In the pre-pandemic days of winter 2019/20, London was alive with Blakean happenings—from the hit exhibition at Tate Britain, to a much smaller (but no less ambitious) exhibition The Bard, held at Flat Time House in Peckham from January-March 2020. The exhibition was co-curated by Flat Time House director Gareth Bell-Jones and poet and artist Chris McCabe. I had already become aware of McCabe’s Blakean work through an event entitled ‘The Poetry of London,’ which was hosted at Tate Britain in October 2019 as part of the programming accompanying the Blake show. At the event, a number of poets read work inspired by Blake and/or London. McCabe read alongside Sophie Herxheimer from their co-authored book, The Practical Visionary, published by the Blakean small-press Hercules Editions in 2018.
The Flat Time House exhibition drew inspiration from similar poetry projects undertaken by McCabe and the other contributing poets—Tamar Yoseloff (co-founder of Hercules Editions), Karen Sandhu, Robert Montgomery, Niall McDevitt, Keith Jarrett, and Iain Sinclair. In particular, the exhibition was based around a legend, recounted by Blake’s early biographer Alexander Gilchrist, in which the young Blake was supposed to have seen a vision of angels bespangling a tree on Peckham Rye. Previously, in his book Cenotaph South (Penned in the Margins, 2017), McCabe had undertaken to locate the actual tree where this angelic bespangling might have taken place.
Fascinated by McCabe’s work on Blake especially, I invited him for an interview to talk about our shared interest in Blake and mapping, and so we met in January 2021 over zoom. Summary could hardly do justice to the wide-ranging conversation that ensued: you can read the interview transcript below.
During the conversation, McCabe showed me this sketch he had done while planning his current book series on the ‘Magnificent Seven’ cemeteries in London:
The sketch is a kind of live mind-map, drawing together geographical sites, poets, and Blakean coordinates in an astonishing constellation. As McCabe later explained to me,
It was literally a doodle one morning, reading Blake's fourfold vision (in Milton, I think, or maybe Jerusalem..), and thinking of his motifs for the different gates as suggesting some possibilities for my cemetery project. For each cemetery I write down genre (each of my cemetery books has a different genre interspersed eg fiction, memoir etc); image (drawing on Blake) and poets (the different well known poets associated with each part of London). It says Coda on it but it's not that at all, more of a map to slide underneath my own mapping of the cemeteries. There are a few other maps I draw on in a similar way, for example Booth’s poverty maps and the bomb damage maps of WW2. Oh, and the map of underground rivers. I draw on these different layers of history and hidden elements of the city, threading them into my narrative of searching for the poets. Blake is always there, if sometimes a silent witness!McCabe’s explorations go on and on. Although his love for Blake seems particularly irrepressible, he continues to seek out all kinds of poets, artists, and visionaries past and present. His book Buried Garden, a mapping of the ‘lost poets’ of Abney Park cemetery in Stoke Newington, has just been published by Penned in the Margins in October this year (2021). It was here that we began our travels, in territory closely bordering on the Blakean. Links
Buried Garden (Chris's latest book): http://www.pennedinthemargins.co.uk/index.php/2021/09/buried-garden/
Chris McCabe’s blog: http://chris-mccabe.blogspot.com/
Chris McCabe’s author profile at Penned in the Margins: http://www.pennedinthemargins.co.uk/index.php/2017/11/chris-mccabe/
Hercules Editions: https://www.herculeseditions.com/
Flat Time House: http://flattimeho.org.uk/
The Bard exhibition: http://flattimeho.org.uk/exhibitions/bard/
This interview was conducted as part of research supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and hosted by Tate Britain and The University of York. For more information, see https://www.tate.org.uk/research/studentships/current/caroline-ritchie.
Caroline Ritchie (CR): What are you working on at the moment while you’re in Liverpool?
