Library at Cambridge, where yet more of my tyro correspondence will be waiting to be catalogued.


Between 1978 and 1985 he published four things, including a first collection, Overdrawn Account (1980). His was a truly personal project, self-produced pamphlets mainly, and issuing work by a coterie of friends and acquaintances. It was a very good place to start because its editor is a serious poet and the poetry was the be-all and end-all of doing anything.


1985, when John published Anaglypta (a pamphlet of sixteen poems all of which will be in my Collected Poems scheduled for 2017), was an important year because that was when, at the Cambridge Poetry Festival, Michael Schmidt asked to see a manuscript, Peter Jay suggested he do a Sereni selection with Anvil, and, a little while later, Kim Scott-Walwyn, commissioning literature for OUP, invited a submission of a critical book. But those three volumes eventually came out in 1988, 1990, and 1992 (I had started working in Japan in 1989, making pre-email communication with publishers even more precarious and patience-requiring).


The relationship with Carcanet lasted until 2005, and I don’t really know quite what it was brought it to an end (my sales were no worse than many of its poets). Michael Schmidt’s example showed me one policy of a good poetry editor which I have retained when working on a manuscript for Two Rivers Press, namely that you agree to take on the book, then you make all the editorial comments you think it requires, and then you leave the book to the poet to finalize as they think fit (with the knowledge that it will be published whatever they do). So it is, finally, their book even though published by you. But I remember Michael saying in a late letter that he would have to let me go because I was really a small press poet (or words to that effect), which brings me to the second part of your question.


A small press needs to do three things to succeed: it needs to be financially viable (which can mean patronage, but, in the age of print on demand, it needn’t); it should be guided by the taste of its editor, who has to be a knowledgeable insider in the particular field; and it ought to make commitments to the writing vocations and projects of writers (as distinct from an individual product or a market opportunity). In short, its bottom line is not the bottom line (though it achieves that miracle by paying careful attention to financial viability).

Peter Robinson painting. Click on image for larger view.
Peter Robinson painting. Click on image for larger view.


James Peake: Painting is of considerable importance to you, as an early ambition, a lifelong practice and a source of sustaining imagery and analogy. Worple Press and Shearsman have both used your paintings to jacket recent volumes of your poems. Is this something for which you’ve had to lobby? Authors are often surprised by how much control a publisher prefers to exert upon this commercially and aesthetically crucial part of the production process.


Peter Robinson: Yes, just as I try to play the guitar as if it was a piano and strum the piano as if it was a guitar, so mine are the paintings of a poet, and the poems the poetry of a painter manqué. Getting my own pictures on covers is something I did once lobby for: I wanted to put a painting of the inspiration for ‘The Yellow Tank’, a water tank we could see from our living room in Sendai, Japan, on the cover of my Selected Poems (2003). But the publisher didn’t like it, which is how the ‘Daphne and Apollo’ by Antonio Pollaiuolo found its way onto that jacket. I still have the two versions of my painting framed together over our piano, and will maybe see if it can appear on the Collected Poems in preparation.

Talk about Poetry, cover image
Talk about Poetry, cover image


When Shearsman Books took over publishing my poetry and related things the first image for Talk About Poetry was a collage by Tom Raworth, a poet-artist of course, and since then Tony Frazer has been amenable to using paintings on my covers (as were Worple’s Peter and Amanda Carpenter). I like using my own paintings on jackets, because however good or bad the pictures, and I make no great claims for them, they are distinctive, and give the covers a specificity that you don’t always get with something from an image-bank or a classic painting (the Pollaiuolo is also on the cover of the Penguin Classics edition of Arthur Golding’s Metamorphoses, for example). I am very grateful for this, because it helps me feel the books are mine, it being exactly the issue of the jacket that can make you feel your work’s been branded and marketed as the publisher’s product and not your art.

Buried Music, cover image
Buried Music, cover image


I’d like to discuss the evolution of ‘From Amsterdam’ and touch on its position in the collection, with particular attention to the vision of a girl recalling Anne Frank, both for the speaker in situ and via Sereni, a girl who in the earliest draft is young before she’s Jewish, framed by what is at first an ‘upstairs window’, later a ‘video’, and finally a ‘camera’:


in glimpses of that Jewish girl’s
smile caught by a camera
while bride and family appear
(her pilgrims queue now down canals)

and tells how relentless life recurs
with thoughts of a daughter
biking past swirled water
as she gets on with hers.


