The PK Featured Poet Lawrence Upton
" Some years ago I got fixated on black Ryman felt tip pens and blue Greek exercise books. I'd sit with a bottle of retsina and a big blue book full of white pages which I'd cover with spidery writing... Some of it was ok.." Lawrence Upton
Lawrence has produced an enviable body of work in his career as a poet. As well as challenging perceptions of what poetry is his work is always engaging and innovative. Here Lawrence has presented a sample of work which is representative of the best of other poetics. Because of the length and structure of these pieces I have placed them on two following pages. Links to these will be found at the end of this article. (Jim Bennett)
Featured Poet 5 Lawrence Upton
Please briefly outline your life and career.
I was born in London in 1949 - what's now St Thomas's Hospital - and my childhood was spent in Vauxhall. I am an only child and I have lost contact with those family members who have not died. I have no effective family; and I have no regrets about that: I have good friends.
I went to Clapham College Grammar School, a bit of a dump with the appearance of quality, where I learned a great deal but very little that helps one pass exams. I did quite well in the first two years, ok in the next 2, passing English and Maths in the 4th year, and terribly thereafter, once I discovered that the main thing was to be registered in the morning and afternoon and then one was largely free... but then, to invert a line, which I believe comes from Ursula Le Guin, the teachers didn't know what I was studying.
On my fourteenth birthday, mid-February, I stopped being a Roman Catholic communicant although my parents did not notice until Easter and they expressed alarm when I declared myself a disbeliever. That was a major thing to have done, I think; it seems to have saved me a lot of unhappiness, though it created much for my parents.
In 1976 I went to Kingston Poly, now University, just south west of London, the single best thing of that kind I ever did because the English team were superb. It changed my life in a number of ways. Most importantly, I learned an immense amount; also I discovered that I am actually quite good at passing exams; and, less importantly, I met, fell in love with and moved in with a woman who, ten years later, turned out to be barking mad, unfinished business from way back, making up stories about being beaten up and much else. That went to court where it took 5 appearances and a forensic scientist to support my story.
Not that I had been a bundle of laughs to live with. I wrote in a poem (about to appear elsewhere):
- I climb the dark passage and lock my door.
- I drink water. I seat myself. I write.
That was of a room where I spent some time in Thessaloniki. At home, there were no locked doors; but for the rest I think it goes some way to capture the effervescence of my behaviour.
I wrote a book about that break-up. It was 200 pages long and unreadable - full of details of the cynicism and obstruction of the police; the lack of interest in justice of the Crown Prosecution Service; the incompetence and veniality of the legal services; the eagerness of the local newspaper to report my acquittal so that it sounded as if I was guilty; the willingness of a doctor to write a report supporting a claim of domestic violence without actually examining the supposed victim, relying entirely upon the victim's dramatic performance... I shan't go on. I could; but I get like the Ancient Mariner; though some of the minor narratives are quite engaging if you have no faith in humanity.
Before all that, I'd done a post-graduate certificate in teaching History and English, and an M.A. in English and American Language and Literature, at the start of the 80s, and become a teacher: there were 2 children and a cat to be fed.
The first microcomputers were coming into schools and I finished up teaching I.T. I was fascinated by seeing the application of logic; I've always been pleased by logic. I did a tour of computing departments, doing this course and that to build up my knowledge.
I also taught Photography and Media Studies and Theatre Studies; anything to make the day bearable... I finished up, after a year studying computing full time, paid for by the Dept of Trade and Industry, being a lecturer in computing and then Head of Computing at an F.E. college. I retired from that in the mid 90s, by which time there was little teaching going on and the pressure was on everyone to produce beautiful paperwork and pass everyone.
I enjoyed teaching, but the management of teaching establishments like to screw it up. That brings out the trade unionist in me. I have always been active in trades unions so I have always had metaphorical bricks hurled at me. With domestic chaos on top, it broke my health.
How/when did you start writing? Was there anything that particularly influenced you?
Fourteenth birthday again. I was writing before but intermittently. Some time in my fourteenth year it must have increased and I took it upon myself to write every day from my birthday. By and large I have stuck with that.
I can't remember particularly anything that influenced me at the start. I knew sod all and had no real idea what I was doing. For my birthday a nice old black heavy Remington which shook the ceiling below no matter how much insulation was put in between the typewriter and desk. My parents must have loved me.
I read whatever came my way quite indiscriminately. I had what seemed then most of H G Wells, sf and otherwise, culled from junk shops. I'd been into that for years. I remember getting Philip K Dick when people were saying Who? and feeling superior. But poetry - I was reading Tennyson a lot, masses of nineteenth century stuff. It didn't speak to my condition, but I didn't expect it to. That was where pop music came in.
Then somehow or other I came across Whitman which wrecked my assumptions pleasantly for some time. Then Shelley who remains very important... I am not sure that I have this right. There was a time when I seemed to be hearing of a poet of major importance every day and I just ploughed my way through it. I borrowed books, bought books. I used the local library. Most of it was poetry. If I went out for something and couldn't find it, then I read whatever was there.
I didn't always connect the reading with the writing, though sometimes I would consciously copy the form and style of a poem that particularly impressed me.
And then there was the literature teaching at school... It was ok, but I got more out of talking and comparing notes with others at school who were writing. In the sixth form I started going to poetry readings, again quite indiscriminately
Do you have any strong influences on your writing now?