Chris McCabe (CM): I’m working on my next cemetery book, about Abney Park [This has just been published as Buried Garden]. It’s quite an interesting process really because I can’t get to the space itself. Hopefully I’ll be able to in March. But what I can do is research. I’m doing that side of it—delving through the British Newspaper Archive, finding all kinds of weird and wonderful stuff. I’ve got the book mapped out and I’ve found the poets that I’m going to write about and actually, in a weird way, it might work out as a better book because by the time I get to the cemetery, I’ll know everything I need to know. The process is quite organic, it’s a mix of walking and reading and the book grows in that way. But just by necessity I’ve got to do all the reading first and then go into the space and find the graves of the poets.
CR: It’s quite a labyrinth. I live about fifteen minutes’ walk away from Abney Park, actually.
CM: Oh, do you really?
CR: Yeah, I live in Stoke Newington—so yeah, it’s probably even a ten minute walk. I’ve gotten lost there so many times.
CM: That’s really interesting. Are you on the Stamford Hill side?
CR: I’m sort of towards Finsbury Park but not far from Church Street. Right by Clissold Park, actually.
CM: That’s interesting. The concept of this book comes out of a short story by Arthur Machen. I don’t know whether you know Arthur Machen? I think you’d like his work. He’s quite visionary—in a different way from Blake, but there’s some similarities. He wrote mostly short stories, in the late 19th century, right the way through to the ‘30s. I’ve taken the premise for my Abney Park book from one of his short stories, ‘N’, in which three characters talk about there being a visionary garden in Stoke Newington that only appears to some people. I’m making the case that Abney Park cemetery is that garden. So I’m asking people—if anything came to mind maybe you could let me know—I’m asking people if they’ve had that encounter in Stoke Newington, if they’ve come across their own visionary garden of some sort. It could be the cemetery… it’s great to hear that you got lost in there.
CR: Quite a few times… I was quite delirious by the end. I didn’t take a phone or a map or anything. It was relatively quiet and I was sort of in a shy mood and I felt a bit embarrassed to be lost in a cemetery so I just walked around and around and around. I think once I found the chapel again, I thought, okay, I have more of an idea of where I am. I don’t know if that complete disorientation is in the vein of a visionary garden. It was actually quite an intense experience, in a way. Normally I get lost a lot, but feeling so buried in the cemetery, where you can’t see the streets at all—cars or anything—it was quite intense.
CM: That’s very interesting. The book’s called Buried Garden, so it’s funny that you used the word ‘buried’ there as well, but yeah absolutely, the proximity with the dead is quite dizzying. But also, most people don’t realise that you just step through the gates, you know, from Stoke Newington High Street or whichever side, and you’re in this forest, which is quite magical. It is like a portal—you step into this totally different part of London. And, of course, there’s links with Blake as well because it’s a Nonconformist cemetery. Blake’s obviously in Bunhill Fields. If he’d have lived a bit longer, he probably would’ve been buried in Abney Park. It wasn’t open until about eight years after he died—that’s another mapping isn’t it: Blake’s body, which people have just come across now, the idea of the location.
CR: It was a funny old experience. I was reading—I can’t remember in which of his books, because he’s written so much—Iain Sinclair somewhere mentioned something about a place that you can’t find your way back to in Stoke Newington. He mentioned that and I didn’t really know what that was referring to, but perhaps it was sort of getting at a similar thing… a similar mythology.
CM: Iain’s going to walk with me in Abney Park as part of the book. He wrote a chapter in Lights Out for the Territory in the ‘90s and really mapped that space out and was quite visual about graffiti and things, so I want to take him back and look at the cemetery as it is now and talk about him as a bit of a hugely overlooked poet—you know, he’s known for his prose, but he has also written so much great poetry.
CR: How and when did you start thinking about Blake or come to know his work?
