About Me - Frances Presley

About Me

I was thinking about my childhood in Lincolnshire when I wrote an alphabet sequence with drawings by Peterjon Skelt (An Alphabet for Alina). It had to do with landscape and language, including the songs and nursery rhymes that we learnt. The letter ‘c’, for example, makes use of the folk song ‘John Barleycorn’, a tale of birth, death and rebirth in the eternal round of the harvest. It bore no relation to my experience of the planting or harvest of corn. Our house was at the edge of a council estate, bounded on two sides by immense corn fields, and large combine harvesters would appear in August. I don’t know who did the work, or whose fields they were, and it was a bloodless, disembodied murder, which eliminated most of the wild life.

I was born in Chesterfield, Derbyshire 1952, of English and Dutch-Indonesian parents. My father’s family were miners and farmers in Derbyshire, although he became a teacher. My mother lived in the Dutch colony of Java until the Second World War, and met my father after being liberated from a Japanese concentration camp. I have an older brother. We moved to Lincolnshire when I was three years old.

Grantham Grammar school was an hour’s bus ride from the village. My first English teacher made us enact Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shalott’ and I found her and the poem ridiculous. It didn’t help that she was bent on changing my speech, from the short Northern vowels to a more elongated received pronunciation. I remember a girl reciting W.B. Yeats’ ‘The Fiddler of Dooney’ with correct vowel sounds: ‘and dahnced like the wa-aves of the sea’. All that you had to know was the regularity of the waves and all that you had to fear was the stammer, the hesitation, the sense. A new English teacher introduced us to the First World War poets and soon I would be writing anti-Vietnam war poetry.

In 1967 we moved to Minehead, a small seaside town in Somerset . I studied Chaucer, Milton, Pope, and Yeats. I discovered Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein. I recited Manley Hopkins with my best friend. We also wrote poems in alternate hidden lines, a game of poetic consequences. Our first lines were often the best, such as one of hers: ‘It was snowing in the cellar onto dissipated lard’, which it probably was. Then I heard about Ezra Pound, ordered some books from the public library, and was transfixed by the poems of Lustra and Cathay , their wit and their epigrammatic and Imagist techniques. It was my first experience of free verse which mattered. The ‘Dos and Don’t of Imagism’ and the ABC of Reading would dominate my reading and writing for years to come. Both in the landscape of Somerset and in the new affluence of the 60s in southern England there was also plenty of scope for epigrammatic and Imagist poems.

1970s

I studied American and English literature and history at the new University of East Anglia . My first collection of poems, The Sex of Art (1988) begins in America , when I had a scholarship at Franklin and Marshall College from 1973-4. I spent as much time as I could on the road, and my poetry was often a response to political and cultural tensions post Vietnam in the conservative Nixon era. F&M did teach me an American lack of embarrassment about career and publication. I was also researching and writing about the ‘new American poetry’ and the heirs of Pound and Carlos Williams: Charles Olson’s projective verse, Robert Duncan and Robert Creeley. There were also the West Coast poets: I was influenced by Gary Snyder and his ‘nonhuman, nonverbal world, which is nature as nature is itself’. Snyder was fine for crossing the Rockies , where I chanted the Cold Mountain poems, but more often I was in the city. There was Ginsberg, of course, who, in his assumption of Whitman’s cloak, made my journeys through the American nightmare more bearable, and I also turned to the New York poets.

In 1972, on a poetry course at Totleigh Barton Manor in Devon , I met Peterjon Skelt, who as well as writing poetry was making strange and exquisite drawings. It was Peterjon who introduced me to Lee Harwood’s poetry, as well as sharing his interest in the work of the New York poets Ashbery and O’Hara. As we both lived in Somerset we would meet during the long vacations. In the summer of 1975 we hitched around France , visiting the Max Ernst exhibition in Paris and carrying with us a copy of Lee Harwood’s newly published translations of Tristan Tzara.