This conclusion (I would suggest) anticipates the narrator’s perspective later in the collection in ‘When the Leaves Drift (after Rilke)’ (‘passing me a woman’s face / up-lit by a mobile phone’) as well as reaching back to ‘Mum’s Box Brownie camera’ in ‘Ein Feste Burg’ much earlier. Your choice of ‘camera’, then, can be appreciated in a context of technical evolution, of historical imagination and its attendant double (at least) vision, as well as participating in a chain of associated words in the poem: ‘architecture’, ‘Spinoza’, ‘Amsterdam’, ‘camera’. Could you elaborate on how those changes came about?

Notebook poem, from Amsterdam, 11 May 2012: click on image for larger view.
Notebook poem, from Amsterdam, 11 May 2012: click on image for larger view.


Peter Robinson: As the two stanzas you cite above indicate, this poem found a form quite early in its evolution in variations on the ballad stanza’s rhythmical patterns which are rhymed, or part-rhymed, on the In Memoriam scheme that derives from the Petrarchan sonnet. So the challenge was always to bring the materials that came to hand into these quite tightly focused glimpses. One element of that material was the tiny bit of film of Anne Frank, taken by accident, which is available on YouTube. There she is seen leaning out of an upstairs window as a wedding party issues from the same building.


So the earliest reading that mentions the ‘window’ is a first range-finding attempt to catch my visual memory of that film. Then ‘video’ was probably produced by the need to have these semi-audible rhymes going on. At this point, reading and reciting over what is written, critical judgment comes into play, and among them critical elements is historical accuracy. That short snatch of black and white film was made, I imagine, with a small portable cine-camera, and it didn’t result in a video, which uses a different type of film stock, if I’m not mistaken, and is associated with a technology that didn’t exist in the 1930s.


So ‘video’ had to go (and with it ‘window’ too), and, reflecting on what we’ve said about losses and gains, I think the loss of ‘video’ is a clear gain, though the disappearance of the ‘upstairs window’ might be regretted, though I didn’t myself. There’s also the issue of how the rhyme-sounds in the poem work: they have to move between effects that can feel clinching and ones that don’t appear to be merely for the rhyme. That’s a matter of auditory imagination and its relation to the entire sonic character of the poem.


The last verse works for me because it reminds readers’ ears of this clinching aspect of rhyme with its internal couplet (‘daughter’ / ‘water’) and then does, to my ear, conclude convincingly on the much less predictable rhyme of a possessive pronoun with a third-person singular present-tense verb. Having the penultimate verse structured around much less prominent rhymes that allude to Anne Frank without naming her seems to me, at least, to prepare for the stronger and more clinching rhymes in the final verse.


On your point about the echoes across the poem and the book, I should say that some of those things I didn’t and couldn’t have thought of (though my mother, still alive, holding the box brownie camera in the mid-1940s, I see was born in the same year as Anne Frank’s elder sister). The structured book is made up of poems separately composed and published.


Some of the coherence you talk of as regards the collection is doubtless the product of a way of writing poems that must always be tacitly and barely consciously talking to itself, which may be happening at the level of my idiolect and the selection from it that is the language my mind and ear go to when composing.


The auditory echoes you note in the poem, which, again, I hadn’t consciously registered or put there, were doubtless produced by the need I feel when reading a poem to sense a kind of echo chamber effect. Perhaps an ear that’s on the look out for rhymes is being hyperactive, seeding into the verbal mix possibilities that don’t get consciously positioned by the poet but which do contribute to the sense that the language of the poem is forever hearing itself think.


James Peake: No one can talk with confidence about what is unconscious in themselves or their art, but I’d like to press you a little on any sense you might have of the value to the final poem of employing (as far as one can) both conscious and non-conscious decisions when revising. For example, even if the presence of the Petrachan-Tennysonian armature wasn’t a conscious one initially the experienced reader in you would see it quickly and set to work fulfilling or frustrating it as you felt appropriate, but additional to this wakeful craft, or set against it, is — if I understand — some degree of non-conscious (or perhaps less conscious is truer) craft, some degree of unquestioning that puts trust in poetic memory, tact and idiolect.


