Psychic pull: an interview with Tamar Yoseloff

Tamar Yoseloff. Photo credit: Stephen Wells.

Poet, publisher, and tutor Tamar Yoseloff has been immersed in the London poetry scene since her move from the US in 1987. Yoseloff’s work is richly associative, threading together material drawn from multiple sources—among which William Blake and London feature prominently.

Yoseloff has published six full poetry collections, is a tutor and lecturer at the Poetry School and Newcastle University, and in 2012 co-founded with photographer Vici MacDonald a small press called Hercules Editions. The name ‘Hercules,’ Yoseloff explained in our recent interview (which you can read below), came partly from the fact that MacDonald was living at the time on Hercules Road in Lambeth, opposite the site where William and Catherine Blake had lived during the 1790s.

Many Hercules Editions publications bring together Yoseloff’s and MacDonald’s shared interest in psychogeography and the fabric of the city of London, exploring these territories through multimedia books combining words and pictures in ways that might make us think of Blake’s own illuminated books. Their first book, Formerly, combined MacDonald’s photographs of liminal or ‘disappearing’ fragments of London with poems composed for the purpose by Yoseloff.

Formerly by Tamar Yoseloff and Vici MacDonald (Hercules Editions, 2012). See https://www.herculeseditions.com/product-page/formerly.

In one recent Hercules Editions publication, The Practical Visionary by Sophie Herxheimer and Chris McCabe (2018), the stuff of the city is interwoven with visual and verbal allusions to and re-workings of Blake’s poetry and art.

The Practical Visionary by Sophie Herxheimer and Chris McCabe (Hercules Editions, 2018). See https://www.herculeseditions.com/product-page/the-practical-visionary-by-sophie-herxheimer-and-chris-mccabe.

Yoseloff was also one of a number of contributors to a recent exhibition held at Flat Time House in Peckham, entitled The Bard: William Blake at Flat Time House (30 January – 8 March 2020). The exhibition, co-curated by Chris McCabe and Gareth Bell-Jones, included a display of two series of 20th-century reprints of watercolour designs made by Blake for editions of Thomas Gray’s ‘The Bard’ and ‘The Fatal Sisters.’ Alongside these pictures, several poets were commissioned to contribute poems dwelling on the resonance of Blake’s and John Latham’s work in a contemporary context. Yoseloff’s poem, ‘Belief Systems,’ has recently been published in full by Long Poem Magazine.

Extract from Yoseloff’s ‘Belief Systems,’ as displayed in the Flat Time House exhibition The Bard: William Blake at Flat Time House. Photograph: Mark Blower, http://flattimeho.org.uk/exhibitions/bard/.

In our interview, Yoseloff describes her fascination with both Blake and Latham as figures espousing a kind of ‘total art’:

The life isn’t really separated from the practice. I think both of them spent a lot of time being frustrated by the powers that be. […] The world didn’t understand either one of them or what they were doing at the time that they were doing it. That’s another interesting connection between them—that frustration with what was seen to be quite an eccentric vision. With Latham it probably still is pretty eccentric, but now obviously Blake is in the Tate, and I don’t know whether he would be delighted or slightly peeved by that.

Our conversation roamed from the history of Hercules Editions, to the conception of ‘Belief Systems’ on a stormy day in Peckham, and to the surge of independent publishing ventures in recent years. Yoseloff’s comments tap into Blake’s ongoing legacy in the streets of London—the very streets where he himself once lived, walked, and worked. For Yoseloff, Blake’s biographical association with certain areas of London invests those areas with a kind of ‘psychic pull’ that continues to assert its vitality today.

Links

Tamar Yoseloff: https://www.tamaryoseloff.com/

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.

 

The Interview

 

We began by discussing Yoseloff’s involvement in the poetry and small-press scenes since her arrival in London in 1987.

TY: I’ve been involved with poetry and small presses in London since I moved here, which was—I hate to say this—33 years ago now. It’s been a long time.

CR: You’ve been in London itself that whole time?

TY: Yes.

CR: And where exactly in London have you spent that time?

TY: Well, I’m south of the river now. I started out in west London and I’ve been moving slowly south from there. When I started the press with a friend of mine, I was already living where I’m living now. I’ve been living in Stockwell for the last 13 years, I think. But before that I was living literally about 10 minutes’ walk from the site of Blake’s house on Hercules Road, so it’s a part of London I’m pretty familiar with.

CR: So when did you start Hercules Editions?

TY; The press began in 2012. We were never intending to start a press, my friend and I. It started out as a personal project. My friend Vici Macdonald was and still is a graphic designer and an art editor. I’ve known her almost the entire time I’ve been in London. She and I are fascinated by what we think of as provisional areas of London—places where gentrification hasn’t quite taken hold yet. Vici was particularly interested in shopfronts and signage, because as a graphic designer she was interested in typography, and actually after the Formerly project she then went on to start a site called Shopfront Elegy, where she just posted photographs of shopfronts and signage. Vici was in a creative slump and I had said to her, just in a very casual way, I’d love to do something with your photographs, because she had created quite a large personal archive, which she used as inspiration in her design work, but the photographs weren’t public in any way at that stage. So really it started out with me trying to get her to do something with them. I suggested that I write poems to go with some of the photographs. So I started a process of selection. She has now expanded her archive, so she has photographs from all over the world, but I decided that I would only choose ones from London, and I would choose ones that appealed to me. I ended up selecting them randomly, and not looking to see where she’d taken them, so I could enter into those locations without any preconceived notions, and then I wrote poems. At a certain stage we had enough of these pairings to make a book. We approached a few poetry publishers and we had interest from one press, who said, of course we would want to do this in our house style. Vici and I had already had quite a few conversations about the fibre of the book and how we wanted it to look, so we then decided that we would do it ourselves. We went off and bought some barcodes—you buy barcodes in tens—so we had ten barcodes and Vici said, well, we’d better publish a few more books. Then we had to think of a name for ourselves. I’m afraid to tell you that ‘Hercules Editions’ came partly from the fact that Vici was living on Hercules Road—it’s a slightly less romantic origin story—but we were also very aware of the Blakean connections and the idea of starting a press where we would combine textual elements with visual elements. It was also a little bit of a joke, because we thought, it’s a very grandiose name ‘Hercules Editions,’ and it’s this tiny press and we’re producing these tiny books—the book you have [The Practical Visionary}—all of our books are this size. So that was how we came about and why we’re Hercules Editions. We were both living in Lambeth as well and we’re interested in psychogeography, obviously. Our book is very much part of that project—and some of the other books that we’ve published for the press have had elements of that. We published a book by the poet Sean O’Brien called Hammersmith which is a long poem looking at the history of that area of London, particularly the river. Sean is interested in films from the ‘40s that depict London. Also, he was writing about his parents’ courtship, which happened just after the war. They were living in Hammersmith at the time. We were interested in people who were making those kinds of psychic connections to London.

CR: Have you published books on a vaster geographical scale, or have you tended to go for a more local geography?

TY: We’ve published a collection by the poet Helen Mort. She went walking on glaciers in Greenland—so that’s a bit further afield than London. What we liked about that project was she had been commissioned to write this poem by a composer, so she and the composer went on an expedition to Greenland together, and they had a filmmaker and photographer with them charting the progress of the walk. The only thing that didn’t exist at the end of this process was a print documentation. In the book we included pages from the composer’s score as well as Helen’s poem. We felt it needed another element, so we got in touch with the artist Emma Stibbon, whose drawing practice is informed by arctic regions and we used some of her drawings and watercolours in the book. We generally start with a poem. In the case of Helen’s poem, there were other elements in the project already, but what we tend to do is we start with a poem project we like and then we think about how to build a visual world around it. Sophie Herxheimer and Chris McCabe’s project was a little different, actually, in that they had run a couple of sessions for the Poetry School, which is where Sophie and Chris and I all teach. It was a two-day workshop where one of the sessions involved walking around Blakean sites in Lambeth and afterwards we ended up in the Tate looking at Blake’s works. We then went off to the print studio and made print works based on the things that we had picked up from the walk. After that session, I said to them, it would be terrific to do a book with you. Go off and make something, and whatever you do, I will just publish the results.

CR: So do you usually tend to have more creative involvement in the actual conception?