It took living and studying in America to make me realise how European I was, and to see the importance of Surrealism for much of what had happened in contemporary American poetry. Back at UEA I took European literature seminars in my final year. I studied Futurism and Expressionism, and their relationship to modern technology. My disillusionment with the American dream and technology was expressed in a poem about my visit to the John F Kennedy space center and the gloom expressed by the engineers: ‘we’re all stopping/ to take account/ and play back’.

From 1975-76 I did an MA in Comparative Literature at Sussex University and my dissertation was a comparative study of Pound, Apollinaire and the visual arts. I got involved with the student arts magazine at Sussex , both editing and contributing. There was a power struggle with a student who propounded anarchist politics. His language was generally that of 60s counterculture, but with a new element of (male) intolerance and aggression which was disturbing. We agreed to do an issue on ‘Liberation’ and I published an essay I’d written for a feminist seminar in the States, underpinned by Simone de Beauvoir’s theory. The shifting of genders and roles became a theme in my poetry. In 1976 I went to a conference on Ezra Pound at the University of Keele . It brought me face to face with the full extent of Pound’s fascist politics, which I could no longer ignore, and which I responded to in ‘The Pound Papers’.

I got a scholarship to study French poetry and the visual arts, especially post Surrealism, in Switzerland , as part of my PhD, and Iwrote about Artaud, Breton, Eluard, and Reverdy. My poetry was influenced by Reverdy, who had learnt from a new syntax from Mallarmé, as well as responding to the Cubism. Ultimately I found him too ascetic and hermetic, as he withdrew from the world. I also wrote about the contemporary poet Yves Bonnefoy, but I became increasingly uncomfortable with his poetics – their essentialist and quasi-metaphysical use of language. Rexroth had called him the ‘cul de sac of modern French poetry’. Studying the Surrealists inevitably encouraged me to attempt automatic writing, although it was a technique that I would not seriously practice until much later. I did write a version of Breton’s ‘L’Union libre’ (Free Union) with the male as object of desire rather than the female. It’s an unedited version as my lover objected to any deletions or revisions.

Returning to Brighton I went to Lee Harwood’s readings at the Public House bookshop. Lee has given me ‘such rare moments of being where one is’, especially in the hills of the West Country and Wales . Peterjon, by this time, was studying Lee Harwood’s poetry with Eric Mottram at King’s College, and doing some of his research with Lee in Brighton .I also did other courses at Totleigh Barton, which were fairly unstructured, a contrast to the later excess of programming and ‘value for money’. One was for poets and painters, and all we had was the theme of ‘face in the landscape’ and the opportunity to collaborate. We made an unfolding image/ text called ‘North Face’.

1980s

In 1980 I moved to London to work as a librarian, and later specialized in research and information for community development and anti-racism projects. More recently I worked part time for the national Poetry Library. I joined a housing co-operative in North London in the early 80s, and still live there. Although I had been writing throughout the 70s, and publishing in university arts magazines, my own writing and performance came into focus in the 80s. I was involved in the Sub Voicive readings in their various incarnations, and it was through these that I met my partner Gavin Selerie. I was also a member and later co-ordinator of the Islington Poetry Workshop.

There was a new wave of feminism in the 80s and it was a time of discovering important women modernist poets such as HD and Mina Loy, as well as the work of Surrealist women writers and artists, who had been marginalised or ignored in the university curriculum and the literary canon, and whose works were being reprinted and discussed at last.