CM: You know, I didn’t have a kind of epiphany moment, and I didn’t study Blake at all, which is kind of weird because I did A-level English Literature and then an English degree and didn’t do Blake at any point. I had thought of Blake as the person who wrote Songs of Innocence and Experience for a long time. He wasn’t a luminary for me in my twenties at all actually. He wasn’t a figure that I looked to as a kind of guiding light or anything like that. I became aware of him because as my poetry was developing, I started to develop my own style of writing and that involved using an ampersand in the poems rather than a written ‘and.’ I noticed that Blake did that as well. People used to say, oh it’s very 1960s to do that, it’s quite a hip thing to do, and I liked pointing to Blake and saying, actually no—Blake used it. But, you know, I think the first moment when he crept into my work was when I did a collaborative book with Jeremy Reed in 2021, called Whitehall Jackals. I wrote this poem about Blake. It’s quite a visual poem on the page. That was the first moment where I realised that I was having this conversation with Blake. And in that book I also made the endpaper images—kind of a mapping out of where the poems respond to, kind of collaged and copied-and-pasted.
Jeremy really focused on Soho and I was really drawn to the river, not for the first time and not for the last time, really, but the East End and the river and the warehouses of Rotherhithe and Wapping and all that. So it was a nice harmony. The poems kind of spoke to each other in that way. But although it was supposed to be a collaboration with Jeremy Reed, I can see now that it was the beginning of a collaboration with William Blake as well, which I didn’t expect to happen. The interest in Blake began to grow, moving away from the Songs of Innocence and into the epic books, which are just an amazing source of ideas and possibilities, I guess. So now Blake’s next to my bed and I read Blake all the time and just go back to the start when I’ve finished. It’s constant now.
CR: Were you living and working in London at that point?
CM: I’d lived in London for ten years, but at that point I’d moved back to Liverpool, so I was spending the midweek in London and the rest of the week in Liverpool—which I kind of think is the best way to experience London. Blake knew what he was missing when he went to Felpham for a few years. I think there’s a lesson in that… he only really got in trouble when he left London. But Milton and Jerusalem kind of grew out of that experience, I think. And of course, Iain Sinclair is part Welsh and part Scottish. I think maybe there’s something in that—having a distance and then coming back to London—which is creatively fruitful.
CR: Did you tend to stay in a particular part of London? Were there Blake-related placed that you would visit regularly?
CM: Absolutely. I still lodge in a room just off Peckham Rye—so all that mythology of Blake’s angel has been really, really important. So when I wrote this second cemetery book, Cenotaph South, that involved trying to find the tree that Blake saw the angel in. I wasn’t the first person to do that. It sounds like a mad idea but that myth just runs and runs and runs. For some reason, people think it’s an oak, even though Blake never said it was an oak tree and that story only comes from someone who knew Blake and recounted that story after he died—it comes from Alexander Gilchrist who tells that in his biography. No one ever said it was an oak. Actually, I used the poems to map out Blake’s descriptions of angels in trees. The only poem that talks about an angel in a particular tree describes it as a hawthorn. Anyway, that was the level of Blakean obsession that was going down. I kind of went around Peckham looking for hawthorn trees, which can live for over 300 years, so there’s still a chance that that exact tree is there.
CR: Did you see any angels?
CM: [Thinks] I don’t think I saw any angels. But the thing about hawthorns is that they’re covered in white berries—they’re often called a whitethorn—in the spring. So that made perfect sense to me, that a very young Blake looked at a tree with that overactive imagination that he has, and it was covered in white berries—Gilchrist describes it as ‘bespangled’ or ‘bespangling.’ So you’ve got that fusion of nature, imagination, and the spiritual, which began the whole of Blake’s visionary work, really. I like the idea of the tree existing. I couldn’t find it, but maybe it’s a more powerful thing—the potential for it. It could be in someone’s back garden or it could be just hidden by buildings or whatever.
CR: I went along to the exhibition that you curated at Flat Time House. I really enjoyed that. Could you tell me a bit about how that project came about with Flat Time House?
CM: Absolutely. It was really interesting. So I think Gareth Bell-Jones had come across some of the events that I was doing at Tate as part of the Blake exhibition. Just by chance he had been offered the opportunity to show these Blake prints—The Bard was one of them. And obviously he wanted to build a programme around the visual works. So yeah, he’d seen the events at Tate and then he got in touch and we had some really good conversations, where I was learning more about John Latham as well—he’s an amazing thinker and myth-maker of his own. So he asked me if I would curate the show with him and bring it to life with contemporary poetry, bringing in some living and breathing poets and have commissions and then a series of events as well. So that’s what we did. Obviously a perfect location as well, just off Peckham station.