TY: More often than not, what we like is if somebody comes to us with a poem, and we’ll suggest things. So we’ll know an artist who we think would be an interesting match for the poet, or the poet and I sit down and think, what sort of illustration would be appropriate for this, is there something out there that exists already, is there something we can commission. So it’s quite different with each book. Each book follows the same format but the idea is to try and find a way of visually expanding the life of the text in some way. I don’t like to think of what we do in terms of the visual aspect as straightforward illustration. I like to think that we can find a kind of compatible visual complement to the poem. The Practical Visionary is different because this was completely collaborative. They worked out a formula for compiling the book between them. It started with these letters that they exchanged, where one was William Blake and the other was the citizens of London and then they swapped identities, and at the same time they created photographs of reflections inside puddles. Every time I met with them, there was a different element to the project. I watched the whole thing grow organically, which was fascinating. Because so much of it was about process. And that was actually quite exciting—to see it develop from thinking about how to start and exchanging these texts and then thinking about how they would build on that. Chris wasn’t really doing collage poems before this project and it’s brought a whole new strand to his practice.

CR: Yeah. Sophie Herxheimer was talking about increasingly working with collage as well—during her residency in the States and ongoing. What became of the prints, by the way, that you were making that day?

TY: Oh, I don’t know actually. I think everybody just went home with theirs. Some of them probably weren’t that great! Some of us—I speak for myself as well—some of us are not printmakers, so some of us were getting inky fingers and not much else.

CR: What kind of printing were you doing?

TY: Monotype and fairly basic print techniques.

CR: It sounds like a fun day! The other thing I wanted to ask you about was the Flat Time House exhibition, The Bard, that you were involved in and that Chris was involved in as well. So I wondered if you could tell me a little bit about how you came to be involved in that and the contribution that you wrote. I’ve only seen the small extract that was displayed…

TY: I can send you my poem if you want. It was published a few months ago, in its entirety, in a magazine called Long Poem Magazine. It was a tremendous project. I got involved because Chris asked me whether I wanted to do something. I think that’s the other thing which you’ve probably discovered in your research: there’s a real community now of poets, some of whom are running presses, some of whom are doing educational work, some of whom are also artists. There’s quite a network of people who end up doing projects together. So, you know, I have done other things with Chris, I have done other things with Sophie. We find that we end up together in different scenarios because our interests overlap. So Chris was commissioning, along with Gareth Bell-Jones, the Curator of Flat Time House, six poets to respond to the Blake exhibition that they had there. I was thinking about this the other day—we gave a reading at the end of February, which I think was pretty much the last big poetry event I went to before we went into lockdown. How strange is that.

There were two public readings, with three of the poets in each reading. I was already interested in the work of John Latham, and actually I had met Barbara Steveni, who sadly died just as the exhibition was opening. So I was already interested in Latham’s work and I had been to Flat Time House before. I think that for me the real similarity between Blake and Latham is this idea that the artwork wasn’t a separate consideration: it was part of a kind of worldview, a code of personal belief. It was a philosophy as much as an idea of producing art—the idea that Flat Time House was in itself an artwork. I sat in the kitchen at Flat Time House for an afternoon. There was this partial text on the wall—these letters—and I was going to email Gareth Bell-Jones and ask him what they had spelled out. And I never got round to doing it, so one of the aspects of my poem was about guesswork. The whole idea of exploring—filling in the gaps—became more interesting than actually knowing what it said. I also read the Thomas Gray poems that Blake had illustrated, and I found a few interesting parallels between the way I was thinking about Latham and the way I was thinking about Blake and some of the material in Gray’s poems. When I read that poem now it feels as if there are little hints of the pandemic to come—I was very depressed about Brexit at that time, as I think a lot of people were. And also, I was walking around Peckham and I got to the train station and I went into a café to have a coffee, just to consolidate my notes and think a little bit more about the experience of being in the house—I wanted to get out of the house to process what that had meant. We had one of those big storms—you know, the kind of storm that has a name—and so it was quite a blustery day, and there were a group of homeless men dotted around outside the station and they had duvets over their heads and they were hooded in the way that some of those figures—the bardic figures—in the Thomas Gray cycle are. Suddenly something just clicked between the visual representation that Blake makes of Gray’s poems, and the moment that we were in just then—and we didn’t really even know what moment we were in but it was about to get a lot worse—and seeing these homeless men… That was where the poem began.

Chris had given us quite a tight deadline. So I think I sat in that café and wrote what were to become the first ten lines of the poem, and those were the ones that were on the wall in the exhibition. They came from the experience of sitting there and actually connecting those homeless men to those cowled figures in Blake.

CR: What was the nature of the brief that you were given?

TY: It was fairly wide. I would need to go back to Chris’s original message to us, but I think it was to respond to Blake and Latham and the connections between them, and Peckham. Keith Jarrett, who was one of the other poets who had been commissioned, his poem was a lot more about Peckham, because I think he was living there, or he had been living there, and so his was more to do with the psychogeography of the place. When Latham first bought Flat Time House it was very much a community of artists around there. Traces still exist, in that these artists put up murals and sculptures along that road. Some of them are quite famous, like Antony Gormley, but this was back when they were all starving artists with little studios there. So there was already this sense of a place where artists gravitated, partly out of poverty, but it then became a creative hub. One of the events was a walk around Peckham, where he [Chris McCabe] was talking about Blake’s sighting of the angel at Peckham Rye, so we were again thinking about that connection to Peckham as well. So the brief was really broad. He said, just respond to all these different elements—to Latham, to Blake, to Peckham, to Thomas Gray. So my poem is very much an assemblage of lots of different elements. I quote lines from Blake and from Thomas Gray and I quote things that Latham said about his practice.

CR: Did you find some interesting connections between Blake and Latham, then?

TY: The life isn’t really separated from the practice. I think both of them spent a lot of time being frustrated by the powers that be. You can see Latham getting really grumpy with the council and with places where he was teaching. He would do outrageous things like get his entire class to eat copies of a Clement Greenberg text and then regurgitate them. Then they were burning books—he got thrown out of quite a few places where he was teaching. You can see Blake railing against authority and railing against some of his benefactors. The world didn’t understand either one of them or what they were doing at the time that they were doing it. That’s another interesting connection between them—that frustration with what was seen to be quite an eccentric vision. With Latham it probably still is pretty eccentric, but now obviously Blake is in the Tate, and I don’t know whether he would be delighted or slightly peeved by that.

CR: It was such an interesting pairing, I think, those two—Latham and Blake. In Blake’s work there was this urgent need to be recognised, but at the same time wanting to position himself in opposition to anything too established or too systematic. It’s paradoxical, perhaps, because he doesn’t really fit.

TY: Exactly. And, I think, nor did Latham. As is often the case, Latham is now being revered after his death. Obviously there was that Serpentine retrospective about three or four years ago, and again I don’t know whether he would’ve been delighted by that.

The thing that I found most interesting about the Tate exhibition was that it was very much looking at Blake as somebody trying to pedal his trade. There was a lot about him as a kind of jobbing printer, and a lot of things that he’d made from commissions before he was making his own creative projects. I remember a few reviews were quite sniffy about that—somehow they didn’t like that aspect of the show, but I found that fascinating. It was the first time I really thought about Blake as somebody trying to struggle just to make a living. I thought those early rooms where you saw him developing first as an artist and a printer and then trying to pedal his trade—I found that really fascinating, because I think we haven’t really looked at that side of Blake. As somebody who’s been involved with poetry publishing in London—we are not able to do this without public grants. So that whole idea of Blake being hard-edged about money and what he was going to earn from doing things, I found that really fascinating. And just trying to think of ways of doing things that not only would be enriching to him but would be financially profitable.

CR: Yes—innovating, as well. But, I think, he had to do a lot of stuff that he didn’t necessarily like so much, until he could get enough to make these amazing self-published books.

TY: Exactly, yeah. Again, he had benefactors—he had people who supported him. It’s difficult when you’re making things like that, because you know that your audience is going to be limited, and I think he felt that very acutely in his lifetime.

CR: When did you become interested in Blake? Was it before you came to London?

TY: Since I’ve lived in London, I’ve been more aware of him. And I’ve been more aware of the kind of psychic pull of that part of London, because I lived just on the side of the Imperial War Museum for about ten years. When I first discovered the blue plaque on the site of his house on Hercules Road, I thought, oh that’s exciting. And then, you know, you find these things like the little mosaics hidden away under the railway bridge. I think Chris is more eloquent on this than I am, because he’s really been mapping Blake quite extensively, and Blake’s travels through South London, and trying to find the tree where he saw the angels. I love that idea that he’s determined he’s going to find the actual tree.

CR: I think the phrase ‘psychic pull’ is really great. It’s something that a lot of people seem drawn to, who I’ve been speaking to, or who I’ve come across, which is really quite striking, I think. I mean, obviously there’s a lot of people who write about London and who inspire others who also write about London, but I do think that’s something particularly interesting about ‘Blakean’ London and the way people are drawing on that.