I became involved in small press activity in the late 80s, partly as a continuation of my creative friendship with Peterjon Skelt. He had always wanted to be a publisher and in 1986 began North and South press with his wife Yasmin, his friend from Aberystwyth University, the poet David Annwn, and me. North and South was so named because it was based at the Skelts’ in London and with David in Wakefield, and was intended to publish poets from Britain and the States. I got to know David well, often through his letters, a late night gift after a day at work, full of wit and insight. As well as publishing our own poetry and art, N&S authors included Lee Harwood, Elaine Randell, Ric Caddell, Eric Mottram, Geraldine Monk, Kelvin Corcoran and Catherine Walsh. We read and discussed the manuscripts as they came in, and it was a wonderful opportunity for me to gain a deeper understanding of the work of some of the best contemporary British poets. I was excited by Elaine Randell’s work, her selected poems had recently been published by Pig Press. We published her collection of prose texts, Gut Reaction, which were not afraid of social realities and recorded the voices of the people that she worked with. Randell compared these pieces to Barry MacSweeney’s texts about journalism. There is nothing lyrical about them. I was working on community projects, so I understood the subject matter as well as the desire to break with the consoling patterns that poetry could provide. We became friends, I visited her in Kent, and we exchanged letters and poems. We also took North and South to bookfairs, the first and possibly most memorable being the Oriel Book Fair in Cardiff in 1987, hosted by Peter Finch, where I also met Chris Broadribb (now Ozzard), publisher of Kite magazine, and the poet Graham Hartill. Cardiff was also where I met Elisabeth Bletsoe a few years later, when I performed at ‘Deadlier than the Male’ cabaret.

1990s

In the early 90s North & South published Kelvin Corcoran who became a friend and correspondent, and his book Next Wave, mirrored my outrage with a country dying from the political centre. I was also keen for N&S to publish Geraldine Monk. Her use of the grotesque, menacing nursery rhymes and innovative design, seemed to me to offer another route to surviving the Thatcher era. I contacted her about a possible book, and we entered into a long and enjoyable correspondence, which eventually resulted in her selected poems, The Sway of Precious Demons (1992). (Both David and Geraldine were given to satirising letterheads, including one from a creative writing course, ‘Starting to Write?’, to which Geraldine has penned ‘Don’t. See a doctor.’). In 1991 we also published Prospect into Breath: interviews with North and South writers, which is an important source reference and full account of many of the writers mentioned here from the 1960s to the 80s. However, North & South was hit hard by the recession and financial commitments, and ceased publishing a few years later.

After North & South, I started a very small low-budget press of my own, The Other Press. The first publication in 1993 was Climbing through Fire, an anthology of work by various poets and artists. This was followed by my book, Hula Hoop in 1993, which includes poems written in response to some of the poets already mentioned. The Other Press has focused primarily on women poets, as one of the things I noticed at N&S was how few women poets submitted their work, feeling inhibited in a way that did not seem to affect their male contemporaries.

In 1995 I embarked on a major collaboration and performance with the artist Irma Irsara, based around the fashion industry and women’s clothing, and part of this project is available in book form as Automatic cross stitch (Other Press, 2000).

In 1996 I gave a paper on Denise Riley’s work at the Assembling Alternatives conference in New Hampshire, where I also met American poets such as Leslie Scalapino and Kathleen Fraser. I already knew Lyn Hejinian from her visits to London.  Shortly afterwards I joined the editorial board of How2, the journal of experimental poetry by women, edited by Kathleen Fraser.

Ian Robinson, of Oasis Books, published my third collection, Linocut in 1997, which included poems about Surrealist women artists.

Between April 1998 and April 1999 I undertook a collaborative project with the poet Elizabeth James, Neither the one nor the other (Form Books, 1999). This was a simultaneous collaboration, where one work does not take precedence over another.   I wanted to avoid individual set pieces, in which each poem/ poet is distinct from the other. I liked the idea of rapidly intersecting voices.  I had a procedural starting point, which came from hearing Leslie Scalapino talk about a collaboration of single line responses using a fax machine, although the medium of our collaboration was email.

