Issue 9: Alison Blair-Underwood - a memoir: The Cambridge Poetry Festival

Open Account

My friendship with Peter Robinson which has lasted over three decades began with a magazine, Perfect Bound, progressed to a festival, the Cambridge Poetry Festival, and then moved on to another magazine, Numbers. The friendship has had several strands but, in many ways, it was based on money, or the lack of it, manifested in the frail economics of publishing or presenting poetry.   Both of us arrived in Cambridge in the mid-1970s, in the wake of an earlier national economic upheaval when funding for the arts was, as ever, precarious, Peter to begin his doctorate at Trinity College while I was literally across Trinity Street in Heffers bookshop finding my way in an environment peopled by eminent academics and, perhaps mercifully, as yet unaware of the tensions and energy in the world of Cambridge poetry.

Sifting through accumulated papers – magazines, programmes, sundry literary detritus – in preparation for this article I worried that the details, as I remembered them, would be inaccurate but what I was more certain of was the sense of the time, the dichotomy between excitement and apprehension, the belief that even without guaranteed funding interesting  poetry could be found in ‘small’ magazines and poetry festivals were successful without being built around celebrity although the odd crowd-pulling name did no harm.  It was the ‘small’ magazine, edited by Peter, Perfect Bound, that first brought me into contact with him when, in his deceptively diffident manner, he persuaded me to take copies for Heffers and on a regular basis.   I note that, in an online article, Angela Leighton is quoted in a TLS review as saying that ‘Robinson has been a generous promoter of contemporary poetry for decades’.  This dedicated promotion of poets was already evident in Perfect Bound with early issues that included work by both established and aspiring poets, Jeremy Prynne, Geoffrey Ward, John James, Edwin Morgan, Allen Fisher and Peter Riley demonstrating the breadth of Peter’s interest in contemporary poetry.  Later issues not only represented ‘Cambridge’ poetry but also work from a wider British and international constituency with contributions from Denise Levertov, Lee Harwood, Jeremy Reed, Yevgny Yevtushenko, Yunna Morits and Pierre Reverdy signposting Peter’s promotion of poetry that avoided the transitory and ephemeral and also signalled his interest in poetry in translation and the art of translating poetry.

Peter’s asking me to join the Festival committee cemented our friendship although the road to the success of Peter’s 1979 Festival was the stuff of nightmares!   Principally, there was the matter of the deficit of around £1500 – a large sum for the time – that had to be cleared before new funding could be secured.  We did so in a number of ways including an appeal for books and manuscripts that, once collected, winged their way to Sotheby’s manuscript department.  Peter’s solution was also literary.  Our small ‘begging’ leaflet, sent to a number of potential sponsors, was fronted by an etching of a glum Ben Jonson accompanied, overleaf, by the opening lines from An Epistle Mendicant, ‘Poore wretched states, prest by extremeties/Are faine to seeke for succours, and supplies/Of Princes aides or good mens Charities.’  Good men – and women – did respond but the most sensitive negotiation for funding still took place against a backdrop of uncertainty.  Peter’s belief that the Festival would indeed take place did not falter although the second stanza of his poem ‘Application’ written at this time of fiscal crisis clearly expresses how we felt,

Then into the possible

with no decision, if you follow me

where bowling-green hatched branches

are offset on credit frozen

mere words when money’s quiet

offer hope whatever we’re given.

This nothing I am banking on.


I still have the copy that was pinned above my desk in Heffers, taken with me when I left two decades later.  It was published in 1980 in the aptly named collection, Overdrawn Account that includes a previously published sequence, ‘The Benefit Forms’ that juxtaposes a number of crises against the unremitting backdrop of the ‘Welfare Office’ where the daily conflicts are over the small sums owed and paid, surviving or not.

The content of all Festivals between 1975 and 1983 was the product of much discussion between individuals, the particular energy that comes from agreement and combustion between people who believe passionately in their subject.  But each coordinator stamped his or her own style and preferences on the event.  Peter’s influence could be seen in a discussion of ‘place’ in contemporary poetry, a discussion that included Roy Fisher and E.A. Markham; ‘Forms and Principles’ an examination of politics and literature that brought together Donald Davie, E.P Thompson, Jon Silkin and C.H. Sisson topped by an evening reading on the same day given by Donald Davie, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Yunna Morits and Jon Silkin.   His influence was slightly less visible in the Sound Poetry Night or the evening reading given by Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Kenneth Koch although the latter was one of the major successes of the Festival and was divinely cathartic!   Nor should Peter’s affiliation to the visual arts and the productive combination of poet and artist be let slip.  This interest would be richly realised in an essay on Ezra Pound and Italian art, Peter’s contribution to Pound’s Artists published by the Tate Gallery to accompany the exhibition of the same name that was first mounted at Kettle’s Yard as part of the 1985 Festival and subsequently moved on to the Tate Gallery (Tate Britain) the same year.  Another symbiotic relationship between the artist (or art) and the poet was explored in the context of the 1979 Festival when the Hobson Gallery mounted an exhibition of Gisele Celan-Lestrange’s etchings that accompanied Paul Celan’s ‘Ademkristall’ plus a number of other texts by Celan illustrated by Giselle Lestrange

After the 1985 Festival four of us who had been involved in the Festivals for a decade or more, Peter, Clive Wilmer, John Alexander and I were ready for another challenge.  This challenge became Numbers a magazine devoted not only to contemporary poetry and prose but also with substantial reappraisals of the life and work of older poets including Fernando Pessoa, Nicholas Moore and Janet Lewis.  The seven issues, published from autumn 1986 to winter 1990, began life around my kitchen table where so many events had been discussed, planned and realised and, again, was the product of our enthusiasms, collisions and oppositions.  Peter expressed the process much more elegantly in his editorial in issue number two saying that ‘the ground of Numbers has been much disputed in our editorial meetings’.  Looking back on these seven issues I feel that what was vigorously debated had positive outcomes including publishing Peter’s translations of Franco Fortini, a Festival participant in 1979, a celebration of the life of Janet Lewis on her 90th birthday, already mentioned, that owed much to Clive’s transatlantic ties and Peter and Marcus Perryman’s translation of Vittorio Sereni’s prose work, ‘Twenty-six’.  Where there was sadness as well as a note of celebration in publishing Sereni who had died just before he was due to appear at the 1983 Festival. 

In writing this article I am surprised that there are so many references to the Cambridge Poetry Festival which, in its 1975 to 1985 format was dissolved.  It obviously had a formative influence on so many individuals who went on to become established writers, academics and artists.  Peter is eminent among those who have succeeded in the world of teaching and writing and I believe that in conclusion it is appropriate to quote, again, from Peter’s editorial to issue two of Numbers.  It not only expresses what we felt about what we were doing with that particular magazine but what Peter believed about poetry: ‘Numbers is, and will continue to be, committed to including styles of work which can help occasion dialogues, extending our capacities for knowledge, intelligent pleasure and the love of life.’

Numbers 2, Vol II, No. 1, Spring 1987

Robinson, Peter. 1980. Overdrawn Account. London: The Many Press

Alison Blair-Underwood worked for three decades in Heffers bookshop, in Cambridge, in charge of the literature department.  She was involved in The Cambridge Poetry Festival from 1979 to 1985 as Treasurer, Co-ordinator and committee member.  She served on the Literature Panel of the Arts Council from the mid to late 1980s and was one of the editors of the magazine, Numbers.  Since leaving Heffers she has completed an undergraduate degree at Anglia Ruskin University, followed by a Masters and has recently begun a PhD on the concept of the unreal city in the work of Whitman, James Thomson and Hope Mirrlees.