An Interview with
Peter Finch

Wales and the avant-garde aren't terms you normally associate with each other - unless, that is, you are familiar with the work of Peter Finch. Finch is the godfather of Welsh literary experimentalism, a veteran of concrete, sound, and found poetry. In 1966 he set up second aeon an influential, international poetry magazine that featured works by everyone from William Burroughs and Charles Bukowski to Iain Sinclair. More recently he has embarked upon a psychogeographic odyssey through the fabric of a city in his excellent, obsessive Real Cardiff books. And just last week The Big Book of Cardiff was published, co-edited with Grahame Davies.This email interview was completed in October 2005.



Can you tell us a bit about your upbringing in Cardiff?

Peter Finch: Snow on the ground six foot deep. A late fall in those early post-war years, after a mild winter. Nine foot drifts, if you believe the urban myths. No buses. Horses stranded. Services frozen. The fabric of civilisation recently reordered once again breaking down. From January 22nd to March 17th snow fell everyday. Nothing melted. The layers built and built, ever higher. The taxi to get my mother to the nursing home could not get through. She crawled to the nursing home through the drifts on her hands and knees. Blizzard in her teeth. Ice pick in hand. I was born.

On the radio: The Andrews Sisters - How Lucky You Are, Billy Cotton - You Went Away and Left Me, Joe Loss - Tell Me, Marianne, Ambrose and his Orchestra - A Gal In Calico, Roy Rogers - Down The Old Spanish Trail. None of those tunes hung around.

For most of my childhood I had that story told and retold. It was in Cardiff, Roath, Penylan that childhood - largely in the district that sprawls around the bottom of the eastern hill. Everything got renamed by my mother. Roath was upgraded to Roath Park. When we moved to within sight of that great green expanses she decided we were Penylan. When we actually did move to Penylan she called it Cyncoed. When, for a brief brief period, the council renamed our ward Waterloo she threw the notification straight into the bin. It was all Roath really. A district that officially no longer exists. Plasnewydd. Splott. Roath Brook. Penylan. Pengam Green. You decide.

Poetry barely featured in the way that I grew up. Sitting next to his huge brown steam radio my grandfather once read me the Charge of the Light Brigade. I'd been given a toy sword for Christmas It was that which had prompted this celebration of great military events through the medium of verse. The sword was made of steel. Said so on its side. "No one can break that - strongest metal known," advised my Grandfather. For declaiming this truth I got beaten up by yobs in the rec, the golden sword taken from me, bent in two, and thrown in the brook. Poetry and violence. Such common bedfellows.

Our houses were huge. Often shared with other relatives. Aunts, Uncles, Grandparents, cats, no dogs. One of my aunts had married a Polish fighter pilot. He believed in science and taught me about the make up of atoms and how to generate nuclear power. Nothing is ever lost from the universe, only changed. My best friend in the next street was also Polish. So were a bunch of kids in my class. I got to think that Cardiff was half a Polish city. White eagle everywhere. Men on noble horses. Smell of vodka in the air.

My father worked for the Post Office (didn't earn enough, kept getting badgered by my mother, do better Stanley, tell them what you are worth.) On Saturdays he took me down to the huge office outside the dock gates at the bottom of Bute Street. Still there today. Closed and buggered, posters for bands, graffiti, smashed windows, rain and wind among its rafters, flats soon, or demolition dust. He left me to play with machines that unaccountably punched holes in the sides of sheets of paper and red sticks of wax that, if you held a match near them, turned to burning blood. We sold stamps to seamen, exchanged postal orders, sent parcels home to places the other side of the world.

Cardiff was big and Cardiff was safe. You could cross it with ease on your bike. I did. Up to Lisvane, the Garth, through the Penarth Dock tunnel, to Lavernock and the beach of sewage, to Llanederyn where there was still a village, along the coast road to Newport.

Westville Road, Ty Draw Place, Queensbury Road, Waterloo Gardens, Bangor Street, Lakeside Drive, Stalcourt Avenue, Waterloo Gardens, Mafeking Road, Kimberley Road, Kingsland Road, Shirley Road.

I went round them all a few years ago and took photographs of all the front doors, showed them to my mother. She didn't recognise one.

At school everyone tried the twist although at first nobody really knew how it went. Elvis' Twist Special. Chubby Checker. Joey Dee. Even Frank. Dion came into it. Runaround Sue. The Wanderer. Love Came to Me. Drip Drop. Then the blues. Alexis Korner. Cyril Davis. Stones. Graham Bond. Pretty Things. Yardbirds. Biking to the record shop on City Road to order Howlin Wolf's Meet Me In The Bottom and Tail Dragger and Smokestack Lightning. Pye International singles. Listening to them over and over trying to see how they worked. If it didn't do anything for me then I played it and played it until it did. After this came Dylan. Hearing his first album I wondered why he was such a force. I bought his third and understood. The times were changing. So they were.