You’ve mentioned recourse to the ear and the mind and I wonder whether the voice itself is not also helpful as a tool of revision, a way of testing that allows you to both participate actively and passively?

From Amsterdam, 12 July 2012. Click on image for larger view.
From Amsterdam, 12 July 2012. Click on image for larger view.


Peter Robinson: The answer to a part of this question is a simple: yes. I read drafts out loud in the privacy of my own home. When I used to write in libraries (as a student, for instance) I would sit in quiet corners and put my hand over my mouth to vocalize under my breath. This seems essential for testing the relationship between a metrical- or cadence-driven passage and its intonation contour as a spoken act.


The form of a poem is, at least for me, such a balancing of rhythmical impulses that come from a patterning of metrical effects (not necessarily regular or standard) and the sounds of a spoken utterance — where the latter can have an unsettling effect on the former, while the former can have a de-familiarizing effect on the latter. So you have to read the proto-poem over and over to adjust both of these so that neither sabotages the line — or lines — so that they merge into a singular sound-sense.


As regards the non- or less-conscious in composition and revision, a way to think about this is perhaps to imagine attempting to calculate in advance the poetic effects you are hoping to achieve. In practice, I would say, there are too many elements acting simultaneously in the sound-sense nexus of an effective poem for you both to compose and calculate at the same time, which also means it’s not worth the effort, not least because the inevitably inaccurate calculation would stymie the flow required to compose effectively.


Thus it might be true to say that in writing poetry, and not only poetry, you have to work faster and more impulsively than you are consciously thinking. This is what being ‘inspired’ might mean. It is a way to access and trust the embedded experience of previous creative decision-making that constitutes in effect a particular poetic style out of, as you aptly put it, memory, tact, and idiolect. And the consequence of this is that, like a painter walking away from a canvas and squinting through half-closed eyes, you have to keep testing it on the voice and body so as to hear exactly where and how it doesn’t sustain an appropriate level of embodied attention.


This is probably how in the last verse of ‘From Amsterdam’ what on 7 May 2012 read ‘other life occurs’ was revised on the 11 May draft into ‘other <relentless> life <re>occurs so that ‘o … o’ became ‘re … re’ and there is, to my ear, a much stronger forward movement in both the poetic line and the sense of others’ lives evoked. Here the sound of the substituted adjective likely prompted the adjustment to the verb, and the reading poet then made a value judgment regarding the two versions — the latter being the one that survives in the published text.


James Peake: An example from the book of a remarkably balanced nexus of sound-sense is the title poem itself, particularly the closing lines that have an irresistible but not incautious momentum: ‘… a seaside / town where I could catch its tones / attuned to all the shingle pebbles / moved by a turning tide.’


There is also the drolly enjambed ‘long-stay / car park’, one of the few stabilities admitted (as I read it). It’s a lyric in which wit and direction, mimesis and reminiscence, light and shadow, ear and eye, the musical and visual application of the word ‘tones’, all support its candidacy for title poem, a status which if not elevation is unavoidably an assertion either of representativeness or its opposite.


At what stage in the putting together of the collection did you know or suspect or wish ‘Buried Music’ would be the title poem? Or is this kind of conferral—reading outwards from it as I’m doing — a readerly fallacy, a commercial by-product almost, given that a book entering the marketplace has to be called something?


Peter Robinson: Well it does need to be called something relevant. Looking in the notebook I was using at that time, I find a draft of a poem called ‘Indian Miniature’ (about to appear in a magazine, and slated for my next collection) dated 4 August 2013. At the top of the following page it says: ‘for John Pilling / Quoting Rilke at the Co op’.


Then there’s a line drawn across and another draft of ‘Indian Miniature’ dated 22 August 2013. This is about the time the well-known Beckett scholar and I started collaborating on an edition of Ruth Speirs’ translations of Rilke, which came out from Two Rivers Press in September 2015. John lives just down the road from us opposite our local Co-op, and one day we were joking between the shelves when I attempted to quote from Rilke’s ‘Wendung’ (Turning), an uncollected later poem in which he writes of the need to abandon the work of seeing and take up ‘heart-work’, or words to that effect.


