Friday, 21 January 2011

Tom Raworth speaks to Andy Spragg

Tom Raworth's involvement with poetry extends far beyond the business of just writing poems. He's written over forty books of poetry and prose since 1966, and published individuals such as Ed Dorn, LeRoi Jones, Allen Ginsberg and Charles Olson through the magazine Outburst in the early 60's.

Raworth's work should be read by anyone with an interest in contemporary poetry; it is playful and inventive in a way that attests to his commitment to – in his own words – 'keep it fun, not drudgery'. For an appropriate overview of his work I'd recommend the two books out by Carcanet, Collected Poems and Windmills in Flames.

{This interview was conducted by e-mail, thanks goes to Tom Raworth for his time}

Did you engage much with poetry when growing up?

I wrote a poem, or rather rhyme, when I was four and a half (old story). There were always books around. Battered furniture, bare linoleum, a copper to boil clothes in the kitchen, but bookshelves floor to ceiling. Before my father went off to the war he made me a handwritten and bound book of poems.... things like Tennyson's 'The Revenge', Southey's 'How Does the Water Come Down at Lodore'. I used to look at that. But I can't remember any particular interest during junior and then grammar school. Pope's 'The Rape of the Lock' for GCE... nothing much sticks. When I was around 16 and dropping out of school I ran across (via a boy named Higgins who was "literary") some Dylan Thomas that I liked. By then, mid-1950s, I was much more interested in clothes and modern jazz. The "San Francisco Scene" issue (1957?) of Evergreen Review, bought in Charing Cross Road for the jazz article, led me into contemporary (then) American poetry and its various sub-divisions collected in the Allen anthology (1960). A lot of that work seemed to have some connection to my life, whereas the "poetry" I then scanned from here was as alien as the students with long scarves flailing about "dancing" in Cy Laurie's Jazz club were to my friends and me, cool in our Italian suits and Fred Perrys, at 3am in The Flamingo. Around that time I also got interested in Surrealism and Dada..... Jarry and Schwitters. Rimbaud and Apollinaire too.

What influenced your decision to set up your own press?

I was following threads of people I liked in the Allen.... Dorn, O'Hara, Creeley, Ginsberg and so on..... hard to do then in London (though Better Books and Zwemmers in Charing Cross Road were occasional sources) and I got used to having to write to the US for books. It crossed my mind that if I liked this stuff there might be a few others who would too. Around then, late 1959 early 1960, my father-in-law gave us a delayed wedding present of £100. I can't remember how I'd got interested in letterpress printing: it might be genetic.... years later I discovered my father had wanted to be a printer, and that an ancestor, Ruth Raworth, had printed one of Milton's early books in the 17th C. Anyway, I got a small Adana press first and then a larger treadle press. Offset printing was slowly taking over and letterpress equipment and type was not too expensive then. By late 1960/early 1961 I was in correspondence with Dorn, Creeley and others in the US and had met Anselm Hollo, Michael Horovitz, Pete Brown and others here. I printed the first small booklet (a couple of tiny poems by Pete Brown) on the Adana. I was working then in the Euston Road, at Burroughs Wellcome, the manufacturing pharmacists, and a photographer friend there, Steve Fletcher, had a brother who was an engraver and shared a workshop just off Oxford Street with a letterpress printer. They let me move the treadle press there so they could use it for small jobs and in return I could have access whenever I wanted. I'd met, and become good friends with, David Ball and Piero Heliczer (also a letter-press printer with his Dead Language in Paris). So I did small books of Dorn, Ball and Heliczer. And two and a half issues of the magazine Outburst. I had to set two pages at a time (only enough type for that) on the floor at night after work, carry it into town the next day, print the pages on the press with whatever colour ink was in use, go home, sort the type back into the case and start again. In I think 1964 I met Barry Hall, one of the only two people I've ever been able to work with, and we decided to start Goliard. We got a larger press, a guillotine, a variety of type and set up in a cobble-floored stable off the Finchley Road. We worked together for a few years, then when Jonathan Cape wanted to get involved, I left. Barry went on with them, as Cape Goliard, for a few years until he got bored.

Was there a particular point where you felt you had shifted in your own (or other's) perception from 'some-one who writes' to a 'writer'?

No. I remember when passports had "occupation" that immigration would always read "PRINTER" as "PAINTER" and "WRITER" as "WAITER" and hang me up.

Josh Jones, in his interview, said:
"I think the main difficulty is the sheer number of other poets, both young and old, all of us trying to sell our couple of hundred copies to a largely absent audience. It's so hard to stand out."
Do you feel this is the case? (I suppose leading on from that question would be: do you feel that's particularly the case now, as opposed to 10/20/30 years ago?)

To me this is pretty irrelevant. As no-one but a relentless academic could read all the material that's now available, what does it matter? And why should you want to "stand out"? What's so important about one's writing? I don't know if there were fewer writers (I suppose statistically there must have been) around 45 years ago. They perhaps weren't so instantly visible. I've never found (except in the depressing "literary scene" sense) poetry to be a competition. Don't you, if you find someone's work interesting, recommend it to your friends? Organic (or perhaps now viral) growth. There's no tape you break after which you can relax. When we were doing Goliard Press we sold (not immediately) between 400 and 700 copies of each book. At that time the "real" publishers printed at most 250 copies. But we were the "small press". I always remember something Val said around that time: "It seems to me fame is just a load of arseholes thinking you're all right."

At the risk of sounding trite, what advice would you give younger poets?

Write for yourself as reader. Read your own writing as I is another.

What is your favourite soup?

I like home-made vegetable soup with a lot of black pepper and a couple of good shots of Jonkanoo sauce.


  1. Great stuff, thanks. It's fascinating to read about Raworth's role as a printer, which I'd certainly not given much thought to despite liking the Goliard books.

  2. Hi Francesca,

    If you are interested in the printing side of things, there's an excellent interview with Raworth in Mimeo Mimeo 4 - it's available here:

    Glad you enjoyed the interview.

  3. Tom Raworth, bravo, poet as publisher, as all good poets, publishing and presenting others as well as themselves . . .

  4. In three years i only rember one comment on poetry fro tom....
    "they are all trying to create a thing... And it's not about's about the reader going off and writing his own poem... Or something."