TY: When I first moved to London, I was amazed by the fact that you can walk around the city of London and find remnants of Roman wall. That kind of blew the top of my head off. When I was growing up in New Jersey, I used to find Indian arrowheads in the field and that was the beginning of my interest in these layers of history and layers of settlement. Vici’s project is also about that. Often she would photograph a building just as it was on the verge of being torn down. So there’s this idea of preservation and recording and trying to consider what’s been on this site before you. I think a lot of my interest as a poet has been about that.

CR: So fascinating—and, I think, so fascinating to Blake as well. The other thing is other ‘Blakeans.’ Obviously you know Chris McCabe and Sophie Herxheimer and you would’ve known people at the Flat Time House show—what about others?

TY: I think Chris probably mentioned Niall McDevitt to you. He is the reincarnation, I think, because he is very steeped in Blake and I think he and Chris are the most knowledgeable Blakeans that I know.

CR: Have you been involved with the Blake Society?

TY: Yeah, a little bit when we were promoting the book. Chris and Sophie did an event in their premises in Soho.

One thing is that since Hercules began, there are so many small presses now doing similar projects. I’m sure Chris mentioned Henningham Press to you. I see a lot of people working more in the space between poetry and visual art and thinking about the materiality of the book. In normal times, we would be having the Free Verse book fair. That’s always been an opportunity to see what other presses are up to in terms of their practice and in terms of the sort of books they’re producing.

CR: Do you feel that it’s grown a lot in that time?

TY: Yeah, every year there seem to be more presses coming up and I feel we’re in a good time for that. DIY publishing projects have really grown in the last five years. I think it’s often something that happens in recession. People are producing far more handmade and bespoke publications and I’m quite interested in all of that as well, even though our books are digitally printed. I think it’s quite a healthy time for that kind of poetry production.

Blake, zines, and gouda cheese: an interview with Max Reeves

Max Reeves (second from right) with members of the William Blake Congregation and Blake Bloc at Bunhill Fields, 2017.

As part of my research into Blake’s legacy in the realm of independent and self-publishing, I recently spoke to photographer, publisher, and activist Max Reeves. Reeves is the founder of a small press called Entropy Press, a not-for-profit collective which was initially set up in the basement of a faculty building at Auckland University in 1987.

‘Mind-Forg’d Manacles,’ one of the Papakura Post Office zines.

The project was re-launched in London in 2009, when Reeves began printing a series of zines called Papakura Post Office: A Spazmodical Zine and Raven’s Revenge. The Papakura zines collate Reeves’ own psychogeographical photography with poetry and art by those in his entourage including Niall McDevitt, Stephen Micalef, and Aidan Dun, to name a few especially Blakean contributors. Based in London’s East End, Reeves continues to publish experimental work of many kinds. Entropy creations fuse poetry, photography, and other artworks in multimedia books and zines that flicker with wide-eyed visions of a sometimes menacing, sometimes miraculous metropolis.

Reeves is also involved in a group called the Blake Bloc, an activist collective who march under a Blakean banner. The banner was designed by Matthew Couper and features imagery drawn from Blake’s illuminations, a portrait of Blake, and the slogan ‘Opposition is true friendship,’ excerpted from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

The Blake Bloc banner, designed by Matthew Couper.

Adopting Blake as a poster-boy for radical protest in the spirit of ‘60s counterculture, the Blake Bloc have participated in anti-fascist and anti-racist demonstrations, and in recent demonstrations at Tate Britain over staff cuts.

The Blake Bloc banner outside Tate Britain during a demonstration, August 2020.

The group also overlaps with the William Blake Congregation, recently joining in celebrations on Blake’s ‘death day’ on 12 August 2020 to commemorate the occasion. The gathering at Bunhill Fields, the site of Blake and Catherine’s burial, doubled as the first World Anti Fascism Poetry Day, marking the events of 12 August 1952 (The Night of the Murdered Poets), when thirteen Soviet Jewish poets were executed in the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow under false charges of espionage and treason against the Soviet Union.

In the interview, which you can read in full below, Reeves took us on a jaunt through his fascinating experiences with independent and ‘underground’ publishing. From student agit prop in ‘80s Auckland to poetry and photography zines in digital-age London, Reeves’ stories are alive with the spirit of Blake and with the radical zeal of so many independent publishing ventures to this day.

Highlights from the interview include Reeves’ stories about running photocopiers to the ground to churn out copies of Situationist Times issues during his student days, and ironing out crumpled poems from the pockets of his friend, the prolific poet Stephen Micalef. Reeves also spoke of the ‘resonance’ of William Blake in a present-day context:

People really personalise Blake, and people tend to be very very passionate about Blake, and kind of overly protective. And he is like Mr Archetypal Counterculture, so you can trace him through all sorts of movements—obviously Allen Ginsberg, and I think he’s on Sargeant Pepper, and all sorts of things… So he’s a really resonant figure. He’s almost like an icon to latch onto, especially these days when neoliberalism has sort of flattened everything and monetised everything. To have this sort of beacon to reach out to, I think, is incredibly inspirational. I think it’s something that people can form around in all sorts of different ways.

In Reeves’ work, Blake is there as an ‘icon’ of many things—self-publishing, experimentalism, protest, anarchism—and his comments push out into the wider ways in which Blake has been fragmented and reworked throughout an afterlife far more illustrious than his actual life.

 

Links

More about Max: https://maxreeves.com/.

To find out more about Entropy Press, visit their website: https://www.entropypress.co.uk/.

Other things mentioned in the interview:

See Niall McDevitt’s blog: https://poetopography.wordpress.com/author/niallmcdevitt/. Niall’s work is frequently published by New River Press: http://www.thenewriverpress.com/.

For Stephen Micalef, Helen Elwes, and The William Blake Congregation, see https://williamblakecongregation.wordpress.com/the-william-blake-congregation/.

 

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.

 

The Interview

 

Launching straight in, we started off talking about the 2019/20 Blake show at Tate, for which the tagline was ‘Rebel Radical Revolutionary.’

Max Reeves: I was sort of saying to the curator, you know, what’s so ‘radical,’ ‘revolutionary’ about it—it doesn’t bear any particular relation to the exhibition, it’s just branding. That’s the thing about Blake: why are the establishment so keen to colonise Blake? He is the archetypal countercultural figure, he’s the archetypal outsider. These are the kind of people who hated Blake, but there you go, therein lies the rub, I guess.

Caroline Ritchie: I came to Blake’s ‘birthday party’ celebration at Tate Britain in 2019—I think you were involved in that?

MR: Stephen Micalef and Helen Elwes, they run the William Blake Congregation, which is for living Blake people. They live the life, they don’t just quote the quote. They’ve been doing that for twenty odd years, every time, every Blake birthday, which again ties into psychogeography and all that. In the Blake room at Tate Britain, they’ll have a sort of live performance celebration, and it’s kind of been more or less tolerated by Tate. Actually at the last one, which happened during the exhibition, so we couldn’t actually go into the room—well, there wasn’t any Blake in the room—I managed to basically get the Tate to agree to have an after-hours walk-through for the Congregation or whoever wanted to come. It was a two-hour walk through the exhibition. It’s kind of become semi-official now, it’s part of the agenda of Tate now, which is quite nice, and interesting as well. We didn’t put it on Facebook, it was sort of word-of-mouth.

CR: I’d also like to know a bit more about Entropy Press. Could you tell me about how that came to be?

MR: Basically, I went to university in Auckland—Auckland University—where I became involved in this anarchist group called the Pleasure Party that used to put on gigs—there was a big underground music scene at the time. We used to put on gigs for all our friends who were all in bands at the university venue. The guy that ran it—this guy called Simon Coffey (aka Saint Simon) —he also made a magazine called Catalyst. I was doing a literary magazine thing called Catacomb with one of my friends called Joanna Larkin. In those days everything was xeroxed. So you’d cut and paste and glue things and then go back to the xerox machine and reduce it by 5% to fit it in and all that.

CR: Very old school.

MR: Yeah, so then through this network, and one of my friends who was in my little group—a guy called Ian Collins. Basically there was this guy who wasn’t a student, but you know back in the ‘80s, back in those days it was free to go to university, so university was like a place for people to hang out, you had these people who were ‘professional students,’ some guys that had been enrolling in the same courses for twenty years just to hang out and do stuff and join the clubs and all that, it was much more of a cultural thing. There was this guy who was about twenty years older than us called Bruce Grenville, and he ran a printing press—he had a Heidelberg electric pattern press, so we’re talking all linotype and type and ink… We kind of got to know him and he had this table-top press called an Adana, it’s about A4 sized, and you’d print each page individually. So me and this guy Ian, basically we bought one of those. He had a room in the basement of I think it was the Human Sciences building or something. We used to go there and do all sorts of stuff, you know, print stickers for all our friends who were in bands, sticker the city with bands. I remember there was this really annoying group called Youth for Christ who were just everywhere trying to convert people and pushing a very conservative social agenda, so we made a false Satanic group called Youth for Antichrist and printed these Satanic tracts and just plastered them all over town, which of course was just me and Ian, but they freaked out and spent lots of money on a counter campaign. So it was sort of a little bit agit prop, a little bit doing things for our mates—you know, printing letterhead. But also we used to make books and bootleg books. So the Situationist Times—I don’t know if you ever encountered that, by Larry Law—these little A6 books. We’d print covers and we’d xerox the insides.

