Nicholas Johnson: Bill Griffiths

Every poet has to perform, and the ideal context might well seem a little press book fair. I fit this context amazingly well, for the items that I produce are not written for, not physically suited to, or commercially adequate for formal bookshop/poetry to read to yourself contexts. The poem equals not only its own form, but its own printing style, booklet style, distribution and audience: the whole must be a unity -- and in my case that is certainly something to be achieved within the little press scene. Perhaps this could be described as a sort of performance in itself?

            letter 22.5.97 (1)

This essay operates in three sections: the first offers a brief insight into the literary perspective from which Griffiths works, second, an expansion on specific practicable strategies adopted in the ongoing production and distribution of Griffiths' work, and the concluding section takes as its focus those strategies outlined in the previous section, in an attempt to work towards an understanding of the operative possibilities of Griffiths' methodology.

His role and context should be perceived as falling within parameters of performative text; in a distancing from consideration of its responsibilities. It is also an investigation into what emerges from a contrary public nature, in relationship to performance.

I should emphasise the resources for this essay include a prior knowledge of Griffiths' work, rooted in a five year friendship.

In the context of this essay it's taken for granted that the reader in this instance possesses a working knowledge of contemporary British poetry, and therefore for the sake of brevity will not enter into explication regarding the referencing of Griffiths' peers.


Middlesex born, in 1948, Bill Griffiths has spent much of his life in London. A large proportion of his work since 1969 is geographically sited. Voyages mapped by motorbike rampages, coach journeys, coastal walks: The Bournemouth, Six Walks Around Tenby, and The Land Ceremonies [a translation] (2) among his compositions. If this implies a random heteroglossia, it's worth documenting the fact that he roots his work within immediate environment; housing estates, prisons, and shoreline figuring amongst locations where his work's most memorably situated.

His large, varied body of experimental work (found text, ballad, satire), marks Griffiths as a pioneer in this field; out there on the wild verges.

Iain Sinclair is one of his few important champions (fulfilling the now defunct `patron' role) as editor who systematically infiltrated publishers Paladin and Picador vendors and packagers of counter culture; with Griffiths' product. Rupert Murdoch bought out Paladin in 1991, quickly pulping Sinclair's series.

"His damaged visions have given rise to an unbroken sequence of startling `anxiety hallucinations'" (3)

Pioneers of an innovative poetics cannot be confused with instigators like Sinclair of the underground samizdat poetry, performance and visual art culture that emerged in 1960. Now beginning to be accepted alongside the mainstream, although the reasons for this, inherently contradictory, remain inadequately documented, `pioneers' rather than Griffiths become visible.

His C.V. is more unusual than most. He retained, until recently, an unemployment record, punctuated by a failed attempt to exist on Schedule D (self-employment as poet etc). A highly innovative translator of Anglo Saxon and Middle English, published by specialists or his own Pirate or Amra imprints; despite achieving a doctorate in Old English, with a PhD from Kings College, his translations are not widely circulated. His ongoing concerns extend to the field of dialect, of Durham and Seaham, and to essays on 18th century reason, prison reform, history, myth and geology. He's also compiled an Anglo Saxon `user-friendly dictionary', and guides to Anglo Saxon texts. His poetry draws on many current and antique languages. This unorthodox classical erudition partly explains why Griffiths escapes classification. He has resolutely not pursued one avenue.

Griffiths almost exclusively promotes his own work. He was however, Print Shop manager to the Poetry Society, before its Arts Council take-over in 1977, and Association of Little Presses secretary. This represents a vigilant and responsive commitment to a small, underfunded, under appreciated scene rather than to individual writers.


Bill Griffiths has always appeared to show scant regard for etiquette of the post-modernist axis in which he's situated. While utilising its resources, as artisan and researcher, he does not appear comfortable within it. Perhaps his reputation has been trarnished by the stigma on poets who used the Poetry Society `basement resources' in the 70s, pupils and collaborators to Bob Cobbing, `grandfather of British concrete poetry'. Cobbing possesses a clear public identity, but it is debatable whether Griffiths' is as clear.

Since 1965 a divide has existed between the London.v.Cambridge/Brighton axis. Sinclair's editing of Griffiths (and a few others) is as far as he goes in admitting the London scene into the echelons of Cambridge grammatically challenged writings. Most of the Cambridge school, if they still write at all, carry the mantle of distaste for public readings inherited from J.H.Prynne who last read in England in 1968 when Tom Pickard advised him that he `read like a fucking dalek'. (4) Compared to Griffiths, they are no sound poets.

The sole `Cambridge poet' writer to consider performance is Douglas Oliver, for his prosodic studies, and intonational readings. Tom Raworth, while enjoying status conferred by longtime Cambridge residency resolutely avoids their endorsement. If you don't gain acceptance from Cambridge/l-a-n-g-u-a-g-e uiversity you have not understood the most influential protocol, a retentive burgeoning of archaic approaches to the possibilities and properties of performance language. If you can't tether yourself to an academic institution, find an overseas audience, or define a performance sphere paying higher than poetry readings, forget it, you're on the dole.

