Issue 9: Aidan Semmens - a memoir: Perfect Bound

A Perfect Bound from Cambridge into the poetic life

It was, indirectly, a meeting between two English poets in Japan that got me writing again after a 15-year break from poetry. Richard Caddel, once my publisher and for many years my good friend, visited Sendai, where Peter Robinson was living and teaching, in about 1999 or 2000 and my name must have come up in conversation. Shortly afterwards, thanks to Ric, I exchanged a series of emails with Peter, whom I had last seen something like 20 years earlier. And it was from that exchange that he learned what he subsequently told Nate Dorward in an interview for the online magazine Jacket, that I had ‘long given up writing poetry’.

That interview, the appearance of which was at least partly responsible for goading me back into the poetic fray, was about ‘The life of a little magazine: Perfect Bound 1976-1979’. We hoped back then, and I think now, that Perfect Bound was a little magazine with a big influence, at least among those with an interest in, but not a slavish adherence to, what has since become loosely known as the Cambridge School; at least I think the attachment of that label is more recent – I am sure I was not aware at the time of any such school, so called. We were, of course, pupils. Peter and I both arrived at Trinity College in 1975, he as postgraduate with a PhD in view, I as undergraduate with a smouldering, if not burning, desire to ‘be a poet’. At its inception, Perfect Bound billed itself as ‘the magazine of the Cambridge Poetry Society’ and I contributed to the first issue a review – or, rather, ‘an appreciation’ – of the Beat poet Michael McClure, who like most of the poets included had read for the society during that academic year.

That issue, and the one following, were edited by Bill Bennett and Peter – who told Nate Dorward that at that stage, ‘I was finding my feet and taking instruction from the other editor, who showed me how the golf-ball typewriter worked and how the paste-up was done (overnight sittings with coffee and the fumes from the glue to keep us going).’ That describes very well how, a year or so later, my own co-editorship began, with Peter re-cast in the role of the old hand and me the tyro. The smell of Cow Gum, the long nights fading into dawn, the first Graham Parker album playing over and over on Peter’s record-player; the adventure of a rail trip to London to hire the IBM golf-ball typewriter on which we – mostly I, as a fluent touch-typist – would typeset the whole magazine. If, as Peter also remarked in that Jacket interview, the three issues of Perfect Bound that he and I did together ‘were edited harmoniously and enthusiastically, with ... a consensus, more or less, about what we were publishing’, it was due in no small part to the fact that I was happy to learn from him, absorbing knowledge and an attitude towards contemporary poetry and poets that would for a long time become my own, and indeed still informs my taste three and a half decades later.

Peter Robinson, 60? It seems barely credible. At 24 he was already the experienced elder towards whom I deferred, though with as little outward show of deference as I could manage, in order to preserve upper-teenage self-esteem. In retrospect, his poetry, both then and now, seems to owe very little to ‘the Cambridge school’. His adult style was by then already well formed, his gentle ironies and punning on common forms of speech perfectly tuned to wry personal and social observation in a way quite antithetical to the denser, more difficult, more Prynne-influenced work of near-contemporaries such as Geoffrey Ward and John Wilkinson, Peter’s predecessor-but-one in the role of Poetry Society chairman, in which I was to succeed him (in John’s time the society was known as the Blue Room). By contrast, I did not find my own voice until long afterwards, but in those early days I was as much influenced by Peter as by anyone. I am sure, in fact, that my inept imitations must at times have irritated him; it was probably a relief to him when I concluded, as I reasonably soon did, that no one could do Peter Robinson better than Peter himself and that it was pointless to continue trying.