You don't come from an arts background and yet you became a poet. How come?

Peter Finch: Nobody in the family wrote and, I suppose, hardly anyone read. Not much, as far as I could discern. There were book club editions of popular fiction on a shelf in the hall. A couple of paperbacks, now and again. The newspapers we took were the Sunday Pictorial, the South Wales Echo, the Daily Express, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Sketch. Pop, my grandfather, read the Telegraph. But he was a law unto himself.

I read to fill up space. These were the long yellow-lit days before television. Knitting. Games of marbles. Cards. Plays on radio. Dance band music. Forces favourites. Ted Heath. Billy Cotton. Vera Lynn. No threat on any horizon. Rock and roll had been banned. Jerry Lee had done the unthinkable and married his thirteen year old second cousin. Elvis was a fake, although my uncle admired his voice. Bill Haley was boring. Tommy Steele couldn't sing. Little Richard was simply negro noise.

I went through every science fiction book on the shelves at the Roath Park Branch library. When I got to the end I restarted at the beginning. I scoured second hand shops and jumble sales. 3d a book was okay. Cover price 1/6 certainly not. E.C.Eliott, Ray Bradbury, Charles Eric Maine, Poul Anderson, John Wyndham, Isaac Asimov, Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K Dick, A E van Vogt. The world was the future. Had to be. Kemlo and the Starmen, War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Illustrated Man, Something Wicked This Way Comes.

A girlfriend gave me Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums. Jack in his check shirt on the cover. Handsome. Beat. Iconic. When I think back on it this has to be the seminal moment. Read this, you'll like it. How did she know? Kerouac turned out to be nothing like science fiction. No robots. No space suits. No Martians. No warps through time. Although it was still the future that drove and there were plenty of other worlds.

Kerouac consumed me. And his fellow travellers. Ginsberg, Corso, Burroughs. My copy of Protest (1) the British anthology of Beat writing published in paperback by Panther sanitised Ginsberg's earth-shattering, amazing and, for me, totally engaging Howl. I'd never come across anything like it. I went out hunting for the real version. Found it, unaccountably, on the shelves of the SPCK (2) Bookshop in The Friary, Cardiff. Basement. Ferlinghetti's City Lights Books edition, San Francisco. I was reading poetry. It was so different from anything I'd imagined it would be. It was free. You could do anything you wanted within it. So it seemed. Ginsberg wrote long stanzas which finished only when his breathe ran out. Corso took Benzedrine and stayed up all night writing as fast as he could. Kerouac put in stuff he'd overheard, sounds of streets, rhymeless, rhythm of speech. They all quoted Carlos Williams as their master. Patterson. The good doctor of the American tree. And then Pound, the hell with his war record, just look at that erudition, spun me in circles, nowhere to set myself down.

When I eventually went back to look at Blake, at Milton, at Wordsworth, and in particular The Prelude, things were harder and, at first, so much less simple but if you stayed with them they released their joys. A seep of wonder. All the better for being hard won.

I wrote songs. Blues songs. And then things that maybe Dylan might have managed if he'd been a youth in Cardiff in the fog and smog. I had a guitar and had gone through bleeding finger tips to manage a few chords. Bought a harmonic harness. Bottle-caps on my shoes, one-man band like Jesse Fuller. Bought Snaker's Here, Dave Ray white American blues singer playing a 12-string. Picture of him on the cover, skinny, guitar in a case. Tom Rush, the same. Cord jeans. Railroads. Wide open space. Trails going somewhere. For the heart and for the spirit. The Kerouac scenario. I could do this. But couldn't. This was Wales where the roads went up valleys and got lost among pits and sheep and trees. Far less space. Much more rain.

Anyway, it turned out I had no voice. Not for singing. I tried but it didn't work. So the songs became poems. Things about life and love and feeling young and alienated in conservative Cardiff. The search for nirvana, revelation, visions. Whatever they were.

Being a poet was the only way I could contain, sustain, enrol, envelop these things. I had no real idea what being a poet was. Thought it all came down in great rays from the clouds, like the Blake engraving. A sort of possession, a gift, a thing of wonder, a magic, a glitter, a spell, a high blown fog, a flash of lights and lightening, ball of thunder, great rushing, muse with wings and parts of god all streaming across the sky. This was it. Poet. Seeker, seer. Holder of the talisman, mojo, daily juice to fend off the darkness. Passion. Heat. Salt. Things you rubbed and pushed your face into. Things that pushed the eyes until they threw out stars. Bollocks really. Ginsberg and his vision of Walt Whitman in a supermarket in California has got to take a lot of the blame. It took a long time to learn.

