A pedagogical interview

Author's note

This is an interview which never happened, a pedagogical interview written by me. This is the second "interview" with myself for which I have written both sides, though the first was written that way for quite different reasons.

This arose for and from contact with someone who had expressed – without expansion – critical interest in my poetry, especially my visually-oriented poetry, and said they wanted to research some issues (unspecified) and then write a thesis.  Rather than one interview, it was to become a series. After the second interview, I declined further interviews until there was clarification; and there never was clarification; but, instead, a bizarre correspondence.

The exact line of inquiry was never made clear; and that alone made the project almost impossible: I kept being told that I would understand if only I would be patient. I was patient for four or five months. I never understood: I was never allowed to. The low level and chaos of the questioning was dispiriting.

As a final effort to help, I wrote this interview, both sides of it, as a pedagogical exercise for the would be interviewer; and sent it with a covering note, which included the following blunt statement:

"I have started with versions of some of your questions, but put them in such a way they can be answered; and then I have answered; and then imagined a kind of follow up – and that addresses one of the big problems which I believe you have, which is that none of your questions relates to any of the others.

As an interview, it is complete and it is not complete i.e. there are huge gaps. It can be read as a whole; but I would expect you to want to ask more questions."

The idea was that the other would read what I had written and build on it.

That never happened though I had been thanked for it profusely. As I see it, they continued trying to write about me without actually reading much of my poetry or anything much remotely relating to it. It is the only explanation I have. I gave up.

However, I think perhaps there are others who might find this useful. I have made some slight changes for clarification.

Interview with Lawrence Upton; Friday, February 10, 2006

INTERVIEWER: Lawrence Upton, you are a leading member of the English Concrete Poetry movement –

UPTON: Let me stop you there. Your evaluation of my poetry is rather flattering, but I have to tell you that there is no such movement. Concrete poetry? I don't write it? I write visual poetry. I am not entirely happy with the name Visual Poetry, but I'll respond to the term.

Concrete Poetry seems to me best left to describe the various sets of work and influences that are truly concrete. And remember that maybe 40 years ago, Solt remarked that the term is too ambiguous.

How you define truly concrete is up to you. You might go back to specific works which seem to you to be significant or to manifestos which seem to you to be useful and / or significant and then say "It's like that". I find categorization for its own sake rather boring and deadening. However, if a term is to mean something then let's make sure it means something useful.

I don't see that what I do is concrete.

The trouble with "visual poetry" is that it suggests a particular kind of poetry that is different to Poetry in general – for example, "nature poetry". To my embarrassment, I once had a poem in an anthology of nature poetry. I think that kind of segmentation is regrettable; so let's move on; but I am happy to try to say more if you want.

Oh, let me say,  I once suggested "visually-emphatic poetry", and I think the grammatical change is useful; but it hasn't been taken up. And that's that. It's no good me telling the world that its use of language is wrong!

There are people in this country making visual poetry. One of the best is Peter Finch. I haven't seen anything recent of his, but I suppose he is still making. He's Welsh though. There is no movement in this country and I don't actually think of myself as English. I was born in England, but that's something else.

INTERVIEWER: Why do you make visual poetry?

UPTON: Why not?

INTERVIEWER: That's not very helpful!

UPTON: The question wasn't very helpful. Why do I make poetry? We're here because we're here. I write because I write. Your question implies there is a difference between visual poetry and other kinds of poetry; and, as I have started to explain, I don't see it like that.

There are differences of making process. In some ways, the visual poem, as I sometimes make it, is more of a procedural thing rather than…. for want of a better term, lyrical; but I write lyrically and procedurally in all genres; and sometimes the idea for a visual poem can be sketched in seconds – my very latest poem is like that, after I have been throwing away complex stuff for a week or more, I have finally found something that's simple and works – it took time to realize perhaps, but the original sketch took seconds. Yet sometimes a linear poem, "lyric" or otherwise, will come like that.

