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Poet of the Week – 6: Peter Robinson

TWO RIVERS PRESS POET OF THE WEEK 6: PETER ROBINSON

Peter Robinson was born in Salford, Lancashire, in 1953 and grew up mainly in Liverpool. He is an internationally appreciated poet, whose Collected Poems was published by Shearsman Books in 2017, and has been awarded the Cheltenham Prize, the John Florio Prize, and two Poetry Book Society Recommendations for volumes of his poetry and translations. The Salt Companion to Peter Robinson edited by Adam Piette and Katy Price appeared in 2007 and a new volume of critical studies edited by Tom Phillips, Peter Robinson: A Portrait of his Work, is in development at Shearsman.

Book cover image

He has also published aphorisms, short stories, literary fiction, and his six volumes of literary criticism are in print from the university presses of Oxford, Cambridge, and Liverpool. Two Rivers Press has brought out two of his collaborations with artists: English Nettles with illustrations by Sally Castle appeared in 2010, and Bonjour Mr Inshaw, with paintings by David Inshaw, is one of this year’s books. Two Rivers Press also publishes Foreigners, Drunks and Babies: Eleven Stories (2013) and his second novel, The Constitutionals (2019), whose main character takes daily walks around Reading to help recover from a cruel virus. Peter Robinson is Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Reading and the poetry editor for Two Rivers Press.

Peter Robinson writes:

“My poetry, and much of my other writing, can be understood as an exploration of the word ‘repair’. It is a form of sheltering from experiences, and an emblem of the need to mend or make amends when selves and others have been damaged or harmed. This theme is regularly and appropriately associated with my being the witness at gunpoint to an act of sexual violence over forty years ago, which has impacted on all my work and in particular on a sequence of poems in The Other Life (1988) and the novel September in the Rain (2016).

However, it is probably unlikely that I would have responded to that experience in those ways had I not been born into the exact locations of L. S. Lowry’s paintings and brought up in a series of impoverished urban parishes in Manchester, Wigan, and Liverpool. The industrial and domestic architecture and the ravaged and re-wilding natural scenery of those places has shaped all my responses to the world, and I have taken the need to find artistic interest in such textures with me to scenery as far flung as the mountains, plains, cities and coasts of northern Italy and the volcanic landscapes of northern-eastern Japan.

My wife, Ornella Trevisan, who specialised in environmental biology at university, has undoubtedly helped enlarge the scope of that commitment to reparation and ‘repair’. If asked to give an account of my many and various writings produced and published over the best part of half a century, I would think that this dominant thought, derived from the art theories of Adrian Stokes, has been the shaping spirit that has compelled me to want to produce works that aid in the mending of ourselves, our societies, the inhabited environments on which they depend, and of the suffering world itself.”

AT SLADER’S YARD

There’s a corrugated-iron roof,
its undulations flattened
by settled years of lime-green moss;

it juts into repurposed space
where stone-wall textures are revealed,
enhanced by sparser finishes,
framed pictures hung against it:

a dusk cloud risen behind a hill,
the portrait of one tree in moonlight,
another strafing seagull …

They emphasize the edges
letting on bare sail-loft opposite:
a dried grey wood interior
where all the thrifty meanings start.

Then, me too, I’m a counter of clouds
come over the hills like this one
‘salmoning’ in a ‘deepening blue’;

they fill up turning windscreen glass
(you see I’ve put the car in too)
above West Bay’s horizon

with a borrowed sharpness, focus
from promptings given by
that pink house under its precipitous cliff.

Recounting them, you’re at least alive to
how this word-cloud builds and disperses
ideas like a Nordau’s or Lombroso’s –

and how they’re clouds themselves, these verses.

[from Bonjour Mr Inshaw, 2020]

THIS OTHER LIFETIME

Green shutters open on an early sky;
in the Casa Divina Provvidenza
even its room doors, closing, breathe a sigh.