CR: Did you already know all of the poets that you invited?
CM: Yeah, absolutely. These are poets that I’ve admired in some way or worked with. They all had a link with Blake in some way. Robert Montgomery, of course, is a visual artist as well as a poet, and I think his work in neon sits side by side with Blake’s illuminated books and updates that way of working. Niall McDevitt is really down the Blakean rabbit hole every day. He does Blake walks and writes a lot in response to Blake. I asked Tamar Yoseloff, a great poet who runs Hercules Editions, who published The Practical Visionary. She’d named her press after Hercules Road, which is quite a nice fit. And Iain Sinclair, obviously, for reasons that we’ve just discussed. Keith Jarrett an amazing performance poet and has so much going on in his work. He’s written about South London. Karen Sandhu is a really original thinker and is exploding those binaries between writing and performance, so I thought that was quite important. I put a bit of thought into it, because there’s a lot of poets I could have chosen, but that seemed like a good balance across a number of different poets.
CR: I know at the readings people were sharing longer pieces. Will there be a publication where those appear?
CM: Yeah, that is supposed to happen. Gareth was talking about a volume coming out of the exhibition which would have all of the poems in—the full versions of the poems. So I hope that happens. There was a small publication at the time.
CR: Are you still working with Tamar Yoseloff at Hercules Press? Is that an ongoing collaboration?
CM: It was a one-off edition, The Practical Visionary. There’s going to be some online talks and exhibitions in Bristol this year exploring photo poetry and visual poetry. It’s going to be an online exhibition and some of The Practical Visionary will be on that. It keeps gaining interest, I think.
CR: The exhibition was packed out the entire time, which was really amazing.
CM: Yeah, particularly for a poet who only sold 28 copies in his lifetime! The Tate one was already happening when Gareth was offered the artworks to show at Flat Time House. I think he managed to open it with a week’s overlap the Tate show. But you know, I think with Blake there’s always something happening—or seems to be, anyway. I mean, you know, there’s Blake Societies and there’s always somebody doing something about Blake somewhere.
CR: Yeah, I was going to ask you about whether you have any particular involvement with the Blake Society, or had any connections to their activities? I know they do walks and things like that as well, but it seems a bit separate to the work you do.
CM: I have done some things with them. I did a radio program about five years ago, for Radio 4, called A Vision on Peckham Rye, which was really surreal. It was a walk with Levi Roots, who makes Reggae Reggae Sauce, and Christine Vinall who was part of the Blake Society at the time. Levi Roots—when he came to this country as a child—one of his first experiences was reading The Tyger at school, and he loved it. So the radio producer took us to Peckham Rye to try and find the angel. I was writing Cenotaph South at the time. And then a few years ago—not long before then—we did an event. You know the Blake Society owns the top floor of the house where Blake lived on South Molton Street? We did an event of The Practical Visionary in that room, at the very top of the house. That was interesting. I am a member of the Blake Society and pay them the fee and receive the emails, but my feeling about it is that I don’t define myself as a ‘Blakean’—I think Blake would’ve hated that idea actually, of a ‘Blakean.’ The whole purpose of his work, it seems to me, is to challenge people to think and speak for themselves, and I’m just really wary of a cult or some approach to Blake which makes everything he said loaded with some direction on how we should live or how we should be because I think that’s just another form of following. You could follow anyone in that way. I wouldn’t want to become a full-time Blakean.
CR: That also touches a bit on the idea of ‘independence,’ which is another theme that I’m interested in in Blake’s reception. Do you think that that’s true of Blake—that we can see him as independent or as setting an example for independence—and has that been important to your work with, say, indie publishers?
