Roy Fisher’s City: an interview with Peter Robinson on the publication of Roy Fisher: The Citizen and the Making of City (Bloodaxe Books, February 2022)


Adam Piette: Roy Fisher: The Citizen and the Making of City gives us the 1961 Migrant Press text of this extraordinarily influential book in the context of its prequel life as the 1959 prose sequence The Citizen, its two variants, and its sequel in Then Hallucinations. The story of its evolution is complex, with Michael Shayer playing a significant role – do you think helpfully?


Peter Robinson: I recently received a letter from Michael Shayer in response to his reading of the book and my introduction, which casts further light on the process, and contests my deduction (from Roy Fisher’s letter to Donald Davie in response to receipt of a complimentary copy of Thomas Hardy and British Poetry) that Michael wrote the music hall ending to ‘Do Not Remain Too Much Alone’. Michael calls it ‘pure Roy’, though I’ve not seen a text of it in typescript with that ending, and he doesn’t acknowledge it in the letter to Davie. Many questions remain. Did Roy proof-read and sign off the 1961 pamphlet? Did Michael Shayer, as John James asks in a poem, create the first punk cover with those cut-out tabloid letters? Michael also doubts the ‘art’ (Fisher) and ‘ruin’ (Shayer) contrast that Roy makes in response to the publication of 1961, suggesting that he was interested in art too. But this probably indicates different inflections to the word ‘art’, with Michael’s very high valuation of structure and completeness, art-values, setting the stage for the idea of the 1961 text as a ‘ruin’, while Roy’s re-edits are nearer to ‘artistry’, allowing for a far more flexible idea of what completion and finish might mean. The young Fisher was a very uncertain and reluctant publisher when setting out, and it’s unlikely that without Michael’s promptings it would have come together at all. One reviewer has already said in print that he likes 1961 best, which I can’t see myself. Michael’s not the Ezra Pound to City, in that he doesn’t ‘finish’ it, but creates something to which Fisher then feels compelled to respond so as to ‘get it right’.


AP: How important do you think the Migrant Press edition was for him? His friendship with Gael Turnbull was key as well to his career as a poet, in opening his practice to American modernist work. Does the Migrant Press edition show that American influence, do you think?


PR: Again, the Davie letter makes it seem that it wasn’t especially important (he says he doesn’t have a copy), and the use of ‘Starting to Make a Tree’ as the title poem to a collection submitted to Tom Machler that same autumn 1961 suggests that he was willing to dismember it for a trade publication (which didn’t then materialise). His written comment to the effect that Stuart Montgomery saw the role that City could play in presenting him in the Fulcrum Collected Poems 1968 again suggests uncertainty around this business of creating a profile and a ‘self’ to be used as a way of promoting the work. Certainly, Roy’s friendship with Gael Turnbull brought him into contact with American poets he wouldn’t otherwise have encountered, but he was imitating Stevens in 1958, and the styles of City whether in poetry or prose are not especially American. He hadn’t read Williams’ Paterson, he says, when he was composing its elements, and the poems included in it might have more in common with Brecht or Robert Graves.


AP: Your friendship with Roy goes back a long way – can you say a little about that, and what light your conversations with him might cast on the significance of City as a poem about Birmingham, about post-industrial Britain, as a text about the mind in the city and its border zones at night.


PR: We didn’t talk about that sort of thing. Driving through Buxton or Stoke-on-Trent in the days when he could collect me from train stations for a day in Earl Sterndale, he would illustrate his habit of evoking the spirit or mood cast by bits of urban architecture or ancient earthworks and the like. I just listened. I had read the things he says about City in interview, so that didn’t need resaying. Also, I’ve never been particularly good at asking poets about what their poems mean, why or how they wrote them. I once asked John Ashbery how he came up with the rhyme of ‘summer’ and ‘soccer’, to which he replied, ‘I can’t remember, it’s so long ago’. So, we discussed whether ‘The Judgment’ and ‘Do Not Remain Too Much Alone’ from the 1961 City should be in Slakki. The answer was a firm ‘no’ to both. Then there was the time on the phone late in his life when I suggested that a variorum City might be something to consider next, to which he didn’t say an outright ‘no’ but nor did he welcome the idea. We also discussed, while doing Slakki, how Stuart Montgomery had been instrumental in giving City the kind of prominence in Collected Poems 1968 that I responded to so strongly when coming across it in late 1971 or early 1972. The poem was formative for me, and I can still vividly remember the sense of recognition in realising that someone had written about exactly the primary scenery of my childhood in the cities of the northwest. A curiosity about that is Michael Shayer also wrote to me about a visit he made to Liverpool with Roy for a reading around 1960, and how their car journey one foggy evening may have contributed to the works’ various inspirations.