A one man show, Griffiths saturates a minute market with print runs of 26; hand-coloured pamphlets, with `naive', repreentational covers. It's unlikely he cares where they're received, how the work's conceptualised as much as whether they sell (they're priced cheap enough) given the marginalised state for a chronically supported poetry scene. Poets always share the same boat, always baling out.

Of indeterminate class origin, questioning literacy, employing non standard English spelling and syntax in a highly literate poetry, where working-class friends appear by their true names; creating admittedly beautiful books on a shoestring (objects, not dissimilar to Hamilton Finlay's ethos of the book, and to Gill) Griffiths targets the educated middle-class, those who purchase them.

One would question if this paradox is a problem for Griffiths or his audience. I would argue that he is too accomplished and resourceful a writer and performer to have ever lost an audience to this. Not because of, but in spite of his handling of his subjects in the academically politicised market, Griffiths' achievements have largely gone by un-noticed not notably gaining an audience.

Given that some of the work focusses on crime and inner city poverty, while not an appropriated subject, there is an air of artifice, of ritualisation:

In the climax to the abbey, dogs leap about.
Rain shower. Three children shoot a rugby ball through the window.

Then go way. I get the sums right?
It is in the form of a long arcade. (5)

He does not profitably court further public `arenas' like Benjamin Zephaniah or Tom Pickard, two other `working class' poets who've seen the inside of a cell. Identifiable to a working class/ethnic minority, they choose other mediums to work in, not least Pickard, initially semi literate, dyslexic, a tag he worked to throw off; now a film-maker and social historian.

I take newsletters from the Anarchist Black Cross that helps prisoners, and correspond with a prisoner in Long Latin, but do not (and will not) teach in the formal prison context. (6)

A scholarly, isolated poet, obvious processes exist between his composition and pamphlet design, but seem taken no further. Strategies as to performance development, and public role, building up of the image, through photograph, or high quality print design don't exist. Griffiths has not clearly emphasised purpose and role within the counter-canon regarding the investigation of new media. He retains the role of underdog, not specifically `misunderstood' but resolutely close to his cultural context, or social focus, of `criminals' for example. Such are his social groups, plus left-wing Kings College acadamnse.

Probably all Griffiths' strategies are intentional. Living and operating within traditions of penury, he appears to devise few useful strategies for promoting his work. But he never gives up.

Unlike Barry MacSweeney, an obvious peer, who came to appear lost and ill at ease with what his role should be, Griffiths' work never dates. MacSweeney was still keen to play the role of Oedipal working class Romantic Northern hero, heir to Bunting and Shelley, emphatically mythologising everything. However, the driven music of MacSweeney's work and his direct address has won him new readers, and, even converted lost ones. He is very much a poet whose time has come for a large-scale audience. Part of his publicity cites his recent near death through long term alcohol abuse, in the grandiose Romantic Beat tradition.

Griffiths has successfully rejected every other scene. For his approach to tonality he should be seen in the light of contemporary avant garde composers; from Cage onwards. Like Cobbing's work his should be treated as a musical score, performative, yet not dependent on performance. Silent. If this appears to emphasise Griffiths' distance from performance, and questioning of its usefulness to him, he sometimes performs sound-based material, as the 1992 Arf Arf commission of a sound collaboration makes clear. (7) Arf Arf represented a 1970s tradition for Griffiths, when he did many sound performances. (8) Could he not perceivably come from the Black Mountain College ethos of investigative mapping of the site? (9)

In genderless mode his rejection of grand ideals represents a move away from modernism. His work subtly responds to cultural context, yet blatantly avoids critical theory. He offers no responsibility towards political correctness, in response to this political context. His use of pastiche and quotation is rooted in ancient literatures and in traditions of ranter, flanneur and satirist -- and not in contemporaneous, `marketable' concepts of post-structuralist literary theory (10).

Interviewed for a BBC Kaleidoscope promotion feature on Conductors of Chaos (ed. Sinclair) he represented the Anglo Saxon origins of the English Language, now that Basil Bunting is no longer alive to do this. As few `post modernist' poets look beyond Apocalypse 40s poets, open field poetics, or l-a-n-g-u-a-g-e schools, to their language's history, someone has to assume this role. Thus Griffiths still walks abroad in the English poetic field acting on a responsibility to contribute to its maintenance. Championed and read by few.


Avoidance of all other poetic mediums other than `poetry equal[ing] its own form..printing style, booklet [pamphlet] style, distribution and the [questionable] audience' is not a viable strategy for long term survival.