Some pages further on in my notebook, there is a spread with two drafts of a poem called ‘Private Music’, where the second one is dated 29 August 2013. I’m reminded that Derek Mahon’s imitation of Cavafy which ends ‘the original music of our lives’ is probably somewhere behind this. It’s a poem discussed in my Poetry & Translation: The Art of the Impossible (2010), whose original contains echoes of Shelley, Tennyson, and Verlaine. There are then eight drafts of my poem, six of them all with the first title, written on the 29th and then two on the 30th, where the first, untitled, begins ‘Secret music’, with ‘Secret’ crossed out and ‘Buried’ written above. The second draft of that day has the final title.


So the title of the collection, whose earliest poems were begun in the summer of 2009 and which really started to gather momentum around election time in 2010, didn’t get its title until after 30 August 2013. We happened to be paying a visit to Swanage one late afternoon during that week and I was struck by the fact that there is a long-stay car park next to a churchyard with prominently visible gravestones there. It tickled me. The shift of title comes from that detail.

Private Music, notebook page. Click on image for larger view.
Private Music, notebook page. Click on image for larger view.



The enjambment you remarked on is visibly discovered on the first draft:


and the acceptable, local stones
in a graveyard by the long stay / car park
carpark, on the last day
the last of August and the first of September
what must be the Isle of Portland
through a lifting morning mist
or be moved by the turning tide


The back slash is marked in red pen, while the crossings out are in blue ink. But the salient detail and enjambment is discovered then dissipated in a flurry first of untrue details (a folk song, heard in childhood, associated with the Manchester Ship Canal: ‘The big ships sails on the alley alley o / on the last day of September’), then a distracting local sight from that holiday, before finding a version of the last line, which secretly takes it back to the ‘turning’ Rilke.


So the revisions over the next seven drafts are trying to get from the opening to the close via the key detail without unnecessary distractions. It involves making cuts and sticking to the musical theme by picking up the ‘stones’ and taking the ‘tones’ out of it, then ‘attuning’ them with the help of the ‘town’ to the shingle on the beach from earlier in the poem by means of this ‘it’, which is the buried music:


it accepts those local stones
in a graveyard near the long-stay
car park, here, a seaside
town where I could catch its tones
attuned to all the shingle pebbles
moved by a turning tide.


This is how, with all its little adjustments accepted, that 30 August draft reads.

Buried Music, notebook page. Click on image to see larger view.
Buried Music, notebook page. Click on image to see larger view.


The only change that needed making was to line five, which still reads: ‘of Southampton’s Wilson Steer’. The paddlers in the shallows nearby on the Jurassic Coast had reminding me of a painting I’d seen in the Southampton Art Gallery a year or two before, but the specific location of the painting is again a distraction.


At this point, the collection was called For You to Say, which is the title of another lyric that had appeared in the Notre Dame Review, but was then left out of the book. ‘Buried Music’ is a better title poem, I must have thought, linking up with the elegies for my father and a school friend in the first section (Dave Mather’s ‘grave-goods’ being imagined as ‘black vinyl discs, tapes, silver CDs, / headphones, and a new guitar’), and the theme of the ‘buried harbour’ (Giuseppe Ungaretti’s ‘porto sepolto’ and Ingeborg Bachmann’s ‘Totes Hafen’, alluded to in the central Isle of Wight sequence), all of which was already in place.


A memory of Matthew Arnold’s ‘The Buried Life’, which I haven’t reread for years, will have contributed to it too, not least because the period in which I wrote Buried Music coincided with my stint as Head of Department, years in which writing a poem has had to compete with countless other professional demands on my time and energy, years in which being able to write a poem was one of the things that has helped remind me who I was or might still be.


James Peake: In the light of the enormous number of materials and considerations that flow into any poetic composition, the requisite decisiveness on the part of the author might — paradoxically — be described as a wilful or cultivated lack of subtlety. An honest practitioner can only admit that while a poem is printed thus it might have been otherwise, fractionally or considerably, and the risk persists that certain ‘improvements’ were nothing of the sort.