AP: What kind of citizen was Roy Fisher? What do you think the poem says about the ontological status of the citizen in the 1960s? Does it still speak to our own times and city-minds?


PR: Roy was a highly sceptical person with a vividly imaginative inner life, great powers of observation, and a unique way with English syntax. That probably makes him an unusual citizen, one inclined to diagnose the operations of power in such things as the phenomena of industrial cities, domestic architecture, and the habits of their inhabitants. What you call the ontological status of citizens in the 1960s may have been underlined or intensified by the discovery that they appeared to be, in their own lifetimes, more durable than the overwhelming structures and edifices that had been constructed around them beginning about a century before. That’s what Baudelaire had in mind by the city changing more quickly than the human heart, and A Furnace evokes several generations of provincial Symbolists. One difference might be though, that, as in ‘The Poplars’, where the subject is afraid of becoming a cemetery of performance, so Baudelaire’s slow changing human heart has speeded up over a century of urban modernity – and the citizen, according to Roy, wants and needs to change and move within the perpetual revolutions of the spaces around. Does this still speak to our own times and city-minds? Well, I can’t see how it doesn’t.


AP: Your role as literary executor builds on a lifetime’s work accompanying and supporting Roy Fisher’s work, with the Bloodaxe editions of the collected work, The Long and the Short of It: Poems 1955–2005, the 2010 gathering of unpublished work An Unofficial Roy Fisher, the prose book, An Easily Bewildered Child: Occasional Prose 1963–2013 with Shearsman, and finally Slakki: New and Neglected Poems with Bloodaxe, collecting unpublished 1950s, 1960s and 2000s work. Did you have a hand in Dow Low Drop, the 1996 selected which The Long and the Short of It superseded? And can you tell us a little about how you worked with Roy on these editions?


PR: I didn’t have any input into Dow Low Drop. It must have been put together in about 1995, just a couple of years after my brain tumour operation, when I was recuperating in Sendai, Japan, with a new little family (my elder daughter was born in July 1994). But I do remember going into my office one day in maybe 1996 or 97 when I had received an email (then a new thing) informing me that Roy had had a stroke. It came to me that now or never was the time to get back in touch and do something – and from that thought came the collaborations with John Kerrigan and Robert Sheppard, The Thing about Roy Fisher, and News for the Ear. They were collaborations because I was afraid my state of health and distance from the UK wouldn’t facilitate solitary labour, and being collaborations, they had greater reach than I could have achieved alone. The Unofficial Roy Fisher is another book of that kind, which I was able to do on my own after my repatriation in 2007 and my collaboration with Tony Frazer at Shearsman was up and running. The other books you mention exemplify a slow shift from Roy doing it with a bit of advice from me to me doing it with help and advice from Roy. My contribution to The Long and the Short of It was the suggestion, for better or worse, about what he might do with the shorter individual poems after he had built sections from the longer works, the sequences, the collaborations with artists, poems dedicated to others, comedies, and so on. He was set on not doing a chronological book like, roughly, the OUP Poems volumes, and had a lot of one-off pieces, so I suggested he sequenced them to indicate links and themes. This may explain why, for instance, ‘For Realism’, commented on by Davie in Thomas Hardy and British Poetry (1973), is followed by ‘It is Writing’, written in 1974, about a distaste for ‘the moral’ in writing. I also made a case for the recovery of ‘One World’ and ‘Kingsbury Mill’ which was acted upon, and for a couple of others in the OUP Poems which were confirmed as not to be republished. It was also my suggestion to add the dates of composition to the index using Derek Slade’s bibliography. With the other books Roy sent me materials and I organised them, then we had discussions about whether there were other things to go in, or things that had to come out, or if any of the ordering was inappropriate. The MA thesis on Norman Mailer was never likely to make it into An Easily Bewildered Child, and a case was made by me for ‘The Lemon Bride’ to go into Slakki but to no avail. It’s worth noting too that Roy came up with the titles for those gatherings of prose and the last poems, and I jokingly offered The Long and the Short of It for the final lifetime ‘collected’, not considering it a serious suggestion, but he obviously liked it.