CM: Independence and Blake—absolutely. I mean, he got in trouble for it quite a bit. I think it’s interesting to think about where his limits were though. He started writing a book called The French Revolution and it was never published. That could well be that both he and his publisher got nervous about it—it was a really risky time to be outspoken in London. He wore the red bonnet for the French Revolution to begin with, but things got really intense in the 1790s. I think he is a product of his time as well, and that kind of interests me. You know, he was soaking up the pamphlets of the time and the new ideas of the time. He followed Swedenborg for a while, for example. Reading Thomas Paine. You know, so he is a product of his time, he can’t be fully independent from what’s happening. But then you look at the work and that is like nothing else of the time. That for me is where the independence comes in. He absorbed all the stuff that was around him, was drawn to a lot of the radical stuff that was around him, but what it came out as in his work was something that was completely unique, and he knew it was unique. I think sometimes he hated that—it was so unique that he couldn’t sell it. There’s this arc with Blake, almost this idea that he believes he’s going to be successful with every project and then comes to disappointment afterwards—a bit like the brother’s shop in Soho. And then he’s bewildered for a while and depressed… and then he gets the next big idea and he believes that this is the one. But because the work was so independent and so unique, it was never going to be a big hit. I think Blake becomes much happier once he realises that. There’s an awareness in the last decade of his life that the reason he’s not popular is because his work is so different from everyone else’s—and that’s its power, actually, and that’s the reason to make it. We’ve had to catch up with Blake. Probably those followers like Samuel Palmer who came to him in the last years of his life would’ve made a massive difference to how he felt about his work—that he was beginning to reach a young audience, and the people who knew about him loved it, and obsessed over it. So he probably was galvanised with a sense that his independence would find a readership, a viewership, in the future. So that’s Blake. The other part of the question was about independent publishing. Are you thinking about contemporary publishers?
CR: Yeah. So I can tell you a bit about why that is part of the lens… I started noticing things more recently, like The Practical Visionary or presses with Blake-inspired names or publications, and things like New River Press and Enitharmon as well. Then I started going backwards a bit and found out about Iain Sinclair’s Albion Village Press and some of his early poetry, which I really, really like, and which is very strongly in conversation with Blake as well. Blake I think has always been there in his work, but those early poems I think really grapple with the nitty gritty of the mythology and places in Blake. I guess my feeling was that I was aware of all of these small presses and that there was a seemingly recurrent adoption of Blake as almost—it feels too strong to say a patron saint of independent publishing—but that he was kind of there in interesting ways. I suppose that is linked to countercultural thinking and the sort of DIY aspect of small-press publication and also the characterisation of Blake as an anti-establishment figure, fairly. And then also there’s the geographical theme which runs alongside that in interesting ways and people seem to be picking up on Blake’s anti-cartographic cartography of London in often very intimate ways but also widening that scale out as well. The observation that I started off with is that there’s a strong afterlife of Blake’s cartography and that’s one that hasn’t really been emphasised so much in scholarship, but more so in poetry and in art, I think, which is interesting to me obviously, because I’m working within academia, but working on the reception of Blake. That’s kind of the thinking behind this part of my research—I’m also working on very internalist close-readings of the strange workings of Blake’s mythology and the way that he maps it and that he can be quite an interesting voice in the history of cartography, and one that still retains a significance for people today and can suggest things about the way that maps are used to structure knowledge and power, and things like that.
CM: Great—that all makes absolute sense. I’m not sure I’ve seen his mapping, visually, of his London. I know he appears in the garden in Felpham in Milton and obviously you’ve got the Zoas. My memory of the mapping of London in Blake is all in text in the long poems.
CR: Absolutely. And that’s something I find interesting as well… There are bits and pieces of London peppered throughout the long poems. There’s a tendency to sort of fragment and obscure and refrain from representing the ‘whole’ of what London might look like or what Golgonooza might look like. There’s a tension there because in the writing there are these verbal mappings which seem to chart Golgonooza, but also it can’t be mapped yet because it doesn’t exist yet and it’s utopian. My reading of the long poems is that they’re much more interested in the traveller’s-eye view and walking being a way of working out some of those maps for the future, the idea being that it’s a work in progress. He did engrave some maps for commissions and stuff like that. But he seems always on the verge of prescribing that this is what the utopian city should look like, but then holding back because creating your own system might just end up becoming oppressive in its own way, so he’s constantly breaking what he’s making.
