Bill Griffiths

Transcripts from an interview with Bill Griffiths, including some additions and emendations made by him, 14 September 1993, Wembley Park.

Each poem [is] written as stanzas—stanzas from notes jotted down at different times. Over days or weeks [it] evolves into [a] poem with intended completeness. When copying or typing [I] often get second ideas. At printing, third. And so on… But [it’s] not entirely chance. A poem should have a unity. Idea, technique, layout are one level of unity but [I] would carry it through to [the] production process so the publishing, printing, total entity is part of the effect.

I see poetry as patterned speech. In traditional poetry the pattern becomes all important until the definition of a poem is that it rhymes. That poetry confirms a settled society. I am totally dissatisfied with a poetry that serves a culture of annihilation, so whereas I’m intrigued by patterns I’m likelier to use them in parody than as a structure. The structure is a line of idea, or rhythm, or sound; a stanza of a developed idea or image; and then a poem which brings similar or developing or contrasting stanzas together of flexible length [flexible in its length].

I maintain that humans are born blank, possibly with aptitudes but nothing more. Concepts of family, employment, and even literature are part of a managed reality. The victims of reality see themselves as spontaneous, acting from their own free will, and I admire that energy, but the poem needs to stand outside managed reality’ How much that reality depends on language is doubtful, but certainly varying, and even attacking, Standard English I think is an essential technique if the poem is to be independent.

I much admire Basho. The sense of totality is what we’re addressing. The Buddhist idea of the world seems much more inclusive than ours. Christianity is always excluding areas of human potential. I’m also not keen on Plato, because he suggests there is a divine truth from which the leaders of society can create a definitive reality. But, come Plotinus, who may have been educated in India, you’re back with a concept of universality. Modern English society, particularly, seems based on regarding whole sectors of the community as useless, so that culture which we enjoy is actually being bought at the expense of pensioners or prisoners, etc. Any valid idea of reality therefore has to take in anything and anyone, so I stress the marginalised groups. Education is selecting and narrowing, so at the margins you can actually get a wider idea of what a human is or can be.

My principal interest in the last ten years or so has been Anglo-Saxon poetry, which is both very tightly patterned but very wide-ranging. They had a considerable interest in literary effect which you can’t usually appreciate in translation, but their language gives you a great sense of what core English is (known as Slango-Saxon, actually). It was a very controlled society and the literature seems entirely Christian in orientation, but the energy, or creativity, in it seems to me just as valid, however dangerous the concept of a system of power descending from God to the “right” people is.

Well, this obviously is hypergraphia—the disease of compulsive writing.

The actual writing is undertaken with specific people, or groups in mind. Initially bikers in Uxbridge, then Alf and Pauline, and then their children like Joanne, and friends like Delvan.

Star Fish Jail was my most successful publication to date. I issued it originally as forty signed, hand-coloured copies, to raise money for Delvan. The Magistrates’ Court at Wimbledon, despite my pleas for reason, obviously regarded him as a subhuman—for that matter, they regarded me as subhuman, from their comments—and gave him a custodial sentence for breach of probation. In addition, they continued his fines so that, at the end of his sentence, he would simply have been re-arrested and returned to Wandsworth Prison, where he had already been twice assaulted by warders, basically because he is non-white (specifically, one quarter Arawak Indian, one quarter Jamaican African, half European). Full blood blacks are fairly safe in prison, because they stick by each other, but people of mixed race are the current target for special abuse. It was a nice irony that Star Fish Jail was based on Delvan’s own accounts of prison and earned the money that kept him out of prison. Ideally, I would have liked all the subscribers to have been magistrates, but this proved not possible.

The group of Praise Songs were written just as I was giving up the Poetry Society and setting off for Germany, so perhaps they are particularly bitter in their evaluation of authority. But I have an enduring sense, all through my writings, that organised society is deceptive and is working for something other than the benefit of its members. I picture justice as blindfold so that it can indiscriminately beat out at anyone who comes within its reach.

The “Winchester” poem covers two generations. Alf was remanded there when he was young and gave me the original stanza, and then his stepson Paul along with Delvan, set off to scour the southern counties some years back and they ended up in Winchester as well. I was surprised at the deterioration of conditions. It also seemed that it was New Minster where King Alfred the Great was buried that was demolished to provide a site for the first prison at Winchester. An antiquary turned up the day after the demolition, just as the beaten-flat bits of lead, etc. were being loaded onto the refuse carts—I thought this underlined our sense of progress [1790s].

I’ve issued a set of six local history pamphlets on Seaham, designed to counter the view that Seaham is entirely the product of the 3rd Marquis of Londonderry and the Church of England. Durham University has been publishing articles to rehabilitate the 3rd Marquis so I thought a series which included some of Dickens’ views on the same man was overdue. Beyond that there had been no collection of Durham dialect literature since Cuthbert Sharpe (first half of the nineteenth century), so I moved on to a Dialect Anthology and will be producing a companion volume of wordlists and a dictionary. With the end of mining in the county, dialect which goes back directly to Old English and Viking influences is scheduled for demolition in the next few years, but I’m hoping to use the Common Market policy of subsidiarity to win it a reprieve. I’ve also started writing in dialect but this has not caught on as yet, as the local papers are only printing standard rhyming English. Typical of this is the way another local historian boasts of the way he took schoolchildren to the docks at Seaham, got them to interview the workers and then write up their account in standard English [1950s].

“In the Coal Year” was written for the strike of 1984-85 and twins images of the strike with details of the rebellion in Haiti in Napoleon’s time. The series Coal was written when I first reached Seaham and was published by Writers Forum. It is a sort of fantasia on themes relating to coal as I don’t see why Seaham shouldn’t have its own legends just as Whitby does. [Dracula]

Another victim (but I do follow the precept that you only attack those who put themselves forward as above you in status) was Brian Greenaway, who was once a perfectly normal, happy, healthy biker. He served a sentence in Dartmoor when he was getting over drugs and had a vision which prison visitors helped him interpret as a message from God. He then renounced his sinful past and on his release has gone round as an evangelical preacher convincing others to turn from crime to God. I don’t see that the Church can really be presented as an innocent party, it’s just that the crimes the Church commits are never brought to court. Anyway in my poem he is released from prison just on that day that God decides to end the world, which is my idea of poetic justice. I published this with my first poem based on Delvan, who contrasts with Brian Greenaway in his reaction to prison.

Why am I so set against the reality that authority has designed for us? When I went around with bikers in Harrow and Uxbridge, there was almost constant but small run-ins with the law, and one day I was called in and interrogated by detectives about a series of local break-ins which I had nothing to do with, but I guess somebody had given them my name to get the pressure off themselves. I was not very well treated. They let me go but later that day I got into an argument in a pub and was challenged by three people. Because I felt really angry, I wouldn’t back down, but as a result I got a bad cut on the head from a glass and had to stop fighting from lack of blood. I was in a bad state for some weeks after that, and during that time I was picked up by the police and remanded in Brixton prison for possessing a small knife which I was actually using as a pencil-sharpener. The problem was that because of my injuries I couldn’t speak very clearly and this was taken as a sign of aggressive non-cooperation. I was put into solitary and did not appreciate the experience of being locked in a wing where all you had all night was continual screaming. Eventually a psychiatrist came and told me that if I didn’t give up my ambitions to write and get a sensible job, the court would send me to prison, so I compromised and got a job as a gardener and continued writing, but I have determined never to write the sort of poem that is simply entertaining, that helps people to carry on enjoying the world as it is.

From an interview by Bridget Penney and Paul Holman.

An edited version of this interview was printed in The Haiku Quarterly.

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