In those days you had photocopier salespeople: they’d give you a photocopier on trial and you’d pretend you were interested, so Bruce would get a photocopier dropped off like on Friday afternoon at someone’s flat and then just run it to the ground—we’d have a solid 24-hour Friday to Monday morning kind of party where people would have shifts, and whatever anyone needed photocopying, they’d photocopy. So we’d buy tons and tons of paper and toner. And the poor salesman would show up on Monday morning and the thing would just be having a nervous breakdown and falling to pieces. So we’d photocopy the inside of the books and guillotine them to size, and then we’d print the covers. So we did all the Situationist books—bear in mind this was the ‘80s and New Zealand was way out alone in the middle of the Pacific and overseas books were not that easy to get.

CR: Did you then distribute them around the university mainly?

MR: Yeah, we’d give them to our friends or we’d put posters up. We had PO boxes. Also we were sort of illegally living in the inner city in office spaces and things like that, because in those days the inner city was kind of empty. So we’d set up sort of temporary galleries and all sorts of stuff. I remember Ian printed Principia Discordia as well, things like that, underground things that are sort of ten-a-penny now but were in those days actually quite difficult to get. Bruce Grenville, besides being an anarchist and a printer, was also an Egyptologist and philatelist, so he actually invented his own country and managed to get UN recognition by Belgium and some American company gave him thousands of dollars for exclusive rights to print the stamps, so he made a sort of strange empire. There was all sorts of weird stuff going on like that, so printing stamps and just whatever took our fancy. I remember making a book called ‘The Proverbs of Amenemope,’ who was an Egyptian prophet. There’s a book in the Bible—‘Proverbs’—kind of ripped off this Egyptian so we printed the original as another swipe at Youth for Christ. Challenging the hegemony so to speak. So we were sort of doing that, and we had our little hand press, which we could carry around easily, because we’d move from flat to flat or whatever. I ended up getting a Victorian treadle press which I gave to a friend of mine. So that was that—that was all in Auckland.

The other thing was that in New Zealand—you know ISBN numbers?—in Auckland you just wrote off to the central library and they just posted you, for free pages and pages and pages of ISBN numbers. So everything was ‘official’ because we could chuck an ISBN number on it and it would go to the archive and stuff. And it got logged in perpetuity in the National Library. We used to print badges as well, used to get a bit of money by printing badges. We were sort of existing on nothing—we were all really poor students eating Hari Krishna food and stuff. I remember Tuesdays were Art Openings Day and in those days most of the gallerys laid on food at openings so we’d had a nice art dinner. We had a sideline in homebrew as well, which we’d sell to all the underage punk rockers. So we’d print the beer labels and just stuff like that. So anyway, I left Auckland in 1990, and kind of left everything behind, and basically moved to London. I’ve stayed here ever since.

CR: What brought you to London?

MR: Oh, just Auckland—especially in those days—seemed super authoritarian. Very conservative and seemed tiny. I thought it was really boring. In hindsight, with our little counterculture movement going on, it was pretty exciting, but at the time it just seemed like the arse-end of the planet… which it kind of is—and authoritarian, which kind of ties in with Blake. It was a very different world back then. People who dressed diferently, thought differently, were not just expressing their individuality but seemed to be challenging society itself. Which I guess many of us were. Classic small town stuff. You’d almost risk getting beaten up for not wearing an All Blacks jersey, (well not really but you know what I mean) if you walked into a bank or somewhere like that some people would just look at you like you were just not welcome… not that there were any pubs, but you wouldn’t get let into any pubs because you were looking too scruffy and all this. It just seemed like a sort of authoritarian nightmare. And of course, you just want to see the world. And everything seemed to be happening in London.

Basically, then I just started doing other stuff, photography and dark room sort of stuff. Then everything was kind of on a hiatus, I guess. And then I went from black-and-white analog to digital, photography-wise. So then I found myself with digital photos. I still very much like printed matter, I don’t particularly like websites as a platform to present photography and that, they’re okay obviously, but there’s nothing quite like a thing in your hand, a book. Then I was in this housing co-op called Phoenix and we had the idea to make a little annual zine thing. Obviously I used to do a zine at university about literature and poetry and whatever. And then I thought yeah, let’s do a zine. And it just so happened that one of the guys in the co-op worked at a bank—a socialist guy. He basically did his own projects on the side. And then I thought, oh I’ve got these ISBNs, even though it’s a different country, chuck an ISBN on it I got enough of them why not? So we did this one-off zine for the housing co-op and I met the printer and to cut a long story short I thought, I’ll do another zine, why not. It was very cheap printing, I just used to chuck him twenty quid or so for beer. And so then I started the Papakura Post Office, which was supposed to be a collaboration of all my different friends, doing things, and ended up being mostly my photography, because it’s a pain to chase people all the time, and if you can just do it yourself, you just do it. The idea was to have this outlet for our London-based bunch of people.

CR: Where does that name come from—Papakura Post Office?

MR: The city where I’m from, which has now actually been swallowed up by greater Auckland, was called Papakura, in the south. And there was some graffiti we saw when we were teenagers during the punk era. There was one band called Papakura Post Office and I don’t even know if they existed as a band but they just spray painted—they had a graffiti campaign which I really enjoyed. And of course when you’re sort of isolated in a cultural outpost, post office—tying into this philately thing and fictitious states, there’s a network of fictitious states. So for example I used to correspond with this Native American guy who has his own state on a houseboat in Seattle. His name was Dogfish and his girlfriend was Dragonfly—we used to send them stamps, and they used to send us stamps, and so the post office was a way of reaching out and communicating and keeping a sort of underground network. It just seemed like a funny name and it sort of alliterated, so…

CR: So some of the work was contributed by other people who you were friends with?

MR: I had all these networks from various places. There was a network of poets from this pub—there’s an old bank turned into a pub venue—called the Foundry in Shoreditch, and there was this open microphone poetry evening called Wormworld, which is where I met Niall McDevitt. And then Phoenix, and there was this magazine called Mute, which had this cultural milieu and scene around it. And just the squatting scene and Tony’s Café and Broadway Market when that was a squatted concern and all those things. And New Zealand connections—lots of New Zealanders came over and squatted in Peckham in the 90s and, some I knew from Uni and Ilam (Auckland’s Art School) you know, just people that you pick up, I guess a sort of underground network or something, sort of non-mainstream.

CR: I noticed that there are a few of those pamphlets—the Papakura Post Office ones—that have Blake stuff in them. Was that when you started getting into Blake, or had that been there earlier?

MR: I grew up in the suburbs. I used to go to the local library and peruse the Encyclopaedia Britannica and later my parents bought an old set of World Books Encyclopaedia, I think it was called. I wanted to educate myself, so I think probably I knew of Van Gogh or something, so you’d go to Van Gogh and then read that, and then in the footnotes would be ‘see Byron’ or something, so you’d go to Byron, and eventually everything seemed to lead to Blake. So it was in my consciousness. Also, I lived in the East End and my kids went to a school just off the Barbican, so basically I’d end up going through Bunhill Fields to drop them off and pick them up. For the best part of twenty years I’d be walking past Blake’s grave, strangely. So Blake’s always been there even if he seemed difficult and strange, and meeting people that I got on with, people like Micalef and Niall… Most of what I know about Blake I get filtered through these proper experts who live and breathe Blake. Niall’s walks, endless nights in the pub… Me and Niall and Anthony from Mute started this thing called the Wetherspoons Underground Sykogeosophy club. We’d do a series of walks.

CR: Did you say psychogeosophy? Or psychogeography? What do you mean by this term?

MR: Sykogeosophy. My son Marlowe, when he was about three or four, invented this thing called SykoGeosofy, and then forgot what it was. I like to keep it as a vague, slightly brainy sounding thing. So we’d follow the underground rivers and Niall would come on the walks and different people would come on the walks, like my friend Glen, who was in Class War, for example, he’d know a lot of political stuff, and he’s also a gardener, so he’s bring a lot of facts about the flora on the way, following the underground rivers. Niall, likewise, was a poetry expert, so that the walks took on a very poetic aspect. And Niall’s actually got his own thing going on called ‘Poetopography’.