This does help explain those instances of valued authors testing their publisher to the limit with last minute adjustments which, as urgent as they are or seem, can be costly and difficult to accommodate (I’m thinking of traditional print publication specifically). While this might be understandable enough, art is decision, or a series of decisions.


Digital publication might sidestep such fraught scheduling with its nascent ability to accommodate simultaneities, (as we’ve touched on) but the printed collection — idea and object — hasn’t yet fallen from the affections of most poets and will be with us for a good while yet. While a publisher may regret the intractability of the printed at times as bitterly as an uncertain author, it seems to me their considerations — cost, scheduling, competitors, and so forth — at a certain point must surely trump the artist? To put it another way, is an author of persistent and belated scrupulosity somehow failing their side of the endeavour?


Peter Robinson: ‘Art is decision’ — I like that. And if you’re not making decisions, then there is no deadline, as it were, where your processes of evaluation can come to the crunch, which means where you can make a mistake, decide wrongly, or regret letting something out to appear in a magazine, a book, an anthology … Some poets clearly think that the only decisive deadline is death, and I can see their point.


The inveterate tinkerers, who feel there’s nothing ‘beyond all this fiddle’, as Marianne Moore put it, but the grave, are probably not quite keeping to their side of the bargain, as you suggest, whether that bargain is understood as being with present readers, current publishers or both.


Money does talk here, of course, for the publisher is making an investment and expects some kind of return, so the number of proofs issued has to stop somewhere — and it’s interesting to ponder, in the digital age where the electronic issuing of a corrected PDF file (labour, hard- and soft-wear aside) is all but cost free, just how many proofs even the most scrupulous of revisers could possibly need before exhaustion makes its own decision.


In my case, I would be looking out for a point, not dissimilar to that in the earlier composition process, when changes that propose themselves are undone the next day, when diminishing returns for the effort start to manifest themselves at every syllable, or when, as Lucian Freud put it of a painting, you begin to feel you’re meddling with someone else’s work.


It’s likely a small press poetry editor’s job to take a real interest in this late stage, too, weaning the poet off the poems by setting deadlines for a production process that aims towards a publication date, a date that poets themselves, still committed to collections (as you note), are also likely to be looking forward to as an end point much, however equivocally, to be desired. Also, poets with any kind of sustained and long term readership, especially those who have something of a public reputation, will, to differing degrees, feel that the relationships those readers have developed with a published state of a poem should not be meddled with by officious writers who can’t let go.


And yet, if you look at the oeuvres of Coleridge and Ungaretti, to name but two, you wouldn’t want to compel them not to fiddle when the best known versions of famous poems only emerged after numerous revised editions of their volumes. Once again, it may be seen as a question of balancing responsibilities, though it also involves questions of particular temperament and compulsion. Money and the market talks again, as well, for only writers who have enough of a publishing profile in life to get second, selected, or collected editions of their works have the occasion to make such public repentance and amends-making.


James Peake: Let me invoke another great name at this point. ‘Lowell was willing to live with the idea … that there is no perfect version of ‘Waking Early Sunday Morning’. That we need not choose [Italics in original]. He often said that ‘something is lost in the revision even if something is gained.’ An approach to revision as forgiving as this, reported by Frank Bidart in his introduction to Robert Lowell’s Collected Poems (2003), is not necessarily consistent with the evolution-in-print we see in a Coleridge or an Ungaretti, but is congenial when digitisation has helped many readers become yet more comfortable with the simultaneous existence of myriad versions of a text, any one of which can be stored in perpetuity without prevalence over another, all of them professionally publishable at any moment.


The existence of competing versions of a text is not new historically of course, but seems a more current preoccupation because of the ease with which we can consult, say, countless editions of a classic text via a search engine, as soon as the desire strikes us, regardless of where the ‘originals’ are stored and free of the bounded-ness of a pamphlet or book.


Peter Robinson: It’s interesting that you say ‘forgiving’ for this idea of simultaneously available multiple versions between which we need not choose, because that does re-introduce the inevitable issue of value and ethics into matters of creative work, judgment, and decision. The idea that we ‘need not choose’, though, raises a number of conceptual qualms.