INTERVIEWER: But visual poetry is different to other poetry isn't it?

UPTON: What's "other poetry"?

INTERVIEWER: Poetry that isn't visual!

UPTON: For the sighted, most poetry is visual. It is usually read from marks on the page, even by the poet usually. The days of the poet remembering her poems have largely gone because our memories have gone -

INTERVIEWER: But you are making pictures of it?

UPTON: Of what?

INTERVIEWER: Of the poem.

UPTON: OK. I'm not sure that we are using "picture" in quite the same way. I don't see the distinction between picture and whatever else it is that you are talking about. The written words that we use are, way back, series stylized pictures. I'm restarting the process in a lot of what I write.

INTERVIEWER: But how do you read it?

UPTON: As best you can. If the words are arranged in a pattern then you can turn the page around and read it, following the pattern. If you're performing it, then you can tell the audience that's what you're doing. You can project the image. Or you can take the actual mark or image or pattern – it varies in kind from poem to poem – and give it a sound.

INTERVIEWER: How do you give it a sound?

UPTON: I don't know. It's a bit like Rorschach and a bit like having a good yell and a bit like talking to yourself

INTERVIEWER: Is there a key to reading your poems?

UPTON: Like a code you mean?

INTERVIEWER: Yes. Or a set of rules.

UPTON: No, of course not.

INTERVIEWER: Then how does anyone know what to do?

UPTON: How does anyone know how to do anything? I keep hearing non-visual poetry being murdered on the radio. Accomplished actors with words that "make sense" still manage to stuff it up.

INTERVIEWER: You don't like actors?

UPTON: I don't mind them. Janet Suzman did a superb reading of The Wreck of the Deutschland recently. But, look, how many people want to know how to read my poems aloud? If they want to, then they can. Or they can book me to do it. Or they can look at it as a piece of poetry.

INTERVIEWER: Like a painting, you mean.

UPTON: No! Like a poem… If it's the first visual poem you've seen, then start there. The more you see, the more you can compare and understand – say when one poem refers to another poem.

INTERVIEWER: How do you mean?

UPTON: Well, say as a tribute. With quotations.And there can be other reasons. Cobbing and I used to try to write like each other in some parts of Domestic Ambient Noise


UPTON: Why not? [Pause] Breaks habits. Teaches new skills. One way of understanding poems is to try to imitate the poets.

INTERVIEWER: How did you start to make visual poetry?

UPTON: Well, just like that. I saw visual poems and thought there was something in it.

INTERVIEWER: What did you see and when was this?

UPTON: Late 60s, early 70s. I think I said some of this in the Neon Highway interview so you could check there – but dsh, Cobbing, Finch… and then a little bit later Bengt-Emil Johnson. Buying his book Hyllningarna quite changed me, certainly taught me an immense amount.

I heard him first though. Tape works. Cobbing played me tapes.

INTERVIEWER: You made tapes yourself didn't you?

UPTON: I did… I was doing that way back in my middle teens in the 60s. Then I had the idea, in so far as I thought about it, that what I was doing with tape was no different to what I did with poetry… and then I discovered there were other people, famous and accomplished people, making experiments that were analogous to mine. But they had more knowledge and often much better resources… I mean, not so much in what they used to make the pieces with but in presenting them.

When I got the invitation to work at Fylkingen – when I went there – I had all the possibilities in the world. And that can be alarming. Previously I had done what little I could! At the Fylking almost anything was possible. At least, I never dreamt up anything that they couldn't handle. (Whether I was skilled enough to use the kit was sometimes another matter!) And also I had heard so much material in the previous several years that I was quite muddled, very excited, but quite muddled; and probably trying to imitate and outdo everyone. So my first tape pieces weren't very good either technically or aesthetically.

INTERVIEWER: Not technically?