Although based in London, I continued to spend time in Somerset, and Somerset letters (Oasis, 2002) consists of 10 prose ‘letters’ and 10 poems which were written on occasional visits over a seven year period, combined with drawings by Ian Robinson. Somerset letters began in the early 90s as an exchange of letters and poems with Elaine Randell: I was attracted by her exploration of both rural landscape and fractured rural communities.  Another poet whose poetry and correspondence became part of that sequence was Harriet Tarlo, who I met at a feminist poetry conference in the early 90s. Living in Northumberland and researching HD, she was finding new ways to write about landscape, as well as co-organising the HD reading week in Cornwall. Later I would publish her first book, Brancepeth Beck, with drawings by Julia Ball.

 2000

The sequence ‘Paravane’ originated with discussions on How2 post 9/11.  Later I focused on the IRA bombsites in London and the bombing campaign I had experienced in the 1990s, although I was also interested in those spaces as strongholds of international capitalism. It was published in New and selected poems, 1996-2003, from Salt Publishing.

I continued to write about Exmoor and Myne: new and selected poems and prose, 1976-2005, (Shearsman, 2006) takes its title sequence from the old name for Minehead in Somerset.

Lines of Sight (Shearsman 2009) is based on the strange geometry of Neolithic stone sites on Exmoor, which was part of a multi-media collaboration and performance with Tilla Brading, published as Stone settings (Odyssey, 2010).  Some of the source material for these sites was taken from the work of local archaeologist and historian Hazel Eardley-Wilmot (1910-1998).  I became interested in her life and archive, which I have written about, as well as co-organising events in her home village of North Molton with Tilla Brading and Richard Westcott.

Lines of Sight also includes two other sequences. One is about statues of women in public spaces – ‘female figures’ began as a response to a Jena Osman project on statues in towns and cities, in which she photographed both the statues and the view that they have, their ‘gaze’. These statues are often related to military or governmental positions of power and I became interested in the rare presence of female statues and their significance. ‘The first book of her life’ includes a re-working of my mother’s memoir of a concentration camp, playful mis-readings of the dictionary she brought with her to England, as well as re-readings of a Dutch primer I was given as a child.

2010 –

An Alphabet for Alina (Five Seasons, 2012), described earlier, is a collaboration with artist Peterjon Skelt, which exploits the lexical and visual possibilities of a girl’s alphabet.

Halse for hazel (Shearsman, 2014) is a sequence about trees.  ‘Halse’ is Exmoor dialect for hazel, as transcribed by local historian Hazel Eardley-Wilmot, a convergence of names which initiates a new poetic syntax of marginal trees, languages and women.   Halse for hazel began on the hills of Exmoor and in Sallow (Leafe, 2015) I explore trees in  low lying, wetland areas.  Both were a dialogue with the artists Irma Irsara and include her images (see also Posts)

Since 2014 I have been working on a sequence about Ada Lovelace, mathematician and computer visionary.  She spent part of her life on Exmoor and this is the subject of a collaboration with Tilla Brading, ADADA, forthcoming from Contraband.  Lovelace wrote, ‘Mathematical Science is the language of the unseen relations between things’ and my next book from Shearsman in 2019 will be Ada Unseen.  It features a section on Lovelace’s interest in birds and the theory of flight, as well as exploring various aspects of the ‘unseen’ , such as computing, the human body, music and the imaginary.

My work is included in the anthologies Infinite Difference (Shearsman, 2010),  Ground Aslant: radical landscape poetry (Shearsman, 2011) and Out of Everywhere2 (Reality Street, 2015).

I have also written about my poetic practice and that of other poets, especially British women poets (see Essays).

I have co-translated the work of two Norwegian poets, Hanne Bramness and Lars Amund Vaage (see Translation).

And you can contact me at frances@francespresley.co.uk

The earlier part of ‘About Me’, from the 1960s to the early ’90s is based on the essay ‘Hidden lines’, which appears in Cusp, edited by Geraldine Monk, Shearsman, 2012.  An account of my life in London in the 1980s appeared as ‘Experimental poetry and feminism?’ in Clasp, edited by Robert Hampson and Ken Edwards, Shearsman 2016.  See also the interview with Peterjon Skelt in Prospect Into Breath (North and South, 1991).