CM: Yeah, that makes so much sense. There’s that line, isn’t there, ‘I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s. I will not reason and compare my business is to create.’ He’s saying he must have a system. That for me is a working practice, that’s what he means by that. I think he talks somewhere else about artists’ practice and how without that everything is lost. So his business is his creative practice and the consistency with which he will practice that, but it doesn’t mean creating a full system.
CR: There’s a line that appears on one of the small cosmograms, ‘continually building, continually destroying because of love and jealousy.’ That also recurs in the poetry as well. I think that’s quite an interesting statement about how built environments and the mapping of built environments are continually ongoing and questioning the way that often visual representations of places will sort of crystallise things and make them appear like they’re fixed, which is of course not the case.
CM: Yeah. Which is why it’s the city of imagination, of course, because if things are fixed the imagination can’t be as free. I think that’s really important. For Southbank Centre, I organised a Blake walk for many years as part of the programme. And it came out in Real South Bank—I don’t know whether you’ve seen this; it’s got a chapter on Blake. It’s got ‘Glad Day’ on the front, as well. That’s one of the mosaics down by Lambeth—Hercules Road, basically. So I was organising this walk, and as part of it, it had an audio experience where the audience were put on the headphones and Tom Chivers comes on, the publisher of Penned in the Margins, and he talks about that part of London. I’d only just fixed this thing—set it down to happen—and in the space of a few months the audio headset started to get confusing because Tom Chivers would say things like, ‘you’ll come up to a building on the left,’ and the building was gone. It had been razed… So I had to say to people, Blake’s view of London is that it’s constantly changing and in the space of the last few months, London’s changed again, so I had to make it part of the experience, in a way. But it’s so true. With Blake’s London now, some of the fundamental sites are still there: Lambeth Palace and the Houses of Parliament, he mentions the Tower of London, of course, and London Stone. These pillars are still there but, you know, South Molton Street won’t look very much like he remembered it. Although you can still smell the Tyburn. I’m probably going off piste a bit, but that’s something I became quite interested in actually, is Blake’s relationship with the underground rivers. Everywhere he lived in London was attached to a river. In Lambeth, you’ve got the Neckinger—there’s something about whether it’s a river or a stream—but it runs underground now by the Southbank from the Thames, right the way round to Lambeth. It goes in a loop back to Elephant and Castle and then Bermondsey. On South Molton Street, he was right next to the Tyburn and writes about the Tyburn all the time in Jerusalem. And of course at Fountain Court, the last place he lived, he had a view of the Thames from his window. And I often think about what that relationship is because I think poets are drawn to rivers and to underground rivers, consciously and subconsciously. They’re strange places where miasma happens—you get visual effects sometimes from the changing temperature from an underground river, steam rising can look like ghosts and things like that. But there’s also something really connecting about the different parts of London, that these hidden rivers run from one part to another. But yeah, that was going way off independent presses.
Those presses that you mention are the ones that come to mind, and it’s certainly true: there are Blake-inspired presses. I think also though for me, the limited edition or ‘one down’ from those presses has also been quite important: self-publication or working with a printer on a limited edition. I’ve got a few very, very limited edition volumes which I’ve loved working on and nobody knows about because they were made in an edition of ten or whatever. I think that’s closer to Blake actually than the independent presses, because the relationship between a poet or a writer and one of those kind of presses is actually closer to the model of a trade publisher because it means someone else is in control of typesetting, design, distribution and stuff, whereas with the self-publication model, of course, you do everything. You might work with someone, but you’ve then got the onus for distribution on yourself. But then you have the pleasure of designing everything from inside out and making it the way you want. This might sound really odd but I think my relationship with Instagram feels closer to what William Blake was doing than my relationship with, say, Hercules Editions, because it’s a curated space. There’s all kind of debates about how insidious Instagram is becoming and the algorithms they use and all that, so it’s certainly not the same and it’s not completely independent. However, it is a curated space and it is instantaneous in the way that Blake would’ve known. You print something and you’ve got it ready to go straight away. It’s also illuminated, of course, it’s backlit by Android or Mac or whatever. Blake’s illuminated pages—I’m sure someone’s done it—but they would look amazing on instagram with the backlit immediacy of it. I’ve edited a book of Instagram poetry and a lot of artists describe that feeling of independence and curated space and immediacy that comes with working in that way.