CR: Are Niall McDevitt and Steve Micalef your main Blakean comrades?

MR: Yeah, I guess so. They’re both poets who live and breathe the spirit of Blake. There’s another friend of mine, Robin, who is peripheral to the Blake Society as well, I think he’s still a member, but kind of an outside member. He used to be the caretaker, I think, of Bunhill Fields. He’s very much a Blakean and he was looking after that, and he used to run events at Shoreditch Church—a lot of theatre, but I remember they’ve done things like a reading from beginning to end of Jerusalem, which I think was like nine hours long. There were about twenty people there all taking different parts and reading it out loud.

CR: Have you had much to do with the Blake Society? Have you joined in their events and such, or not so much?

MR: No, I’m not particularly interested. You know about Blake’s birthday at Tate Britain; every Deathday the Congregation have done an event on his grave—have a picnic—and poetry readings and stuff. And last year—or whenever it was, the year before—it coincided with the unveiling of this plaque, so it was this weird truce between the Blake Society and the Congregation and we had started this thing called Blake Bloc, which is supposed to be like a pretend paramilitary wing of the Congregation. So we had our banner up and the Society were there, and it was a perfect example of what Blake’s about—you had this awful public school choir doing the worst version of Jerusalem I ever heard, and then you had this sort of right-wing nationalist ‘comic’ doing some spiel, on the other hand you had Micalef talking about punk and Blake… and then you had Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden, who’s a complete Blakean as well. He did a fantastic story about when he was a rockstar in some hotel crawling about on his hands and knees with his hair all down, naked, and then looking in the mirror and having a vision of Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar. So that kind of illuminated the contradictions that Blake is. I guess what I’m about, and sort of what we’re all about, is sort of claiming Blake—although I mean who knows what Blake would’ve thought, we can’t speak for him—but claiming him for the counterculture, for what he was, which was a political radical, a religious visionary, a proto-anarchist actually. In fact, I’ve got a book in front of me by Peter Marshall [Max showed Marshall’s William Blake: Visionary Anarchist]. I think the nadir for me was Tracy Emin coupling herself with Blake at Tate Liverpool… Who the hell allowed that! That’s very un-okay.

CR: Are you still making books at the moment?

MR: Yeah, so I did the Papakura Post Office books—I think there’s about eight of them—the last two just ended up being showcases for my photography, so I thought it was getting boring. I was still using the New Zealand ISBN. This is kind of personal, but for me, for my photography, I’ve always wanted to make books, to make kind of coherent statements. But it’s always been impossible to get published unless, you know, whatever—I’ve always found it difficult. So basically, the price of online printing used to be very astronomical through things like Blurb, and then it kind of came down into a vaguely affordable realm. So then I thought, okay, I’ve got this press, I may as well start making my own photo books, which is what I’ve always wanted to do. So then I thought, okay, I’d better get some UK ISBNs, only to find out that instead of being like millions for free, they’re like 80 quid each, or 150 quid for ten. So I bit the bullet and bought ten of them, and started slowly experimenting and trying to figure out how to make photo books.

And then Steve Micalef, he’s really really interesting. He’s very much from a punk rock background—DIY—in fact, if you ever meet him, he’s got pockets full of poems. Which is a nightmare—me and Helen are kind of ironing out his poems so we can scan them. So yeah, apart from my photo books, I thought, god, Micalef’s never been published, this is insane. So with this online thing that’s super cheap, you can print it. Because he’s always essentially broke himself—he’s never had a job other than being a poet—i.e. he’s never been monetised as such. So we found a really cheap way of printing his poetry, so we’ve done two now. He was the editor of this really seminal punk zine called Sniffin’ Glue—he was one of the editors for a while. So we did a book on his punk years. He interviewed all the punk bands—was probably the first person to interview tons of these people. We did a book of his poems on that, and then we did a book of his poems on Felpham. We’re currently supposed to be doing one on Soho. I’d like to publish tons and tons of his books, because he’s really worthwhile. So that’s how it is now. I think we’ve made five or six of my photography books, then two of Micalef’s. I’m using the lockdown to try to make more…

People really personalise Blake, and people tend to be very very passionate about Blake, and kind of overly protective. And he is like Mr Archetypal Counterculture, so you can trace him through all sorts of movements—obviously Allen Ginsberg, and I think he’s on Sargeant Pepper, and all sorts of things… So he’s a really resonant figure. He’s almost like an icon to latch onto, especially these days when neoliberalism has sort of flattened everything and monetised everything. To have this sort of beacon to reach out to I think is incredibly inspirational, I think it’s something that people can form around in all sorts of different ways.

CR: Do you get the feeling that that’s been sort of reawakened more recently, or has it always been there while you’ve been working?

MR: I think it’s always been there. It’s just maybe harder to see. I don’t know how old you are, but obviously we’ve gone from a very dichotomised world where there’s been the establishment, the mainstream, and the underground, whereas now everything’s been so… This is kind of irrelevant, but South of Auckland, somewhere near Huntley, there was this Dutch guy that made a little cheese home factory thing, next to the Waikato River. It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive from Papakura, so I used to go on these drives down to buy some Gouda. The last time I went, which was ten years ago, I couldn’t find the place. They’d built this entire motorway system. It’s actually funny, they wanted to steamroll through things but the local Maori claimed that there was a Taniwha in the water that needed protecting—I think it’s the first time that a river’s been protected from a mythological creature. It’s a fantastic story. Anyway, I was driving ‘round, thinking, god, it’s gone, after all these years. I think I went online and phoned them up and they said, no no, we’re here. So I found them eventually and I said, I’m sure you guys were over there—have you just moved? And they said, no no, we’ve always been here, everything else has been landscaped around us. So they’ve always been here doing their thing, making cheese, it’s just the entire environment has changed. And I think that’s kind of the same: it’s easy to overlook, and you have to look for it, but it’s never left.

Blakespotting, February 2021

Morfydd Clark in Saint Maud

The passing of an era was marked at the end of the month by the death of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, described by Global Times as “the last great poet of the Beat Generation who helped to establish the counter-culture movement”. Born in 1919, Felinghetti was famous for setting up City Lights bookstore and publisher, through which he issued key books of the Beats – most notably Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956 – and he was a key thinker in the political and moral stance of the counter-culture over the coming decades. He was also, with Ginsberg, a keen enthusiast of Blake, becoming involved in Ginsberg’s 1970s project to record a number of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. He was recorded in 1972 singing “Ah! Sunflower”, “The Garden of Love” and “The Nurse’s Song” with John Fahey, and in an interview in 2016 he explained the importance of Blake’s poems to Ginsberg’s own works.

While exhibitions have been a rare occurrence in the age of pandemic lockdowns, one such event in February showed the ways in which Blake’s art remain relevant to contemporary practitioners. Richard Ayodeji Ikhide’s Future Past opened on 11 February at V.O Curations, the first of its exhibitions to mark the new gallery in Mayfair. Nigerian-born Ikhide who studied textile design at Central Saint Martins and a postgraduate diploma at the Royal Drawing School, has been artist in residence at V.O and draws on a wide range of inspirations, from prehistoric Japanese culture to European artists such as El Greco and Blake. In an interview with Steve Turner, he recounts how for his postgraduate studies he had to select an artist for his presentation:

I selected William Blake and I am so happy that I did. His emphasis on imagination, spirituality and open-mindedness resonated with me. I love that he railed against slavery in his poems and that he built his own mythology.

Future Past is open until 20 March and selections of his work can be seen in the Steve Turner online solo exhibition, Cosmic Memory.

Another cultural casualty of the COVID has, of course, been the film industry. Saint Maud, a British psychological horror movie that follows a hospice nurse, Maud, and her obsession with a former dancer in her care, received its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2019 and was slated for general release in April and May 2020. It was eventually shown on some screens in the UK in October 2020, but only received a limited US release in the USA at the end of January 2021, the same date that it appeared on DVD in Britain. Although it was well-received in the UK, American reviews were more mixed throughout February: the Chicago Tribune that some would appreciate the religious themes in the film “more than others”, while the Boston Globe recommended it even for those fans of horror whose tastes ran in a different direction. The movie’s difference in part stems from the work of writer/director Rose Glass, and performances by Morfydd Clark and Jennifer Ehle, and the Blakean connection is a gift of a book of Blake’s drawings made by the dancer Amanda (Ehle) to Maud (Clark). We’ll be following up with a review shortly.