Within his chosen mode Griffiths has amply utilised all his chosen mediums for distribution, including small press fairs sparsely advertised by the a.l.p., and distribution on w.p. disc (price 5 pounds available from Amra Press, 21 Alfred Street, Seaham, County Durham, England). He is not in a position to choose or utilise performance space and gallery contexts, though he has performed in them. His art is photocopied art, not glossy, capitalist manufacturing.

To have a role he must have a purpose. He possesses both, but only partially achieves it; in terms of publication/book sales -- given his saturated market. As an innovative poet, fine artist, book maker, performer and resource-tutor he should be made welcome to various inter-disciplinary performance conferences that take place around the country, but he never gets invited to them. Does his dossier once again lack patronage and acquire the blacklisting of the Cambridge scene? It does.

Resolutely anti performative with very performative material, he certainly tailors his work for readings dependent on location and the anticipated/perceived audience, though frequently reluctant to reveal the `difficult' work. His Metrical Cookery or The Dinosaur Park, engages with mass culture. It is refreshing, and amusing, to see poet as troubadour, bringing a poem to read concerning a previous coach journey to Hanley in support of the 84/85 Miners' Strike, to a 6 towns poetry festival.

In baseball cap, jeans and D.M.s, tattooed in regalia reminiscent of a Viking chief, Griffiths is an undeniable presence. Hand jangling coins in pocket, with clear, strong voice head bowed shy of the audience he is witty, versatile, and emphatically sarcastic, proclaiming a work rooted in oral tradition, disdaining any complimentary introduction from a fellow poet.

`Griffiths reads with the light hesitancy of a hunting thrush...His voice, grey with roll-ups, skips in a series of syllables and short gasps along his perfectly tuned lines'. (11)

Griffiths' letter, basis of this essay, shows he has no real interest/realisation of how mixed media exists, and as it does not represent the `hand that feeds him' he will bite it anyway. Tom Leonard has dispensed with the overtly performative, as his essay How I Became A Sound Poet (12) shows. He's cast out simultaneous tape backing, and slogan placards. Griffiths would not now be comfortable at Sound Festivals either. Leonard can `work an audience', and as he is perceived by an audience as being more accesible, and entertaining, his performance work has become better known, being better received through the mainstream channels. Audiences want to pay for performance -- complex or parodic, yet professionally executed.

Work that constantly addresses the performance space, directly `in yer face', versatile and professional, performance that is beyond poetry, gets the fee. Most performance writers still have to agree to contributing to limited modes of publication and performance while relentlessly questioning them.

Nonetheless, as evidenced by the deep respect accorded the reading voices of Bunting and MacLean, bastions of very small `empires of language', Gaelic and Northumbrian, or in recent reading tours by Alice Notley, Ed Dorn and Robin Blaser, the interest the public has in the guided voice and presence of the person who enacts it will always be there.

Griffiths' role seems finally open to change. The years associated with KIngs have borne fruit. Through association with Eric Mottram, dedicatee of Conductors of Chaos, he recently received a two-year salaried post as archivist. These archives, relating to British and U.S. poetries from 1959-1995 are a valuable learning resource, and it is unlikely that there is anyone more sensitive to the state of the role and strategy of the `small presses', or their keeper's way of thinking, than this cussed pioneer.


1. letter from the Eric Mottram Archive, 22.5.97
2. see Bibliographical appendix (garamond plain) provided by Bill Griffiths
3. Future Exiles * 3 london poets Catling, Brian, Bill Griffiths, Allen Fisher (Paladin 1992). Dust jacket blurb
4. Bill Griffiths -- an appreciation, Jeff Nuttall, p.13-17, Poetry Information 15, ed Hodgkiss, Peter (1976)
5. Leeds, Kirkstall, Staithes (see 3, p.268)
6. ibid, as 1.
7. Grey Suit video 3 (1993, Cardiff). This performance featured Bill Griffiths, Bob Cobbing and Hugh Metcalfe of Birdyak, and Paula Claire, live at The Victoria, Mornington Crescent, London 1992.
8. I was much more sound/performance orientated in 1970s with Bob Cobbing. This was probably an economic thing. It involved improvistation from texts. I am not interested in anti-performance `Performance' trends. (Note from BG, Autumn 1997)
9. reference source The Arts at Black Mountain College, Harris, Mary Emma (MIT press, 1991)
10. See `Is there linguistic guilt?' Denise Riley, Critical Quarterly, Vol 39, no. 1 (p.75-93) ed McCabe, Colin (Manchester U.P., 1997)
11. Poetry Information, 18, p.12-16, ed Hodgkiss, Peter, An Interview with Barry MacSweeney, by Eric Mottram.
12. see p.194 `In fact...they provoked (the two sound-poems) the best response at a performance I've ever received, as a Canadian in the audience presented me as I left with a half full bottle of Canadian whisky, and a cassette on which he asked me to record my experiences as I drank it.' (p.194, Reports from the Present, Tom Leonard (Cape, 1995)).