All sorts. The main ongoing source of influence would be the Writers Forum workshop which Bob Cobbing runs and has been running since the Corn Laws were repealed. Apart from Bob himself, current regulars who expand my thinking are Adrian Clarke, Sean Bonney, Jeff Hilson, Mike Weller, Wayne Clements... But the roll call down the years is even more impressive. Robert Sheppard and Patricia Farrell used to be regulars. And Ulli Freer. Maggie O'Sullivan.
I try to remain attentive to others who have impressed me. Paul Dutton in sound work remains very important to me both technically and imaginatively. I like to keep an eye on what cris cheek's up to; it's nearly always exciting... Bill Griffiths... Allen Fisher. I feel I have been very lucky to have been around all these people.
Sub Voicive Poetry gives me a blast every couple of weeks. I've just seen Andrea Brady and Adrian Clarke perform. I knew they'd both be good. I didn't know how good they'd be. Of course I get to choose who is asked to read there. It's been wonderful!
Platform too is important - I saw Melissa Wolsak read there a few years back; and that was me hooked. I'm reading and reading and reading her "Pen chants" now. And the talks going on at Birkbeck, but started by Bob Perelman when he was at Kings, they're useful.
I don't know what influences me as opposed to what I enjoy or just read. Looking in a bag I used yesterday, I see Walcott's Collected 1948-1984... I learned a tremendous amount about the performance of poetry watching Jerome Rothenberg read in memory of Eric Mottram in 1997. It was one of those readings! But I may well pick up more from places like the workshop. Eric Mottram had an influence on me, challenging thinking - when I did my M.A. at Kings he taught Melville, though I had known Eric long before that, expanding my understanding and regard for an author who was already very important to me
And then there are the various Internet sources... lists and magazines
Other influences would be painting - all of it! And music. I have this thing, I think it's called an obsession, with John Coltrane. And next week I am going to stare, I hope intelligently, at the Lanyon exhibition at Tate St Ives, for the second time. I spend a lot of my poetry, consciously and unconsciously, trying to do in verse what those two and others do in painting and music.
I should also mention Alaric Sumner, who died just under a year ago. I knew him well over twenty years. He is an extremely interesting writer himself, so I learned from that, and he had a great interest in my poetry and I learned a lot from his comments on it and questions about it.
I am thinking of more and more names, so I am just going to stop, because an endless list isn't much use
How do you write? Do you have any particular method for writing - time of day?
I don't wait for the poetry to come. I just write. And when it comes I write it down too. I work visually and with sound so sometimes I am at a drawing board and others at a screen. Or I use mikes and low-tech audio machines. I'd buy hi tech if I could afford it. Most of the linear poetry goes into reporter notebooks.
When I walk, and my tendency is to walk a lot, I tend to take a handheld dictation machine because I don't have to slow down - and you get odd and exciting rhythms imposed on the verse rhythms.
Some years ago I got fixated on black Ryman felt tip pens and blue Greek exercise books. I'd sit with a bottle of retsina and a big blue book full of white pages which I'd cover with spidery writing... Some of it was ok. Then I imported the exercise books so I could keep the flow going away from Greece. Sometimes I get fixated on places to write. I get a fad the way a cat suddenly starts sleeping in a new place
I type up the notebooks and then rewrite and rewrite. And then almost nothing goes out to magazines until I have tried it at the workshop, usually after a period maturing in the dark. The mere thought of going to the workshop is enough to make me see problems with a poem; and then the actual fact of reading there finds a whole lot more. It's a kind but rigorous audience.
I throw away much of what I write.
Why do you write poetry?
What else is there to do? Anyway, I can't stop
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Just that I don't have much time for the autobiographical, that which has been characterised as "got up, had breakfast, looked out the window"; nor for what Robert Sheppard has called the post-war English lyric - go somewhere, preferably on a bike, look, have an experience, go back, write it up.
I like to mix up voices and get them bonding and arguing and misunderstanding. I like to see, perhaps contradictorily, how far I can push the autobiographical; and the first poem in my selection is an example of that. Even autobiography is going to be a work of fiction; so start from that. Apart from my friends, who relate to me more than my poetry, no one gives a damn about the story of my life; so I don't see any point in telling it in any detail.
His solo visual publications include: Initial Dance (2001); Game on a line (2000); Sta! (1999); House (1999); Easy Kill (1998); Forest in the (1988); Found texts for voice and action (1982); 81 November 7; catalogue to Upton; Kate Nicholson and Harvey Shields for solo exhibitions at LYC Museum & Art Gallery; (1981)
His solo linear publications include: Meadows (2000); huming / queuing (1999); Unsent letters (1997); Messages to silence (1995)
His collaborative publications include: Curve - with Jennifer Pike & Bob Cobbing 2000; plouk with Bob Cobbing 2000; flong with Bob Cobbing 2000; Fuming with Bob Cobbing 1997; Collaborations for Peter Finch with Bob Cobbing 1997; Domestic Ambient Noise ## 1-300 with Bob Cobbing 1994-2000
Also: Word Score Utterance Choreography (1998) with Bob Cobbing; Regarding Maggie O'Sullivan's Poetry (1998)
Upton's writing has been published recently or is about to be published in alterra; And; Both Magazine; Cauldron and Net; Core; cul-de-qui; Dandelion; Endnote; Famous Reporter; Filling Station; Flim; Masthead; Narrativity; NHI Review; Performing Arts Journal; Poetry New York; Poetry Now; Rampike; Riding the Meridian; Stride; Talus; Transparent Words; Van
All text and poems copyright © Lawrence Upton 2001
A selection of poetry 1
A selection of poetry 2
Lawrence's Listing at the British Library
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