After all, I’ve tried but can’t literally read two versions of the same poem simultaneously, so I am obliged to choose between, say, the 1963 edition of Giorgio Bassani’s earlier poems, L’alba ai vetri, or the 1946 enlarged edition of a section from them, Storie dei poveri amanti, which we have in the university library here, or the 1982 final redaction available in his 1998 complete Opere volume.


I’ve read them all, but always have to decide which one I’ll look at now, and can be presented with a dilemma about which version I would prefer to translate, even if I decide I have to accept his final decisions for anything I might publish — at which point the pleasure of offering notes with variant readings raises its scholarly head. So that’s a recent historical example of a poet who revised between editions, leaving behind variants that allow the reader to prefer an earlier one, but obliged at least to acknowledge the existence of final decisions.


I think this example more or less catches where I stand on these issues: I’m not at all unhappy to acknowledge the existence of all my variant attempts, drafts, versions, regretted magazine outings, post-publication adjustments and so on, but I’m also inclined to believe that either writers themselves or their editors have to take responsibility for offering a ‘reading text’. Perhaps one way to resolve this seeming contradiction or dilemma is to be more understanding of the different things we can be doing when reading, and allow that online and print products can enable such varieties of literary experience: the ‘simple’ enjoyment of an author’s definitive reading text in a material book, the comparison of different print manifestations which have different typographical and design characteristics, the study of writers’ second and third post-publication thoughts evolving as they age, the exploration of creative processes through the study of manuscript remains, and the complex growth of knowledge about a work which occurs with such study, and which then needs to be held in tactful suspension in relation to the experience of a final authorial or editorial text.


Perhaps another way to articulate Lowell’s idea of not needing to choose would be to suggest that all these experiences have a place in the enjoyment and the study of literature and poetry, and that they need not be hierarchically ordered; but, nevertheless, in the experiences of a reading life, we do, in fact, have, practically, to choose which one we are taking part in at any particular moment.


James Peake: They aren’t to be blamed for making every attempt to attract buyers, or have their edition prevail in challenging conditions, but publishers will frequently claim for a collected that it is at best definitive (where posthumous), at worst representative, of either everything the poet wishes or wished to preserve, and is one of the best means of making available otherwise scattered or out of print work.


A ‘collected’ fulfills these ambitions to a limited degree, but such an edition also exemplifies the limits of physical publication, as its editor will frequently acknowledge (I’m thinking of the convention of stating the major or insoluble editorial problems, the necessary but regrettable exclusions). If, for the sake of argument, we refuse to privilege the ‘collected’, idea as much as object, a reader’s ‘tactful suspension’ (as you memorably describe the relationship in the mind of a reader between their existing knowledge of an oeuvre and the ‘reading text’ with which they are currently engaged) would seem to be better served by digital hyper-textual means, where essential instabilities can be more accurately and exhaustively tracked and communicated, and presumably in an almost infinite number of ways, graphic, diagrammatic, audio-visual, non-static and so on.


But such compositional transparency is itself problematic: traditionally a poet revises in order to improve, to get the line or phrase or shape or rhythm closer to a particular criterion of excellence or accuracy; they might even be said to revise in order to supersede, in which case the limitations of physical publication are overwhelmingly to be preferred.


Peter Robinson: A comparison with painting might both illuminate and exacerbate this dilemma. When looking at paintings you can often see the pentimenti, the adjustments of outlines, compositional changes, under-painting, and the like. Even though we experience paintings over time, just as we experience poems, still, the visual display of the art object and the relative visibility of over-painting makes it feel as if all the work that went into the painting is there on the wall in front of you.


By contrast, revisions to literary texts efface previous versions — an issue that has been exacerbated by the use of word-processors in writers’ compositional processes activities (though I understand that digital forensics can recover everything). So technology has enabled an experience of successive multiplicity of textual states, with the theoretical preservation of all states of the work, made available through hyperlinks in a form that no composing writer has, as far as I know, actually made use of in the process of arriving at a final text.


