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The Allen Fisher Companion Eds: Robert Hampson & cris cheek (Shearsman Books)

The Allen Fisher Companion Eds: Robert Hampson & cris cheek (Shearsman Books)

For readers interested in the complex and challenging work of poet Allen Fisher, this publication provides a useful, and very readable, range of resources. The essays trace the development of Fisher’s creative output, from early Fluxus-related pieces, through the major projects of Place and Gravity as a consequence of space, to the more recent SPUTTOR. Together they offer an informative set of commentaries on the poet’s working practices, influences, and values.

The introduction by Robert Hampson provides a helpful initial survey of Fisher’s writing career, which began in the late 1960s with links to the ‘British Poetry Revival’. The essays that follow discuss the evolution of Fisher’s work in a more or less chronological sequence.
The first piece, by Will Rowe, provides an interesting analysis of Place, the poet’s ‘decade long investigation of the limits of knowledge and truth’ (as Rowe describes it). Rowe examines how Fisher deals in this poem with different types of ‘knowledge’ and their relationship to ‘desire, will, politics and truth’. Some of the key influences on Fisher are usefully traced, including the writings of Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem. Rowe also offers interesting reflections on the differences between Place and Fisher’s second major project Gravity as a consequence of space.

Pierre Joris follows this with a focus on the extent to which ‘health’ (both bodily and societal) is a key theme in Fisher’s early work. Redell Olsen’s essay, ‘Start Place in Flux’, offers insights on Fisher’s early work with a detailed account of his involvement in Fluxus-influenced activities in Britain in the early 1970s. Olsen traces the connections between Fisher’s performance-based work and texts produced during this period, and how these ‘find their way into the synthesis of materials that make up Place.’
Performance and its relation to the text is also discussed by cris cheek, in an account of a reading of ‘Vole’ and ‘Volespin’ (two of the poems in Gravity) which Fisher recorded on video tape. The nature of Fisher’s performance of these poems, which includes visuals and an element of improvisation, and the status of the recording as ‘documentary’, are discussed in relation to concepts of stability, damage, and process, key preoccupations in Fisher’s work.

The essays which follow mainly focus on Fisher’s magnum opus, Gravity as a consequence of space, ‘factured’ between 1982 and 2005. Particularly interesting are Will Montgomery’s examination of the racial context informing ‘Brixton Fractals’ (the sequence with which Gravity opens), Robert Sheppard’s reflections on Fisher’s Apocalyptic Sonnets, written in the late 1970s, as marking a transition between Place and Gravity, Scott Thurston’s close reading of ‘Mummer’s Strut’ from Gravity, and Clive Bush’s critical evaluation of the influence of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatari on Gravity.

Both Place and Gravity include extensive lists of resources upon which Fisher drew in facturing the work. Sheppard quotes Peter Barry saying that Place requires the reader to ‘reactivate a body of reading’ not as a preparation for reading the text, but as a process in which we ‘read the sources in the light of the poem and the poem in the light of the sources.’ This is a process equally critical to an engagement with Gravity. Sheppard describes Gravity, with its complex collaging and overwriting of source texts, and internal cross-referencing, as ‘no longer content-specific poetry. Fisher is not making references for readers to ‘study’; he is making art for readers to engage with.’
Fisher has provided detailed notes on the use of source material in Mummer’s Strut, and Thurston’s analysis of this poem is a helpful exploration of the poet’s method. ‘To read Fisher’s work,’ Thurston writes, ‘is to experience a complex tension between rapid juxtapositions of different materials and patterns of continuity generated through repetition and rhyme: between discontinuity and continuity. A reader must actively negotiate the jumps and continuities in order to build his or her own reading of the poem.’

The Allen Fisher Companion concludes with an interview with Fisher (and his partner Paige Mitchell) conducted by Shamoon Zamir, which forms part of Fisher’s book Imperfect Fit (University of Alabama Press, 2016), and an edited version of an exchange of texts between Fisher and the poet Karen MacCormack, plus commentary by others, originally published online by the Slought Foundation as Philly Talk 19.

‘Discontinuites and continuities’ extend across Fisher’s major texts, each individual poem being ‘entangled’ with others. Gravity is a highly structured work, as is Place. This aspect of Fisher’s oeuvre is not really addressed in this volume, which for me is something of a gap. Gravity is organised around a number scheme subjected to damage by physically compressing a cardboard tube on which the sequence was marked. The ‘damage’ can be seen in the breaks in the alphabetical sequence of the titles and the parallel presentation (vortex) of texts in the middle of the book.