With time, heat would release your love,
till evening’s fresher breeze,
then starlight, the companionate,

and talking on a phone, you see
her hurry towards our rendezvous
beside Mazzini’s statue in the square:

an open face, still trusting as you like,
enlivened with enthusiasm,
unfazed by time and, no mistake,

that’s the zone from where all this life came.

[First published in The London Magazine, February-March 2020]

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Peter Robinson in Conversation

Peter Robinson, the poetry editor for Two Rivers Press, talks about our list

How many poetry books do you publish each year? How many has the press published in total?

We currently aim to publish one book per quarter, using the Poetry Book Society’s activities as our temporal template. Sometimes we’ll also add one of our illustrated classic poems volumes or an anthology to the list, so I would say that we tend to produce between four and six poetry publications per year. I really couldn’t say for sure how many poetry books we have published in total; but I’ve been editing the list since September 2010, which is nearly a decade, so I’ve probably been involved in the editing of between forty and fifty books. The press was founded in 1994, so I would think we must have produced perhaps a hundred books of poetry in all.

What kinds of poetry are you interested in?

I like poetry of a great many kinds and shapes and sizes, and have been curious about how and why different forms of poems work since I was a teenager. But in all my editing activity (I first edited a poetry magazine at the age of 23), I’ve tended to keep my personal tastes under control and made judgments that are in line with my understanding of the social and cultural situation in which I am operating. As you can see from the previous answer, Two Rivers Press had been going for sixteen years when I was asked to take over running the poetry list. So I inherited a stable of poets, including Adrian Blamires, a copy of whose The Effect of Coastal Processes (2005) I found in a bookshop in Liverpool one summer when visiting from Japan. I was very impressed by the poetry, the quality of the design, and the finish of the cover. So I did know about Two Rivers Press before coming to live in Reading, and attended a reading by some of our poets in the Henley River and Rowing Museum as a way of making myself known to them when in need of some congenial company in a town new to me. When I was asked to take over its poetry list, as I say, I inherited a backlist of poets, mostly living locally, one of whom, Jane Draycott, had gone on to be published first by Oxford and then Carcanet, while another, A. F. Harrold, has gone on to become a very successful author for children and young adults. These poets had developed, largely, from a local workshop and open-mike culture, and their writing was and is broadly-speaking characterised by verbal skills, craftsmanship, and sensibilities engaged with shareable experiences, qualities that I also admire.

How do you go about selecting which books to publish?

There is a standard policy for ‘cold calling’: we ask to see a sample of six poems, and if I like them enough, we ask to see the full collection, and if that promises to fit our list (in ways that are not only aesthetic, but also involve questions about the poets’ locations and our practical ability to work with them, that’s to say her or his readiness to help sell the books), then I take the volume to a committee meeting and ask the team to have it put into our forward plan. Books are also submitted by poets we have previously published, and on one or two occasions I have offered to publish books were I knew them to exist and also knew that, for one reason or another, their poets were having difficulty with the arduous business of finding a publisher in the present environment. In other cases, I have encountered the work of new poets at readings or through contacts in the poetry world and then helped to mentor the development of a collection, sometimes over a long period of time.

Are there particular recent poetry books that you are especially proud to have published?

Penumbra is Kate Behrens’ latest collection

Among the poets that I have brought to the press during my near decade working with the team, I am particularly proud to have published, among others, first books by the late David Attwooll, Kate Behrens, Sue Leigh, James Peake, and Tom Phillips, as well as the last book published in her lifetime by Mairi MacInnes. These are poets, in their different ways, who pursue styles that retain the qualities of attentive technique that are, I believe, the basis for valuable writing, and they also stretch their language to the evoking of experiences more distinctive and challenging, more difficult easily to share, than some of the work that the press had published heretofore. I am also glad to have initiated our publishing of translations with a collection of Ruth Speirs’ versions of Rilke, to which have now been added Jane Draycott’s selection from Henri Michaux’s poetry, and Lesley Saunders’ bilingual selection from Maria Teresa Horta’s Portuguese.

Looking ahead, what is your ambition for the Two Rivers Press poetry list in the next few years?