One thoughtful article to appear during February was Pete Yeo’s ecocritical meditation on an evergreen and pleasant land for Finding Blake. First published by the University of York’s Leverhulme Centre for Anthropocene Biodiversity, Yeo’s work was adapted to make explicit the ways that he draws on Blake stanzas from Milton a Poem – more famously known as the hymn “Jerusalem” – for an understanding of the changing climate of Britain’s evergreen plant life. The long view of the biodiversity of the British Isles does, of course, show us a land which was not always so green and pleasant, not least when it was covered in ice age glaciers, yet contemplating the deep time of life in this corner of the Atlantic also leads Yeo to reflect on the comparisons between spirituality and unified physics, most aptly caught for him in Blake’s lines:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Blake’s biblical paintings for Thomas Butts

I shall be making a presentation about my new book,  Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake, to the Blake Society this Wednesday (17 February). The following is an extract from the book which references some of the paintings I’ll be discussing on Wednesday.

The starting commission [for Thomas Butts] was a series of fifty-three paintings illustrating the Bible, the majority of which were completed in 1799 although some were painted when the Blakes were in Felpham. For these works, Butts paid more than £400. Of the series, only thirty remain of which seven deal with subjects from the Old Testament, and the remainder from the New Testament. The medium for these paintings was tempera, water-based pigments bound with gum or glue, and they were intended as “cabinet paintings”, smaller pieces that could be hung on the walls of the Butts’ residence. When composing his paintings, Blake applied the pigment in multiple layers, often reinforcing outlines with black ink and glazing the finished work with glue. The editors of the Blake Archive say that Blake may have been trying to create “jewel-like paintings”, as he later described them in his Descriptive Catalogue as “enamels” and “precious stones” (E531). A number of the temperas were also painted on copper, further enhancing their jewel-like nature. Unfortunately, the medium was unstable as the different layers expanded and contracted at different rates – leading to cracking – while the carpenters glue used by Blake frequently dulled and browned over time. 

 

Despite these problems with Blake’s medium, some of the paintings in the series that have survived demonstrate his astonishing imagination when dealing with biblical subjects. Naomi Billingsley is correct to point out that we should be careful of ascribing too clear an understanding of the series as earlier critics, such as David Bindman and Mary Lynn Johnson have done. While the temptation is to treat these as some kind of narrative journey demonstrating Blake’s understanding of the role of Christ, we simply no longer have the complete sequence of paintings and such a story “may not have been intended by Blake in the original scheme.” Rather, over a period of four years, these were biblical subjects that appealed to both Blake and Butts, although the fact that five of the extant paintings are larger than the rest (around 30 by 50 cm rather than 27 x 38 cm) and all illustrate the life of Christ indicate that these were intended as a series.  

 

The paintings as a whole do not need to be seen as explaining a consistent Christology, but there are clear innovations that mark these out as separate to Blake’s contemporaries. In his depiction of The Nativity, for example, Jesus springs from Mary in an entirely unrealistic but wholly inspirational fashion, a glowing ideal who leaps towards the outstretched hands of Mary’s sister, Elizabeth. Likewise, as Billingsley demonstrates with comparisons to contemporary art works such as J. M. W. Turner’s Holy Family (1803), Blake’s images renounce any form of naturalism: they are intended to inspire the viewer to consider the nature of Christ rather than to seek out the historical Jesus. Two very striking images are from Old Testament subjects. The first, Eve Tempted by the Serpent, is another image painted on copper, and while it also uses tempera with glue or gum binder as well as pen and ink outlines, the use of gold highlights make this image shine. This would be a technique that Blake would use several times – most notably with the coloured copy of Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion – to make his art works shine in a literal act of illumination. Blake’s study of the subject is also unique – and one that he would return to several times throughout his career. Eve, naked, stands full-frontal to the viewer with no shame or modesty, befitting entirely her status before the fall: she is an example of the human form divine that will be lost when mankind seeks to cover up its glorious nakedness. Adam is asleep next to her – the last time that man will sleep in such an innocent state – and the serpent coils alongside her body, for all the world appearing more like a wingless dragon than the typical snake of Christian art. The scene is dark and foreboding, prefiguring the collapse of the world that will take place, yet because Blake is deliberately capturing Eve in her innocence, the overall effect is startling: as she reaches up for the apple, which we cannot see, she seems fully confident. It would be tempting to see her as revelling in the act of taking the forbidden fruit, but I think this is to misinterpret the scene: Eve does not yet know sin – the expression on her face is calm and peaceful, more like representations of the Buddha than the accusatory depictions of the fallen woman who “Brought Death into the World, and all our woe / With loss of Eden” (Paradise Lost, I.1-2). We are presented with mankind at the final moment before the Fall, and this picture for me inspires incredible sadness at what will be lost. 

 

Another image in the series continues ththeme of the fall in an even more disturbing way: Abraham and Isaac shows the two figures standing between an altar prepared with wood to burn a sacrifice and a thicket where a ram is caught, illustrating Genesis 22.13: “And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.” Blake, however, has done something very disturbing in his rendition of this line – as Billingsley observes, the clothed Abraham is a passive figure looking up towards heaven in sorrow for the act he is about to commit, while it is Isaac, naked and dynamic, who sees the ram that will substitute for him in an act of sacrifice. Abraham in his long robe with arms outstretched, a curved knife held in one hand, is reminiscent of Blake’s depictions of the druids, and his pose makes him similar to Urizen in America a Prophecy. Rather than passive, he may even be seen to be impassive, implacable in the face of the demands of human sacrifice. Isaac, by contrast, is innocent and unafraid: as Billingsley correctly points out, it is his childlike perception that sees more clearly the way to reconcile god and man as opposed to the false religion followed by his father.

The talk will take place at 8pm (UK time) on Zoom. It is free and all are welcome, but the Blake Society asks for visitors to register in advance via this link.

Blakespotting, January 2021

2021 began with a suitable Blakean bang (rather than a whimper) with a New Year’s Eve performance by Patti Smith, streamed at Picadilly Circus as part of a month-long takeover organised by the digital platform CIRCA. Included in her performances throughout the month were recitals of “The Divine Image” and “The Tyger”, as well as 2021: A New Year inspired by her “Blakean Year” poem.

While Smith’s words were a bright spot in what has been a dark beginning to the year, one of the best presents for Blake scholars to begin the new year was the announcement by the Blake Archive that they were making available a digital edition of Poetical Sketches, the collection of juvenilia and early work that Blake produced between c. 1769 and 1777, and which was published with the support of John Flaxman and the circle attached to Rev. A. S. Mathew and his wife Harriet. While those who supported its publication (along with Blake, it seems) did not appear to hold the volume in especially high regard, it has since the time of Gilchrist at least been recognised as an important contribution to the development of what would become known as Romanticism. The digital edition itself is available at http://www.blakearchive.org/work/bb128, and additional news of the development of that addition (from the copy owned by Charles Tulk) can be found at https://blog.blakearchive.org/2021/01/14/publication-blakes-poetical-sketches/.

January saw the second issue of a new comic launched at the end of 2020. Written by Paul Grist (whose previous work includes Judge Dredd), with art by Grist, Andrea di Vito and R. B. Silva, The Union tells of a team of super heroes gathered from all over the UK and led by Britannia. When disaster strikes in the form of a foreign invasion, that team is pushed to their limits in this satire on Brexit. The Blake connection is, of course – as Bleeding Cool News points out – the inevitable reference to the hymn Jerusalem. Other comic news included a review of G. E. Gallas’s excellent work, The Poet and the Flea (originally published in 2016) in Comicsbeat.

While film references to Blake have taken a hit as the medium (like theatre, concerts and exhibitions) finds a new way to deal with the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, his appeal to writers continues to be in evidence. Thus John Higgs, whose William Blake vs The World is due out in May, spoke to The Quietus about the esoteric history of Eddie the Head, the mascot of Iron Maiden whose lead singer Bruce Dickinson has long been a Blake fan.

In other news, actor, musician, member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and lifelong Blake aficionado, Kris Krostofferson, announced his retirement at the age of 85. As a reminder of his love for the Romantic poet, Best Classic Bands reminded readers of his assertion in the Ken Burns’ documentary, Country Music, that Blake’s poetry “is telling you that you’ll be miserable if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do.”

 

Blake Bites: short videos on William Blake

With the release of Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake, published by Reaktion Books on 15 March, 2021, I’m starting to make a number of short videos based on the text of that book.

Titled “Blake Bites”, each of these is a short (3-4) minute video that focuses on a particular poem or art work by Blake. The first two are now live and can be viewed on my YouTube channel, Zoavision. In this case, they deal with “The Ancient of Days” and “The Tyger”, and you can watch them both below.

I intend to make new videos on a weekly or fortnightly basis, so please do consider subscribing to the channel.

