Hay Festival: Jon Gower talks to prolific poet Peter Finch about his work and inspiration
The great, restless, wildly experimental poet Peter Finch has just published his Collected Poems, two substantial tomes weighing in at a thousand pages, both full of the fizz and energy that so typifies his humorous, splendid and impossibly inventive work.
A Finch poem has been described as ‘always a living object, a made thing, a pulsating machine made of words.’
His fellow poet Ian Macmillan, writing in the introduction to this landmark publication suggests that one way of explaining the enormous productivity which has produced, in turn, so many pulsating machines is that there is, in fact, more than one Peter Finch, indeed many of them working simultaneously.
I had a cup of tea with one of the many Peters before we went on stage at this year’s Hay Festival where I suggested that the publication of the Collected Poems was a chance to take stock, to consider his work over five decades and see the evolution of himself as a poet:…
Peter Finch: It’s an eye opener when you look back over your career and do so in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise – being selective because even though these are called Collected Poems you kick out things that really aren’t going to make it.
And how whole books produce just one poem, one poem that is going to survive and it’s your choice if it’s going to do so.
So I discovered how weak I often was, how inconsistent I was in the early part of my career.
The whole process was like getting into a time machine and travelling back to earlier decades, earlier eras of your life and reading things you haven’t looked at for, come on, for fifty years in some cases thinking did I really think that?
Or moroever you remember that.
I remember the people surrounding me, the circumstances that boosted me to do this, so it was quite an experience and an extremely lengthy experience, pulling together ghost pamphlets , forgotten pamphlets, books and booklets that hadn’t been opened for decades and decades, material that hadn’t even made it into the Selected Poems of mine from the mid 1980s.
But Andrew Taylor the editor of the Collected Poems was keen on reviving things that were even outside that frame – things which had appeared in small magazines that I had forgotten about and where the poems hadn’t survived, as I hadn’t kept them or sold the poem to the National Library of Wales and it had left my environment.
Vitality of language
One of the key moments in Peter’s life as a poet was discovering a copy of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl in a Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge bookshop but his delight in the vitality of language can be traced back much further.
Peter Finch: In school I was taught Walter de la Mare and I hated this and I couldn’t see what any of this was about at all.
But gradually I started to read, mainly science fiction as a teenager and reading obsessively and so I read the entire section of such books that were in the Roath Park Library, starting top left on the shelves and working my way right down to the bottom.
And I can remember standing in front of them once, staring at it and I must have been doing so for a long time because the librarian came over and asked if I could do anything to help me and I said I’ve read all of these, what else have you got? And that was a switch then and I had to go and look further in a wider field.
Peter started performing in the late 1960s, when he also started to bring out a magazine called Second Aeon.
While there is a popular image of the poet as a solitary figure, composing in a garret Peter, was constantly collaborating with people, be they fellow poets or visual artists or musicians, sharing energy and creativity with them.
Peter Finch: I’d always looked for the sort of literary environment in which poets flourished, as described by Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac in the Beat novels and many of the other Beat novelists – they seemed to occupy a world where sitting down over a glass of wine or beer and discussing literary matters was the norm: it wasn’t the norm for me in Cardiff so I asked where is this going on and I spend the early part of my career looking for it, hunting for this bohemianism , these fellow travellers, people who were the same as me, who liked the same kinds of things as I did.
When I found them then I wanted to do things together.
So from a very early start, with David Callard and Geraint Jarman we started to put on poetry readings in Cardiff.
Along the way Peter learned Welsh and even though he decided not to write in the language he found that acquiring the language was key to understanding the culture.
Peter Finch: It was phenomenally important. I didn’t recognise this, it sort of came up on me slowly.
But when you learn a language you are surrounded by other people doing the same thing and tutors who know the language and talk about it and the things surrounding it – the culture and then you find yourself warming to all things Cymraeg, all things to with Cymru, which is what I did and the further I got into it the more I found the more interested I became in the world around me.
And the world around me was not an entirely Anglophone, working class, coal-exporting environment, the city of Cardiff, there was more to it than that.
One of the poets he references in his work is R S Thomas, so is there any truth in the rumour that Peter is in fact R S Thomas’s dark twin?
Peter Finch: I never understood R S Thomas initially. There was this great buzz around him and I’d been told that if I wanted to get on I should read Dylan Thomas so I read Dylan Thomas while R S Thomas came from left field, discovered in, for me, the Penguin Modern Poets series, where they had also published Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, so there was Ginsberg and R S Thomas and they sat next to each other.
Peter finds the stuff of poems pretty much anywhere, creating found poems and ‘non poems’ from tearing up Mills and Boon romances, in place names, reassembling words he encounters by chance on his travels.
Peter Finch: I’d started out as, I don’t know, a flower power generation poet but nobody really knew what poetry was, and any definition of what a poem was or what a poem might consist of you soon find someone who was an exception to that.
‘All poetry is concise,’ say and then you’d find someone who’d written a novel in verse and clearly it wasn’t concise and this went throughout everything.
The more I thought about that, the more I thought about that, the more I explored it – Baudelaire’s prose poems, for example – asking why are these prose, what makes these prose and not poems and then I uncovered Apollinaire and there he was making pictures, ideograms and pictograms and such approaches to writing.
I could see the edges were nowhere to be found. The further you went the more it was like finding the expanding universe – you kept pushing further on and further on and there was always further on to go after that.
One of the aspects of this was trying to make poetry out of things that were not poetry, finding things, making things out of the newspaper, from the writing on the bottom of the mugs we were drinking out of, the model number of the mug, say.
And there were writers out there who did this, so I delved into that field.
It’s been said of Peter that he pushes ideas until they break, flower or dissolve. There are certainly plenty of them in his work, as if he has an especially restless or extremely busy mind.
Peter Finch: Ideas come along and you need to zip them thorugh before you forget them or they forget you and just as likely they turn into other ideas.
If you don’t write the idea down, by the time you get to the place where you can write it down, it’s changed.
So you have to write the ideas down as fast as you can.
The publishing of the fast-paced, ideas-packed two volume Collected Poems isn’t the end of the story, of course, they are significant markers or milestones on a poetic journey that is already moving on as the machine churns out more material.
Indeed his next volume, diy punk handmade chapbook Just When You Think It’s Over – It Starts Again appears soon in a limited edition from New Jersey’s Between Shadows Press.
For the Peter Finch poetry making machine is seldom standing still, the wheels have to turn ere they rust.
For down time for this enormously efficient and productive machine is tantamount to silence and he’s not having any of that. He has so much more to say.
More stuff like this, an extract taken from one of Peter Finch’s best known and enduring poetic hits, ‘A Welsh Wordscape…’
To live in Wales,
Is to be mumbled at
by re-incarnations of Dylan Thomas
in numerous diverse disguises.
Is to be mown down
by the same words
at least six times a week.
Is to be bored
by Welsh visionaries
with wild hair and grey suits.
Is to be told
of the incredible agony
of an exile
that can be at most
a day’s travel away.
And the sheep, the sheep,
the bloody, flea-bitten Welsh sheep,
chased over the same hills
by a thousand poetic phrases
all saying the same things.
To live in Wales
is to love sheep
and to be afraid
Peter Finch’s Collected Poems are published by Seren. You can buy copies here.
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