Nevertheless, I think we did work well together as editors and I remain proud to have published many of those we did. Harry Guest, Peter Riley, John Welch, Gael Turnbull, Michael Haslam, Tom Raworth, Matthew Mead, Douglas Oliver and Ken Smith were all in issue four, the first for which I was credited as co-editor (Bill Bennett still had that credit in the previous one, though by then Peter did most of the editing and I much of the production work). It’s a list of names I still find impressive, marred only by a gender imbalance that would be inconceivable today – I’d like to think I noticed it, with embarrassment, at the time but I can’t honestly say whether I did or not, or whether Peter did; I am sure Wendy Mulford, who alone broke the male dominance of number five, did. Is it a defence to say that it was not until the following year, just after I left, that Trinity accepted its first woman undergraduate? Perhaps not, but it is an indicator of the times (and society) we lived in. There were fewer women poets to choose from then. Peter told Jacket, ‘I don’t ever recall us rejecting poems by women authors. The occasion didn’t arise’ – though I do remember him vetoing my suggestion of extending an invitation to Liz Lochhead, who was not yet well known and not at all Cambridge. He did give a favourable review to Denise Riley, which she complained was ‘sexist’ and ‘patronising’ – I don’t think it was either of those things, though my cover design for that issue, which I intended ironically, surely looked that way. As Peter later admitted, ‘Yes, it was a bad situation, and we weren’t taking many active steps to change it.’ Be that as it may, Wendy was in excellent company in Perfect Bound 5, being joined by John Riley, Ralph Hawkins, David Chaloner, Rod Mengham, Iain Sinclair, Edwin Morgan, Richard Burns – and, as a reviewer, JH Prynne. Though the magazine was now no longer either defined by or confined to Cambridge, it was still plainly our base.

It was a base, though, neither of us was quite at home in, topographically, socially or stylistically, and I am sure that is partly what drew me to Peter’s company. His vowels and his cap were, like mine, gently northern and what is known as ‘flat’; he knew the poorer parts of Bradford, as I did; he had worked in an unemployment benefit office (I hadn’t, but I knew how they operated from the other side of the counter). Like me, he was not entirely comfortable in the prevailing company of those who had been born and brought up to privilege and educated at posh private schools. Privately, quietly, I think he had little time for money and status that are not earned – or for cleverness that had nothing better to do than to show itself off. We were surrounded at Cambridge by all those qualities, and at times it was difficult not to try to compete, certainly with the last. Though Peter’s shyness was mitigated by a tough core of intellectual self-confidence (perhaps his relative maturity made that more apparent to me) he was not above asking me to correct his spelling in a PhD submission that in most other respects went way over my head. The corner flat he shared with his then partner Rosie Laxton above a shop on Magdalene Street became one of my regular ports of call, where he helped to shape my musical as well as my poetic taste – we shared a pre-existing fondness for Bob Dylan – and perhaps, in stark contrast to other student friends, encouraged me to drink more tea and less beer. He introduced me, both on the page and in the flesh, to Roy Fisher, who remains one of the poets I most admire. He also showed me the card he received in response to his decision to make Fisher one of the subjects of his thesis: apart from the address and Roy’s signature it bore just one word – ‘Judas!’ Not quite as notorious, perhaps, as the yelling of that word at the newly electrified Dylan in Manchester in 1966, but in its way just as treasurable.

After I graduated in 1978 and slipped into the world of provincial sports journalism, I saw Peter just twice more – among many other poets at the following year’s Cambridge Poetry Festival, which he organised (we had both been among the helpers at the 1977 festival), and over a not very successful weekend visit in 1980 – until last year, when he shared a reading platform at an event in London with my more recently acquired friends John Matthias and Carrie Etter, and a highly convivial Italian meal in a small basement café afterwards. No one goes unchanged through 30 years, and there has been more in Peter’s life than in many to wreak changes. Is the eager-yet-diffident, intellectually astute, socially slightly awkward postgrad still there in the well-read, well-travelled, experienced and respected professor? Oh yes, very recognisably so.

Aidan Semmens

Thirty-five years after the appearance of his first poetry pamphlet, Aidan Semmens's second full-length collection, a sonnet sequence entitled The Book of Isaac, is newly out from Parlor Press / Free Verse Editions -