Phaze Theory: Live at Balabam

As the tumultuous year that was 2020 comes finally to an end, this is an opportunity to return to a pleasurable task that I had meant to undertake just as the first COVID-related lockdown was taking hold. In April, the art-rock group, Phaze Theory, had released an album and concert video, Live at Balabam, which brought together their love of esoterica, W. B. Yeats and William Blake.

Based in London, the group was founded in 2014 by Christopher Barrett (on tuba), Tal Janes (guitar) and Marco Quarantotto (drums), and released their first album, Phaze Theory, in 2017. While that album owed more to Yeats (with tracks that included “Song of the Wandering Aengus” and “Dialogue of Self and Soul”) it also included an astonishing burst of Blakeana in the form of “The Angel”, in which Barrett’s ominous blasts create a disturbing vortex from which bursts Janes’ jazz guitar and Ray Jones wonderful vocals. It was exciting, dynamic and truly beautiful.

A year later, the group – now joined by singer Irini Arabatzi – had gathered at the Balabam music venue in Tottenham, an event which would be recorded as their new album. Again comprising a mixture of occultural-inspired songs, some of which Phaze Theory had already played at other clubs such as the Vortex and Bird’s Nest, this album brings together a wider selection of Blake’s songs, most notably The Little Girl Lost and The Little Girl Found, as well as How Sweet I Roam’d from the Poetical Sketches (and for the inclusion of which I might have been partially responsible…)

The live album begins with a somewhat more laid-back, slightly melancholy feel on “Into the Twilight” which perfectly matches the mournful sense of Yeats’s poem from The Wind Among the Reeds, with Arabatzi’s vocals perfectly complementing the mellow harmonies of the three musicians. By contrast, “The Little Girl Lost” marks a significant transition towards the art-occult forms that the band like to explore, using free jazz forms to break away from tonal chord progressions and instead evoke Blake’s Song of Experience as a mysterious search of the soul among caverns deep and beasts of prey. Its companion piece, “The Little Girl Found”, focusses on Janes’s guitar and Arabatzi’s voice to create a harmonious resolution – Lyra returned to her parents as the soul returns to its home.

“The Little Girl Found” is beautiful, but my personal soft spot remains “How Sweet I Roam’d”. Published in Blake’s first collection, Poetical Sketches, in 1784, it is one of his most perfectly lyrical songs and has been frequently been set to music, beginning with Henry Balfour Gardner in 1895 and most famously by The Fugs on the 1970 album, Golden Filth. Although it has been a popular poem for different musicians and groups, Phaze Theory make the song entirely their own – a mystical, dreamy vision of a lost Spring in which melodious voice and instruments hover within harmonies while lilting away into slight dissonances that match perfectly the underlying discord of Blake’s original poem (and, it must be said, which segue perfectly into the next track, Mohini Chatterjee).

Phaze Theory have been described as a combination of Miles Davies, Led Zeppelin and William Blake (which very much underestimates the importance of Yeats at least). Live at Balabam certainly shows them as inheritors of Blake’s musical mantle – and is a reminder of happier times for live performances and a hope that it will not be too much longer before we can see them again.

You can hear Live at Balabam on Spotify and support them by downloading from their web site. Some of the live recordings from the concert can be seen on YouTube.

“Le Petit Prince” – a French Tale of Innocence and Experience

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry having crashed in the desert. Saint-Exupéry/André Prévot / Public domain
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry having crashed in the desert. Saint-Exupéry/André Prévot / Public domain

Le Petit Prince (1943) is the most famous work of French pilot and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  Its popularity has largely increased over the years, spawning a shop in Paris (one more item to add to my “next time I am in Paris” list), a theatrical production, an animated film, and even a theme park. The author celebrates his 120th birthday this year.

The tale is often deemed a children’s tale and still seems to stubbornly persist in schools’ or even universities’ syllabus’ as seen by the number of annotated and bilingual editions on the market. A pilot crashes in the desert, facing immediate death if he does not manage to repair his aircraft in time. This part of the tale is biographical. The accompanying photo shows Saint-Exupéry with his broken aircraft in the desert. The thus stranded narrator encounters a little prince, who is a child-like creature, but claims to have come from another planet and to have visited many other planets before. This encounter will change his life.

At a first glance, the parallels between the French tale and Blake’s work are on a superficial level. The tale can be read by adults and children alike, an attribution just as true for Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” (1789, 1794) What is more, Saint-Exupéry tells his story by using both text and drawings, so his way of telling stories is very similar to that of the poet painter Blake. In a manner similar to Blake, image and text sometimes complement, sometimes contradict each other. The little prince explains for example to the rose he finds on his planet that there are no tigers on this planet, but the accompanying drawing shows a rose and a tiger, thus contradicting the re-assurrance of the little prince.

Rose and tiger naturally remind further of “The Songs of Innocence and Experience,” both elements being central pieces of Blake’s poem collection. Here, too, the rose is rather a woman than a flower, but in the end, the killer threatening to end her life is not the tiger, but a relative of the lamb. In a fatal oversight, the narrator has forgotten to provide adequate protection for the rose which may provoke the sheep, which is nothing but a drawing, a drawing that is supposed to be alive, to have the rose for supper. The soft and innocent lamb has swapped places with the predator, the tiger, only to threaten the rose who is not sick, but will have to use her thorns to defend herself against the predator in her world, the herbivore (thus taking the place of the worm). Blakean characters appear and intermingle in a new way, thus evoking Blake and rejecting him at the same time. The Blakean references seem to fade in and out. The threesome of rose, sheep, and tiger seems to evoke Blake only to swap the roles of innocent creature and predatory beast.

As mentioned before, the sheep only appears as a drawing. This drawing, however, does not show the actual sheep, but only the box in which the sheep is sitting (a reference to quantum mechanics in its similarity to Schrödinger’s cat). When the narrator and little prince meet for the first time, the prince asks him to please draw him a sheep. The prince is choosy and finds fault with all the animals the narrator can provide, a pilot who has just crashed in the desert and thus has other pressing things occupyping his mind than the drawing of a sheep. He grows impatient and provides the drawing of the aforementioned box instead. Surprisingly, the prince can “see” the sheep inside the box and finds it befitting his expectations. What may be interpretated as the vivid imagination of a child, bears deeper meaning when seen in context of the tale. It is not only that he prince can see the sheep inside the box of the drawing, it is his firm belief that the sheep may eat the rose, a part of the real, materialistic world which wipes out borders between real and unreal, drawing and materialistic world, imagination and material world. The prince does not distinguish between the world that is real and the world that is drawn. Images are supposed to have just as much life as does the world around them; the prince believes that the sheep on his piece of paper is just as real as the rose he can touch. At the end of the tale, the narrator will share this world-view and worry about the rose to be killed by a sheep he has drawn himself. To the prince, imagination, or the painting, is as real as is the material world. He is a character Blake may have had sympathy for. His statement “To Me This World is all One continued Vision of Fancy or Imagination[.]” (Blake in Ackroyd, 217) is, naturally, much more complex, but surly evokes sympathy for the world-view of the prince.

As may be expected the prince finds it difficult to understand characters who are meant to represent adulthood and who are through and through Urizenic, a business man counting the stars to “own” them, a cartograph who is interested in cartography only without ever leaving his desk, a king who rules without subjects to follow his rules, a night watch who blindly follows a set of rules which has become useless as the conditions of his planet have changed. He concludes:  “Les grandes personnes sont décidément bien bizarres. “(“The grown-ups are definitely very bizarre” (my translation)). (33) Adulthood seems to appear identical with everything that is Urizenic were it not for the narrator, whose complaints that he would rather have to focus on things like repairing his engine or finding a source of water are quite justified. Still,  the world of the prince in which a drawing of a box can threaten the life of a flower clashes heavily with adults who are preoccupied with measuring, owning, creating rules or following rules. The narrator explains earlier in the text that adults are preoccupied with numbers and will only believe information when given a certain amount of figures in addition. This passage is not directly Blakean, but the very open criticism of science makes me think of Newton measuring the ground in front of him and Urizen doing the very same – both seeking the figures they need to believe in information. The fact that both of them fail to look at the world around them instead of the ground in front of them reminds me of the cartograph who refuses to leave his desk. Or the businessman who counts the stars to own them.

Seen together, these Urizenic characters form the contrary to the threesome of rose, tiger, and sheep. It is the prince who moves between these two worlds and tries to make somehow sense of them. He is, after all, a traveller of different worlds. He leaves his world to gain understanding, only to end up in worlds he cannot make head or tails of. Yet, he too lives by the principle that there is no progression without contraries and the contrary is something to be encountered in the world of adulthood. This short visit to the world of adulthood and subsequent return makes him a relative of Thel.