AP: Your edition of A Furnace in 2018 with Flood Editions is a remarkable piece of editing too – can you compare the editing experience of A Furnace and the City variants, and maybe say what you think the relationship is between the two long poems?


PR: On the surface, the editing of A Furnace was a straightforward task. There was a little toing and froing with the publishers on each side of the Atlantic to allow the publication, which Roy was keen on, and then there were a few issues to be agreed, such as how the Preface from the first edition, which Roy had not wished to write, should be treated. My view was that it had to be included, but it would go into an appendix. Roy was going to write a new brief preface, which got briefer every time we discussed it, but then he died leaving me to produce an introduction. I also wanted to include ‘They Come Home’. He had told me it was an outtake from the longer poem. A few textual inconsistencies had crept in through the reprinting between editions, almost all of them to do with the loss or gain of stanza breaks. And there was a correction to the first edition which had to be included. The thing that changed everything, though, was Roy’s dying when I was just getting going on the practicalities. The effect of this was to make available to me the two manuscript books in which he had written it, and this made evident how carefully planned the whole work had been, and how Roy had written a self-commentary on its process. I was able to draw attention to these materials in my introduction, written back in Japan in 2017, and to quote some passages from them, but they didn’t alter the editorial task, which was to present a thoroughly correct text, and the Flood Editions editor, Devin Johnson, was a great help with that too. The emergence of A Furnace is, thus, entirely unlike the composition of City, which was not planned at all, and different again from The Ship’s Orchestra, which was planned to not know where its next meal was coming from – planned to be unplanned, as it were. City is a work of salvage and repurposing, not unlike the ways in which many of the buildings in our cities have been saved and then put to different uses from those their original designers intended. The relationship between City and A Furnace might be found in the interactions of the natural and the man-made which feature in both works, but whereas in the former they are perceived and encountered, in the latter they are understood, deployed, and promulgated. So, within his oeuvre these two key works can appear mutually supportive, and I think of the later as an attempt to understand and give shape to the impulses being identified by serendipity in the earlier work.


AP: Can you say a little about possible future editing you might be contemplating with Roy’s work?


PR: The most important thing to do next, I think, is to establish a definitive edition of Roy’s poetry. The response to The Long and the Short of It was not entirely positive from some of the poet’s long-term readers: they couldn’t find their favourites by any evident ordering logic and had to resort to the index, as do I. This job is complicated by several salient facts: Standard Midland has been added at the end of the enlarged reprint of The Long and the Short of It breaking up the ordering principle with a stand-alone collection. If this were done with Slakki it would mean Roy’s posthumous collected poems ended with a poem written in the early 1950s. That won’t do. Then there are all the many other ‘neglected’ poems, of which more emerge all the time. Jill Turnbull recently reported the existence of ‘No Snake without Fire’, ‘An Eye for an Eye’ and ‘Pressure on a Poet’ in the National Library of Scotland’s holdings of the Fisher–Turnbull correspondence. I’m pondering whether it wouldn’t make sense to publish a book of all the poems that Roy allowed into print, whether books, pamphlets, or magazines, in one volume, and then the entirely ‘neglected’ poems in a separate collection, to respect the poet’s wishes and take account of his changing decisions over a lifetime. A further issue is that not all the collaborations with artists are included in The Long and the Short of It. For instance, Roller and Cultures are just two that offer great page-design challenges for a collection of poems. Indeed, ideally, there might be a specialist art book with colour plates that ‘represented’ the collaborations with artists in a respectable fashion. What’s more, the existence of the intact Fisher–Turnbull correspondence in Edinburgh, stretching to some five hundred letters in all also looks like a possible future book – and then there are the notebooks in Sheffield. Most of it, in those words from City, has never been seen, and I hope we can find ways of making it more visible over the coming years.


March 2022


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