CR: That’s a really good point, actually. I hadn’t thought about that. For the self-published books you made, what kind of things were you doing?
CM: This is something I made with the Henningham Family Press. It wasn’t truly self-published, as I worked with David Henningham, but it’s a book called Clotted Sun. It’s based on the gates of West Norwood cemetery. It was when I started off on the cemetery project. I was commissioned to respond to the cemetery and I had this idea of finding the poets and then taking a line from each of the poet’s work and then I had it made onto a stone. The book is a reproduction of the stones: with a quote from one of the poems and the stone then was a one-off artwork, if you like, which are left in the cemetery next to the poet’s grave.
What’s interesting, of course, about the book—this was an edition of fifty, but it can go a little bit further, because the stones were just one but then there’s an edition of fifty of Clotted Sun, so that could go out to more people. It’s got a little map in it, as well, of where the poets are buried and everything. Blake mentions Norwood at some point in one of his poems. Norwood as a place. And I’ve done quite a lot of stapled and bound, DIY, zine-type things over the years. I think that’s close to Blake—desktop printing. Actually, I can probably send you later some names of presses that work in that way—I’m thinking of like really basic A4 printed editions: folded, stapled, and it’s often experimental work, avant garde, linguistically and all sorts of stuff, and it doesn’t get any audience really, apart from a small group of poets around it. There’s been a lot of that since the 1960s. I think Iain Sinclair’s Albion Village is coming out of what you probably know—and is often described—as the British Poetry Revival; the whole xerox revolution of the ‘60s which is still pretty strong in the experimental poetry world.
CR: They were luxury items, really, the illuminated books. But he did do those smaller pamphlets too.
CM: Yeah, absolutely—the first DIY artist's books, really.
The one that’s come to mind that might be the best place to start is Writers’ Forum. Writers’ forum started in the ‘60s by Bob Cobbing. People do PhDs on Bob Cobbing himself these days… He was a sound poet, a visual poet. I think he is the closest I can think of a William Blake figure over the past decade. He ran this press called Writers’ Forum and apparently there’s about a thousand Writers’ Forum editions and publications, but nobody knows because there’s no definitive list of everything.
CR: Pity the poor PhD Students…
CM: Exactly. Cobbing set up Better Books in the ‘60s, which was a bookshop, creative space, performance space. Allen Ginsberg came and did stuff there. And obviously, it’s going outside Britain, but Allen Ginsberg’s relationship with Blake is really strong. He came over to Better Books in the ‘60s and Cobbing’s explosion of visual and textual and sound work is incredibly similar in some ways to William Blake.
CR: It’s all quite hard to track down.
CM: That’s why it’s an interesting project. You’re mapping it out for the first time, so that’s really key.
CR: Generally, what do you see as the significance of Blake’s geographical imagery—be it within London or outside of it, global or local?
CM: A few things… Well, I think one is that as a writer, a poet, myself I think what’s significant is the way Blake internalises and objectifies London around him. It’s such a gift to be inside another poet’s working practice and that is the entirety of Blake’s working practice—it’s very meta, it’s very live, and very in the process of being worked out even while it’s presented as the finished work eventually. I find that interiority of London in Blake really interesting. There’s a few radical things he does with that. One is that you’ve got London but you’ve also got Albion as a figure as well, Albion as a giant, so you get a step into fantasy with Blake and the beginnings of the comic book as well. And then he’ll pull you back into a very specific location. Albion becomes Albion again. Sometimes you have to read what you’ve just read to make sure that you’ve understood. It’s that oscillation between a literal geography and a work of the imaginary. And then related to that is the merging and mixing up of real people with invented people, which I find really interesting. Everything is a source for creativity. So he will put Paine and Wesley and the Methodist figures alongside Urizen and Enitharmon and Los. I think that is interesting to me as a reworking of London because if you assimilate and allow the imagination to catch hold of it, it can be endless—rather than, ‘I’m going to write a poem about the Thames or Lambeth Palace,’ it’s far more unboundaried than that. I think that’s just a really, really interesting part of Blake. In the map you can’t forget that everything’s inside the Mundane Shell, beyond our ceiling—the sky—you’ve got eternity, you’ve got limitlessness, and the potential for all time to take place at once. So you have this wonderfully powerful anti-chronology, in which not just the real and the invented, but actually the dead, the living, and the future could all exist side by side, which makes it incredibly confusing and incredibly powerful.