The only one who can help him gain understanding during his voyage is his friend the fox. The fox teaches him what must be considered the core teaching and most famous quote of the tale: “[O]n ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” (“You can only see rightly with the heart. The essential things are invisible to the eye.” (my translation)). (55) This seems to directly echo Blake’s “The Eye sees more than the heart knows” which precedes Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793) although both differ in their meaning.

In fact, both statements complement each other. Blake’s motto foreshadows Oothoon’s desperate attempt to actually talk to Theotormon who rejects her. She tries to communicate her plea to him, but he sits at the sea “conversing with shadows dire,” (P, 11) he closes his mind and heart to her alike. He may actually see what she explains to him, but his heart refuses to accept these truths. She laments: “does his eye behold the beam that brings Expansion to the eye of pity?” ( P, 11) Theotormon does not have an eye of pity. He was “form[ed]” by Urizen, the “mistaken demon of Heaven.” ( P, 8) Similar to the characters in the French tale representing adulthood who cling desperately to their Urizenic system unable to see how futile their activities are, Theotormon clings blindly to his system refusing to see its fault, injustice, and cruelty. The quote hints at a refusal to part with what the heart already knows and a subsequent discarding of information the eye sees but is deemed unfit for the already formed image found in the heart. This is the same mindset Saint-Exupéry’s adults live in. The king for instance does not accept the piece of information that he is alone on his planet and thus lacks subjects to rule over.

Saint-Exupéry’s quote, however, describes the world of the prince. The narrator explains that what makes certain objects and persons special to us cannot be perceived by the eyes. So, although the prince is horrified to find a garden of roses identical to the one on his planet, he learns that this one flower is special to him because he has an emotional bond to it. In a similar matter, Christmas presents gain their meaning through the accompanying festivities, dinner, mass etc. They are more than the actual item retrieved of a box, the whole procedure and idea of Christmas is attached to them and makes them Christmas presents instead of objects bought in the shop next door. All things we perceive carry meaning to us, and although all roses look the same to the eye, as do all foxes, it is one certain rose and one certain fox that have deeper meaning and value for the prince because he loves them. But the eye cannot distinguish between roses and foxes, only the heart can. His parting gift for the narrator is the starry night. Whenever the narrator will see stars, he will remember that the prince lives on one of them and this will be a happy thought for him. The starry night now carries meaning to the narrator it did not carry before because he has an emotional bond to the prince.

It is striking that Blake actually used the same explanation as Saint-Exupéry as to how we perceive things, only in an even more complicated way by pointing out that we all perceive different things because we give different meaning to these things:

I see Every thing I paint In This world, but Every body does not see alike. To the Eyes of a Miser a Guinea is more beautiful than the Sun, & a Bag worn with the use of Money has more beautiful proportions than a Vine filled with Grapes. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the Eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way.” (Blake in Ackroyd, 217)

So, we are not only blind because we refuse to see with the heart to distinguish one rose from other roses and to value the beauty of a tree, the meaning we ascribe to things, be it the purse or the tree, is what makes them beautiful to us. There is no universal beauty and no universal truth that can be seen with the heart, because every heart sees something different. Saint-Exupéry’s quote is a simplified and much more positive outlook on this idea than Blake’s. It is exactly because the hearts of some people are hardened (considering that they see beauty in a money bag and regard trees as green hindrances) that they fail to see the essentials (taking that the beauty of nature is the essential). It is not their eyes which cannot see the essentials; their hearts are blind. As blind as Theotormon’s who cannot see the loving devotion of Oothoon. The eye sees indeed more than this hardened heart understands.

While the tale may not strike as explicitly Blakean, it echoes many of Blake’s ideas and topoi. Despite the lack of sexual references the child-prince who finds it difficult to understand the Urizenic and loveless world of adults combines problems of Thel and Ooothoon in his person. He too rejects the world of adulthood and he too criticises the inability to see love. He, however, returns with a better understanding of what love is and thus happily seeks reunion with his rose whom he now knows to be special. His journey is one towards understanding maturity. As mentioned above, while rose, tiger, and lamb are all part of his planet and thus stem from what he knows and loves as signified by his return, the Urizenic characters live on other planets. While his home planet may stands for childhood, imagination, and innocence, the other planets symbolise adulthood, Urizenic thought, and experience. Innocence and Experience thus become different worlds as well as different world-views opposing each other, exceeding the mere ideas of childhood and adulthood, in my eyes. And regarding these two world- views, I cannot help but imagine that the man who told a woman how he observed the funeral of a fairy might easily be friends with the little prince, thus transcending the border of childhood and adulthood all together. After all, the ability to see the essential should not be restricted to childhood. Reducing the tale to a praise of childhood misses out on the Blakean references that lurk underneath its surface. But probably the essential idea that imagination (for example the ability to see the beauty of a rose and a tree) should not be restricted to childhood can only be seen with the heart.

Sources

Ackroyd, Peter. Blake. London, Vintage Books, 1999.

Blake, William. Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Copy P. The Blake Archive. http://www.blakearchive.org/copy/vda.p?descId=vda.p.illbk.01 (2020) [14.05.2020]

Saint-Exupéry, Antoine de. Le Petit Prince, avec les illustrations originales de l’auteur. Weimar, Aionas Verlag, 2017.

The Little Prince. https://www.thelittleprince.com/ (2017) [14.05.2020]

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.  https://www.antoinedesaintexupery.com/ (2018) [14.05.2020]

Featured Image taken from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sahara_Crash_-1935-_copyright_free_in_Egypt_3634_StEx_1_-cropped.jpg (14.02.2012) [14.05.2020]

 

Dmitri Smirnov: 1948-2020

Along with a number of people, I have been extremely saddened to hear the recent news of the death of Dmitri Smirnov, the Russian-born composer whose love for Blake was such that he became a committed Anglophile and spent most of his career creating stunning and innovative compositions that set a multitude of Blake’s works to music.

Having contracted COVID-19, he passed away on Thursday, 9 April, leaving behind his wife – herself a great composer of note – and their children, Alissa and Philip. I had been in correspondence a few times with him because of our shared love for Blake, and there follows a piece I wrote on him as part of a wider essay dealing with the musical reception of Blake in Europe:

When Fitch was compiling his original catalogue in the late eighties, however, he noted that Soviet-bloc nations had yet to discover Blake, with two startling exceptions (1989, xxiv). Elena Firsovas (b. 1950) Proritzanye (Augury) is an impressive large-scale symphony composed in 1987-88, but it is the work of her husband, Dmitrii Smirnov (b. 1948), which demonstrates one of the deepest and most impressive engagements with Blake among the works of any composer. Born in 1948 in Minsk, Smirnov studied with Nikolai Sidelnikov, Edison Denisov and Yury Kholopov at the Moscow Conservatoire, as well as being influenced by Philip Herschkowitz, who introduced him to the serialism of Anton Webern, which Smirnov would combine with Franco-Russian sensualism (Smirnov no date). One of the most important Russian modernist composers, and one of the founders of the Association for Contemporary Music in Moscow in 1990, he and his wife moved to England in 1991.

The influence of Blake on Smirnov cannot be understated, beginning with his piece for soprano, flute, viola and harp, The Seasons, based on the four poems from Poetical Sketches,  first performed in Moscow in 1980 and then arranged as a symphony, performed by the Latvian Symphony Orchestra in 1981 (F1148, F1144). Thus began a decade during which Smirnov returned to Blake again and again, demonstrating a deep knowledge of Blakes works (which he often translated into Russian),4 whether occasional pieces such as To the Muses (included in the 1982 Ballada for Saxophone and Piano) or much more extensive pieces like the operas, Tiriel (1983-85, F1154), which premiered in Freiburg im Breisgau in 1989, and Lamentations of Thel (1985-86, F1146), performed in the same year at the Almeida Festival in London.

The 1980s represented a particularly intense period for Smirnov’s engagement with Blake (although by no means encompassing all his compositions at that time, which also drew upon writers as diverse as Shakespeare, Pushkin and Pasternak), and after his move to England he continued to draw inspiration from Blake, increasingly drawing upon the paintings which were now more readily available to him, as in his series of four Blake Pictures (The Moonlight Story, Jacob’s Ladder, Abel, and The River of Life), composed between 1988 and 1992. His performances in England were enthusiastically received, with Stephen Pettitt praising the premiere of JacobLadder for The Times in 1991. Although Blakes influence has been less prevalent on Smirnovs work in the twenty-first century, he continues to be an important source, for example in the Blake Sonata No. 6, performed in London and Cambridge in 2015.  A number of Smirnovs works were also included in the 2011 programme held to celebrate Blakes birthday at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, as part of the William Blake and British Visionary Art exhibition.