UPTON: I don't think so. It's one thing making your own rules with your own limited kit; and quite another working in an equipped analog studio. I stress analog. It all took a long time and every generation degraded the signal

But I learned. And eventually I made The Last Man's Song which was quadraphonic and lasted around 6 minutes. I remember I ran up over 40 studio hours to make that.

INTERVIEWER: Could that be done live?

UPTON: I suppose one could take the visual text I used and perform it live; but the tape piece is one thing and that'd be another.

For example, there's the poem Salt Carrier which you've heard me read solo on ubuweb. I made two tape versions of that; and then there were several live versions with the voices of Clive Fencott and cris cheek. Different versions. Same words written on a piece of paper somewhere but lots of different poems

INTERVIEWER: Were there other tape poems?

UPTON: Yes! Lots. Most may have been lost or thrown away, I believe. I made a few at a small studio we had in the National Poetry Centre; but all of that was, rumor has it, thrown away when the General Council regime changed. And no more studio.

And then there were so many things done at West Square. Many of the them were published Typical Characteristics but haven't been heard anywhere that I know of in many years. It's not that I don't value some of them, but they were different to what I have done since; and, increasingly, they were done in real time. Not all of them, but most of them. A kind of aural equivalent to Easy Kill in process.

I took a tape piece, Mutter # 3, I had made at Fylkingen to the Sound Poetry Festival at Stedelijk Museum in 1978. It might just stand on its own, but the intention – and what I did – was to play the tape and then join in and boogie with it. I thought that worked & in a way that is what I have come back to in recent pieces

INTERVIEWER: Can you say what pieces you mean?

UPTON: Textscapes which I did at Nottingham Trent, a few years ago. I did that live. . In a way, Trachea which I did at Nottingham Trent another time, that was with Rory McDermott – we wrote it together and I performed it solo live. And some of the pieces I have made with John Levack Drever, particularly Close to the Literal which we did together at e-poetry 2005 in London… first there – that's quite a popular one. Technically and in complexity of structure, these are way on from Mutter; but it's a return to the basic idea of performing a text with a prerecorded performance of it.

INTERVIEWER: Do you only work that way now?

UPTON: No. There's Game on a line of Scott Thurston that I did in, I think, 1999. That was done live, one take, into a DAT recorder in Alaric Sumner's kitchen. There's a text-sound composition rather like the Fylkingen pieces that I made in a studio in Nottingham Trent a couple of years ago. I keep changing the name. I know it as Dryden because the building was on Dryden Road. That's a set of studio recordings treated and then mixed into a tape piece. The studio recordings are just raw materials. And I perform live. But what interests me most at the moment is to be working across genres, music + poetry + graphics, and with technology.


UPTON: Because it offers so many possibilities. And this time round, it is the right way round – I asked John Drever to help me realize some texts of Alaric Sumner & out of that I learned what he is doing with 8 channel sound. Out of that I asked him if he would work with me in joint compositions because I could see what his system offered – I wasn't looking for something to do with the kit, as to some extent I had been at first in Fylkingen – and how compositionally-gifted he is.

INTERVIEWER: A while ago you said "Sound Poetry". How does that relate to Visual Poetry?

UPTON: Any way you want it to really. I suggest you have a look at Word Score Utterance Choreography which deals with the possibilities of using a visual poem to make a sound poem, which not everyone wants to do.

INTERVIEWER: How do you do that?

UPTON: Well, as I say, I think you might look at that book. And also the interview that Sumner did with Domestic Ambient Buoys. Then maybe you will want to ask me specific questions.

INTERVIEWER: Are your visual poems scores?

UPTON: Not really. They're indicative notation perhaps…. I don't think John'll mind me quoting him – when we made the starting studio recordings of Close to the Literal, we made recordings of me reading each of 120 visuals, one after the other, end to end, without a break. Then we had a cup of coffee. Then we did again.