The digitalization of manuscript variants can thus create electronic objects that bear no real resemblance to the ontology of authorship, as experienced even by writers in current and recent times. Faced with such bewilderingly interactive objects that to my knowledge have yet to make any significant impact on the understanding of the texts treated in this way, I am inclined to side with publishers who want definitive collected editions to sell as objects that efface all other textual states — at least until variorum editions are called for, reminding us that such volumes existed before the advent of the technology that may have merely rendered charmingly old-fashioned their deep and dense pages of variants and sources.


James Peake: I’ve read that the major art institutions in the West only allow restoration that is reversible, in anticipation of divergent future interpretation and a consequent unwillingness to decide between, other than for a limited span. And of course some such freedom is open to editors: if there is sufficient cause (commercial and / or scholarly interest) there is always the possibility of a reordering, moving to the fore other aspects of a poet’s achievement, reversing or relativizing previous editorial decisions. Let me ask you about working poets themselves, however, making decisions between the poles of infinite possibility and the exactly right. Is it meaningful of Lowell to say (as reported by Bidart) that there’s loss even where there’s gain in revision?


Peter Robinson: I think it depends on what part of the compositional process we are talking about here. Late stage revisions always have the feel of potential losses, and it’s more than possible to find that changes made near the end of writing a poem get unchanged the next day, or soon after, because the burden of loss is not balanced by sufficient gain. In my experience there can be quite a lot of final dithering of this sort, and this is surely connected to Lowell’s idea as reported by Bidart.


I’m not sure I think that poets are ever really working between the poles of ‘infinite possibility’ and the ‘exactly right’ though. Both of these are states that, if you give them any thought, will produce immediate paralysis. The thought that you could throw the dictionary at a white sheet of paper, or that any individual compositional problem could be solved with an absolute freedom of total resources, is enough to bring on instant writer’s block. Similarly, the thought that the mot juste is lurking somewhere in the haystack of the dictionary and you had to read it from cover to cover to find it would, again, prevent forward movement.


Years ago, when first trying to translate, I would resort to thesauruses, but the experience of searching for words in lists, words that were not coming out of my head, so to speak, taught me a lesson or two about the nature of composition.


No, to my mind, the experience of being able to move creatively forward amounts to a sense of possibility connected with a specific task, the feeling that there are things (plural) to say, and words coming forward to say them, and alternatives present when a direction feels too constraining or the emerging syntax feels like it’s stiffening under you. I can’t use infinite possibility, but I can be spurred by a cluster of possible directions opening up; and I can’t go in search of the exactly right, but I can edge towards something that works, as we say, by choosing among a constrained selection of possibilities, by means of which to approach what I find I was aiming for once I’ve found it.


Another way to put this is to say that you can’t work with absolutely no limiting idea of what you want to do, and nor can you work with a predetermined idea of precisely where you need to go.


James Peake: In respect of an original lyric composition then, is it your experience that the initializing creative energy (not necessarily of a Keatsian sporadic sort, the phrase might include a more considered professional opportunism) is not only strongest but most decisive when the sense of to-be-done is largest, and falls away in the late stages because there is ‘less’ for the poet to do?


One editorial practice which is insufficient in and of itself is the privileging of drafts by mere chronology where this is known — and yet it seems to bear asking: does it matter if the original state or intention is irrecoverable to the poet in the ultimate compositional stages (and consequently for a belated editor), or are the poet or editor right to orientate their work on a poem in relation to their ideas about its origin even if they’re probably mistaken?


Peter Robinson: The arguments around the so-called intentional fallacy have, to my mind, got muddied and confused. The point of that W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley’s famous 1946 essay, if I recall, was to discredit the idea that there could be a correct critical interpretation of a poem grounded on discovering the writer’s intention for the work and involved in deciding to what extent that intention had been fulfilled. Abandoning such illusory notions does not entail an abandonment of the role of intention in writing itself, which is in any case impossible.


A further way to open up this matter is to ask at what point intention can be read off action: there are at least two possible uses for the identification of intent here. One is as the motivating force for an action, and the other is as the explanatory force for an action. This difference appears to depend upon viewpoint: I look into myself to find the intention that will get me out of bed in the morning; someone else sees me getting out of bed and attributes to me the intention to get on with my life.