I do find the international mapping quite interesting because I think he almost covered every continent, didn’t he—Africa, Asia, Europe, America. And he mentions other places. He mentions Liverpool once. He mentions a lot of places once. You get those long lists of places where it’s like ‘& Derbyshire & Lincoln &…’ and he just goes and goes and goes. But it is almost an attempt to include everything in one poem, which Walt Whitman later did for America later—you know, these great poems with all the people and all the places. But Blake clearly got there first with that. It’s quite interesting that he’s fascinated with the Cathedral Cities, isn’t he? It’s almost like they’re portals. I’ll just show you this, as well. You mentioned Blake’s fourfold thing. With my cemetery project, there’s a map that was created by Penned in the Margins—it’s got all the different cemeteries. Underneath that one—this is part of my own workings, if you like—I just thought it’d be interesting to do it, and it’s quite a fruitful potential mapping out of the cemeteries where it’s got the four sides of London and what they mean in Blake—the South is the eyes, the East is the nose, the North is the ear… I thought there’d be something in that.
I took it from Jerusalem, where Blake describes the different gates and how each of them are attached to a different sense and they have a different motif or image for each part of them. And some of those make absolute sense in terms of the cemeteries. The nose—the East—for me, that’s like the necropolis of the dead, where the Romans used to bury all the dead in East London. And he talks about cogs—the cogs being in the East of London—of course, you’ve got this great industrial part of London, with the docks and everything like that. So I’m still working through that, because I haven’t written all of the books yet.
CR: That’s so interesting to me. Those alignments.
CM: Yeah, it’s an alignment. It was kind of an interesting thing to do, coming out of Blake, because Blake’s always there in my London writing, as a source, as an endless source. And also it’s just very, very motivating. That’s the thing about Blake as a statement about creativity. There’s nobody quite like him because he just did it, you know, he carried on and he carried on and amassed this incredible body of work that he got barely any acclaim for in his lifetime. For me it’s incredibly motivating to open Blake and to have all this imagery and all these lines and all these ideas coalescing.
CR: It’s a whole world.
CM: Yeah, a whole world. It is its own language world, and its own visual world.
CR: Have you ever done readings of Blake—reading events—of his poetry?
CM: Yeah, so at Flat Time House actually, at the opening event I read from Jerusalem. I chose these moments in Jerusalem where it’s clearly Blake speaking—where he talks about ‘I sit’ and ‘I write’ in my room in South Molton Street and so on. The poem becomes so clear all of a sudden, this is a lyric poem from one poet to the reader and people really liked it, people who had struggled with Jerusalem and the whole mythology, they felt like Blake speaking to them in that way was really clear. It made me think, someone should do a volume of the moments where Blake comes through and is speaking because they’re incredible statements on creativity and the will to continue.
CR: Absolutely. It does bring relief, certainly, in the long poems, when he’s talking about places that we know he lived in and it’s just kind of a respite from the wall of words.
CM: Time disappears. In a way that Blake would’ve liked, time collapses in those moments, I think, and you feel you are with a writer allowing you into their moment of creation, and that’s why it’s so immediate, because rather than presenting you with something finished and polished, he’s telling you ‘I am here, I am struggling, but I am working and these things are happening around me,’ and there’s this confidence that someone will read this in the future, despite everything, someone will connect with it.