Then we put the two recordings side by side. (We recorded to a fairly accurate clock – well a mac laptop - so the two recordings synchronized.)  John remarked how complementary the 2 recordings were. I'd intended that, of course; he had to compose from that; but that he found them complementary indicates I was reading consistently albeit with variations, what Cobbing called "family resemblance". He, John, said he found it so.

Some time around 97 or 98, I think, Cobbing and I were on BBC Radio 3. Steve Jones had challenged us as part of an interview: we had  several parts of Domestic Ambient Noise where one could follow the changes from one image to another through 2 or 3 stages. And that was Professor Jones' challenge. So we made a recording of them, in his presence, without rehearsal, again end to end; and then he accepted that we were indeed reading the visual poems because he could hear the changes as well as see them

Remember, we speak of reading a painting. At one level, that means recognizing what's in the painting in the way of symbols and so on, especially with Renaissance art; but the term is also used to mean appreciating the painting. Reading isn't just a process of taking data from a page by eyesight.

INTERVIEWER: Has your visual poetry developed over the years?

UPTON: I don't know. It's changed… I was treading water for many years in the 80s, for external reasons, though I did keep writing that way; and then I began to develop new techniques; but I didn't show many till I started going to Cobbing's workshop again, late in 1990. And when I did show them, often it wasn't to the poetry crowd.


UPTON: I don't think they were that interested. Not here. Not many… As I recall,  I started being the second voice on some of Cobbing's stuff – in the workshop I mean – but I can't recall how much visual work I was taking in to the workshop then. I was mostly engaged in writing a sequence called Written Graphical which was lexical. But the performing together at the workshop led on to Domestic Ambient Noise and then on to me starting afresh with visual poetry publicly. D. A .N. is primarily visual. That's how I recall it anyway. I must have been doing more than I remember because I remember people writing to me about it; but the details are blurred.

By the late 1990s, I'd say that what I was doing was quite different to what I had been doing; and it was getting muddled up with what is now called e-poetry.

INTERVIEWER: In what way?

UPTON: In every  way. The experience of writing, for instance, In praise of John Coltrane, using the computer as a right-hand person, was… er… surprising.

And then I began to work with graphics via computer.

The danger has been of repetition, especially when one is using graphics packages, because they encourage a kind of sameness – a lot of bad visual poetry (i.e. bad in my judgment) is just shoving an image through the effects menu of a graphics program.

And, as well as the wiles of the packages, there is the tendency to repeat oneself that is in all of us.  Of course, one goes back, to some extent. But, when I had done Game on a line and Celebrate, I consciously tried not to repeat, as I have been trying not to repeat in my linear poetry. What's the point? Out of that came Initial dance and San' though San' took some years to reach the form it is in now.

And more recently I have gone back to some of that in Choreographed Utterance.

For a while I switched to DV film, but I lack all the kit. I was lent a camera by one person and use of a powerful computer by another; but the offer of the computer didn't work out and soon dried up. And the camera has no DV-in.

When I can, I intend moving into animation. Close to the literal was initially intended to be animation-based, as I explained at the Goldsmith's notation conference last autumn.

And now, just recently, after making works with John Drever for a while, I've started to work the other way round, imagining a multivoice text in my head and writing an indicative score for it. I've been throwing a lot away, but I've finished something that I shall keep, one of a loose set of pieces called Verbicide. The particular piece is in colour, which is really still too expensive to reproduce well; but I am intrigued by it… Cobbing and I made several forays into colour; and we both remained sure it was worthwhile though uneconomic to work with – and a lot of Cobbing's most interesting late work is colour though much of it has hardly been seen or published.

So that's another avenue for the future. Until now, colour has often meant using painters' materials or film or net.art. I'd like to explore it as a paper-based art and maybe too on gallery walls.

Also I've been using the computer to take my 2-dimensional images back into sculpture – I had rooms of it in 1981 at LYC Gallery; but it takes up space… Sculptural Calligraphy 1 is a beginning of showing that, putting 2d into 3d space visually.