The process of writing a poem, to my mind, involves the poet in an activity process that gets her or him from the first kind of intentional understanding to the second, or, put another way, involves moving from a first-personal relationship to the work towards an as-near-as-possible third-personal relationship to the work nearing completion.


Thus I might go from imagining that my poem-to-be needs to be about such and such to eventually realizing that it actually appears to be about something perhaps related (though not necessarily), but now, as far as I can tell, it is about this other thing. There’s pleasure to be got from feeling that you’ve achieved something resembling what you wanted to do, but, in my experience, much more pleasure to be got when you feel that the work has far outstripped anything that you might have planned, or, relatedly, that working has made it possible for you to stretch or evolve your range and repertoire well beyond what you have previously imagined and thus could have intended — opening up in glimpses the possibility of future poems at the same time. And these two recognitions (that you have done something resembling what you wanted, but surprisingly better or at least different) can, and often do, coexist.


James Peake: I could well imagine an inexperienced poet becoming easily mistaken about where he or she is on the ‘to-be-done’ scale, not least because of the continuing loss (for better or worse) of that originating state or intention.


Peter Robinson: Yes. So I suppose I’m saying that I couldn’t do without what you call ‘origins’ and am happy to recall them, or attempt to establish a chronological ordering of drafts, but, as the word suggests, pegging the poem to its origins rather denigrates the value of the work the poet has been able to do in using them as a starting point. And, to pick up on your first observation, the understanding of what point you have reached along the ‘to be done’ scale is always a matter of experimental judgment. The desire to have finished a work before you actually have is an ever-present temptation. However, as you suggest, a lot of experience of writing poetry can help with the accuracy of working intuitions about where you are, or better, where the poem is in its evolutionary course.


James Peake: And it’s every poet’s hope to have their writing experience met from the other side of the process, to have an editor in whom their ‘embedded’ knowledge is matched in professional expertise. The sort of varied and significant contribution made to contemporary poetry by a publisher like Shearsman Books is rare and remarkable, so perhaps we could close with a thought or two on the man behind it all.

Peter Robinson, left, with Peter Riley. For more on John Kerrigan, seen dimly in the background, see and Click on the image to see a larger view.
Peter Robinson, left, with Peter Riley. For more on John Kerrigan, seen dimly in the background, see and Click on the image to see a larger view.


A little while ago I was giving a reading in Sheffield attended by Peter Riley, a poet who has also been published by the Many Press, Carcanet Press and Shearsman Books, among others. At one point in our conversation about how things were going for each of us, I found myself exclaiming: ‘Thank goodness for Tony Frazer!’


Three things Tony has told me at different times fit my idea of a good editor: he thinks that in its very nature experimental poetry need not ‘come off’ completely, so he’s willing to take a chance when he sees something with interest, to him, and possibilities, even if they are not fully realized; he has his own taste, but it’s catholic — so his press is not the would-be Trojan horse for a clique; and, most importantly, he has a business model that involves low production costs and a high margin on niche market publications, which means he can take risks on young or old without bankrupting himself. This also means that he has been able to contribute decisively to supporting the writing lives of such a great many poets he respects from across a now vast community of poets he respects. Thank goodness for Tony Frazer indeed.

    Peter Robinson, writing
    Peter Robinson, writing

Peter Robinson has published volumes of poetry, short stories, aphorisms, translations and literary criticism, for some of which he has been awarded the Cheltenham Prize, the John Florio Prize and two Poetry Book Society Recommendations. As well as Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Reading, he is poetry editor for Two Rivers Press.


    James Peake photo
    James Peake photo

James Peake has worked in trade publishing for almost ten years, predominantly but not solely as a Contracts Manager for more than thirty market-leading imprints, including Jonathan Cape, Chatto & Windus, Harvill Secker, William Heinemann, BBC Books, Picador and Macmillan Children’s Books. As a freelance publishing consultant his clients have ranged from design and talent agencies to the pioneering digital start-up, The Pigeonhole. A published poet himself, he has also worked as a reader and editor of new poetry and fiction for small UK and US magazines.



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