Fisher uses contemporary ideas of space-time, derived from physics, to structure Gravity, in the same way Elizabethan writers used Neoplatonic number symbolism in the ordering of their work. A contribution on this would have been a useful addition. But this criticism does not detract in any way from the many insightful essays mentioned above. This welcome collection adds significantly to the available resources on Fisher’s work.

Simon Collings 14th June 2020

CLASP: late modernist poetry in London in the 1970s Edited by Robert Hampson & Ken Edwards, Shearsman Books 2016

CLASP: late modernist poetry in London in the 1970s  Edited by Robert Hampson & Ken Edwards, Shearsman Books 2016

In Tears in the Fence 57 (summer 2013) the Australian poet Laurie Duggan reviewed Cusp, Geraldine Monk’s terrific piece of history and recollections which looked back at ‘British poetry in that age located generally between the bomb and the world-wide web’. The review concluded with the statement that ‘This history is of its nature a ragged one though the work produced has by now equalled, perhaps exceeded, the hopes of its authors’. Geraldine Monk’s book was published by Shearsman in 2012 and now, four years on, this new history of late modernist poetry in London in the 1970s seems like a sequel. It has an intriguing name which almost suggests that one can hold the past close to one. That said, I am reminded of an early paragraph in Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot:

How do we seize the past? Can we ever do so? When I was a medical student some pranksters at an end-of-term dance released into the hall a piglet which had been smeared with grease. It squirmed between legs, evaded capture, squealed a lot. People fell over trying to grasp it, and were made to look ridiculous in the process. The past often seems to behave like that piglet.

As Robert Hampson puts it in his introduction to this eminently readable burst of flame which sheds light onto an otherwise darkened area (darkened that is by the Poetry Police who seem to tell us that nothing has really changed since the world of New Lines more than half a century ago!):

CLASP is an exercise in collective remembering—with, as Lawrence Upton’s essay suggests, a consciousness of memory work as also a process of selecting, forgetting and inventing.

Hampson refers to a counter-culture in the 1960s which revolved around institutions such as the Institute for Contemporary Arts in Dover Street, the Arts Lab in Drury Lane, and the independent bookshops such as Indica Books on Kingsway, Better Books in Charing Cross Road, Bernard Stone’s Turret Books in Kensington and Compendium in Camden Town. These venues ‘not only provided access to books and magazines, but also acted as centres for information-exchange and making contacts.’ This was after all the world and time of Andrew Crozier’s The English Intelligencer so intelligently written about in Alex Latter’s recent account from Bloomsbury, Late Modernism and The English Intelligencer.
One comes away from reading this new collection of reminiscences reeling with the excitement and energy of a world brought back into focus; this is all heady stuff! It reminds me of a series of History books put out by Blackwells in the 1970s, They Saw It Happen. A flavour might be given here by mentioning Iain Sinclair’s account of his journey from London to Wales to search of the émigré member of the Carshalton Chapter, Chris Torrance. After reading J.H. Prynne’s short review of Green Orange Purple Red, published by Crozier’s Ferry Press (taking its name from the Woolwich mode of river-crossing), Sinclair ‘was out of the door, on the road, back home to Wales’:

‘I walked over the hills, through decommissioned mines, conifer plantations, midge clouds, sunburn, blisters, rusty streams, bubbling tarmac, to Torrance’s Neath Valley farmhouse. It was an excitement to make contact with what was already a very active network, the magazines and contributors with whom Chris had been involved, his transmigrations from Carshalton to Bristol to Wales.’

A brief list of some of the short accounts given in CLASP will tease you into getting a copy without delay: Robert Sheppard ‘Took chances in London traffic’, Elaine Randell was ‘Tangled up in politics’, Paula Claire was ‘Working with Bob Cobbing through the 1970s’ while Tony Lopez was moving from Brixton to Wivenhoe to Gonville & Caius. John Muckle’s ‘Inklings’ contrast with Peter Barry ‘Climbing the twisty staircase’ and David Miller reckoned it was ‘A good decade for getting lost’.

Ian Brinton 10th February 2016

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