The main thing we are hoping to do, beginning in 2021, is to enlarge the list so that we publish two poetry books per quarter. Over the last few years the profile of the press has increased and we have on occasion been reviewed in national newspapers. Enlarging the list a little, I would hope we can continue this development, and build on the geographical base of the press in the Thames valley so as to have a better relationship with the independent publishing environment in the capital, and also to find a place not only as Reading’s own publisher, but as a publisher to something more like the part of the country shown on maps in the front of Thomas Hardy’s novels. I would like to increase the range of poetry that we are known to produce, to publish some volumes of collected poems, such as David Attwooll’s, which is currently in preparation, and would also like to add further books of translated poetry to the list, including from languages beyond those of our near neighbours in western Europe.

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The inspiration behind the cover design for “The Constitutionals”

We love a beautiful book cover and work hard to make our books visually strong. Sally Castle has designed many covers for Two Rivers Press. She writes here about the inspiration for the cover artwork for The Constitutionals by Peter Robinson, which explores and celebrates the therapeutic links between reading, writing, walking and thinking through a fictional treatment of the meditative author’s convalescent wanderings around the town of Reading.

Sally writes:

The illustration started with drawings made as an immediate intuitive response while reading the manuscript. Images such as land marks: the Cemetery Junction arch and the Wycliffe Church; trees: a magnolia and a monkey puzzle outside a house in Eastern Avenue, buildings: New Town terrace houses and the gas holder, the Co-op with clock at ten past six and the green tiled Oxfam book shop. All familiar places to me: literally, in that I was born at 27 Hatherley Road, my grandparents lived at number 30, uncle and aunt lived at 68 Amity Road in New Town. Grandfather and uncle used to meet up at Cemetery junction to watch the traffic!

Several versions were developed combining the images together using watercolour and collaged with an old street map, a receipt from the Co-op (Your store Your say) and Robinson Crusoe as portrayed in an early illustrated edition. The result was also simplified down to a flat linocut print but the watercolour collage with a stormy sky was the best choice to ‘ventriloquize the grateful dead’

Thanks to Peter for asking me to do his cover and to Nadja Guggi for her support, encouragement and working magic with her technical expertise.

Sally Castle’s uncorked artwork for The Constitutionals
Linocut version of The Constitutionals cover design
Final version of The Constitutionals cover design

Sally Castle is a printmaker, illustrator and lettering artist, based in Ruscombe. You can see more of her work on her website http://www.sallycastle.co.uk

Buy a copy of The Constitutionals here.

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Whiteknights Studio Trail

COME & MEET OUR AUTHORS!

Visit us at the Whiteknights Studio Trail, venue 9 and take the opportunity to tap their brains for historical facts and figures.

Malcolm Summers, author of Signs of the Times at 3pm on Sat 15th June.

Peter Durrant, co-author of Reading Abbey and the Abbey Quarter at 3pm on Sunday 16th June.

And please stay on at the end of the first day to celebrate the publication of The Constitutionals with Peter Robinson at 6.30pm on Saturday 15th June at 24 New Road, with wine, nibbles and readings.

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‘An art-house film in book form’, Peter Robinson’s ‘The Constitutionals’

A Robinsonade in which our narrator, weakened and marooned by illness, walks his local streets, pondering on recovery and rescue, for himself and for the diseased society in which he finds us confined.

Another lovely cover and a fascinating and unusual portrayal of Reading through the eyes of a figure haunted by being called Crusoe in childhood. What does he discover about the place in which he’s settled with his wife, whom he will call Friday, and their ocean-haunted daughter as he ‘sets out to avert global catastrophe, hoping to trigger the end of neoliberalism by going for a walk’?

The original artwork for the cover, designed by Sally Castle, will be on display at Whiteknights Studio Trail (venue 9) on 15/16 June where you can meet both artist and author. And there will be a launch party at 24 New Road on Saturday 15th June, 6.30pm, with readings and a chance to ask Peter about the therapeutic links between reading, writing, walking and thinking.

More about The Constitutionals