Became a poet. Took it up as the thing I did. Heard about Tom Piccard, Bunting's northern darling, putting "poet" down as his occupation on his passport. I'd do that. But I wasn't going anywhere. Not yet. No ports to pass. I told them, instead, in the pub that I was a poet. Gooboy, give us a rhyme then. Didn't. Couldn't. Not then.

You set up and edited Second Aeon (1966-75), an international, avant-garde poetry magazine, featuring works by everyone from Tristan Tzara to William Burroughs. It's a magnificent cultural achievement by anyone's standards so why is it so undervalued in Wales? There's even a poem (A Poorly Night) in one edition by regular contributor Charles Bukowski name-checking Wales! How did you go about getting such a wide range of writers, publishers etc to contribute works to your journal.

Peter Finch: Second Aeon - no, let's get it right. It was second aeon. No capitals. Hardly any punctuation. In 1966 I was a devotee of the Bauhaus and their typographical theories. Punctuation was unnecessary. Everything could be managed in lower case, in a sans serif type based on simple lines and pure circles. The weight of the face would always be enough. That was me. Early second aeon's dropped commas, started their sentences in lower case, never used exclamation marks. They tried their best to be twentieth century. Hard anywhere but especially in ancient Wales. Everyone who came across it treated the deal as an affectation. Reviews of the magazine claimed that my work was much like monkeys jumping up and down on typewriters. This man has spelled Dom Sylvester Houedard (dsh)'s name three different ways in the same edition. T.S.Eliot must be turning in his grave. Finch may have more energy than anyone else around but you don't win prizes for that. second aeon is a mere comic, our other literary magazines are the real stuff.

For most of its life - its twenty-one hard-fought issues - the magazine was mistreated and misunderstood in its own heartland. It might have begun, a hundred-copy circulation foolscap six-pager, as a vehicle for its editor's own poetry but it soon outgrew such myopic concerns. I wanted, at first, to show just what was going on in contemporary British poetry. I wanted to show it all. Great changes were afoot and these I sensed, out there buzzing, misrepresented and misunderstood. The old guard were falling foul of the avant garde. The line that came up from Thomas Hardy was being bent and battered. The new pop poets were making verse for lit-illiterates. There were visual experimentations and foreign influences rolling across our landscapes like fog. There were other languages in the universe than English and Welsh. In Wales - if you read the literary magazines that appeared in the black and white sixties - things appeared to go on only inside locked rooms. The battleground was not how to engage with the wider universe (or even with the inner one) but with the greenness of our landscape and with its clattering tongues. Sod this. I had no history or reputation to get mashed. I could do what I wanted.

I went out there and found translators. Found visual poets. People who worked with smears and splatters. Poets whose reputations were built on American or East European accents, or on dope or booze. Outsiders. Centre screeners. Cutting edgers. Old stagers with the guts to keep on changing. I wrote to them, phoned them, made a nuisance of myself at their publishers. Sent them stamped addressed envelops. Told them how important I thought their work was. Kept at it. Got them to contribute. And so they did.

Burroughs "is this any good…" Ginsberg "Wales is where poetry began". Peter Porter " are six for you to select from…" Cobbing "use anything of mine you like". William Wantling "these are it, man". Peter Redgrove "only second aeon knows what's going on." Dannie Abse "I don't write that many poems but here is one". Not everyone was content. Kingsley Amis sent a printed postcard saying "Mr Amis regrets that he is unable to do as you ask." Ron Berry sent six brilliant short stories. When he discovered I didn't pay he told me the world wasn't a free ride and asked for them back.

At this time the magazine was getting coverage in most of the underground press - in Oz, in International Times, on John Peel's radio show, pop stars were subscribers, the University of California had set up a second aeon archive, Argentina exhibited the magazine's visual pages, in France Henri Chopin championed second aeon's cause.

Did this break through to the Welsh establishment? It did not. Despite John Ormond championing my poem machines (3) on 405-line BBC Wales and Herbert Williams interviewing me for the South Wales Echo and for the Western Mail most of Wales remained highly suspicious. I had an Afghan coat and long hair. I was part of the new age Underground. Heaven's above.

Herbie was brilliant. Long associated with left-leaning literature he recognised spark when he saw it. We went for a drink. We went again. He was a poet too and, despite being one of Meic Stephens' Triskel Press originals (along with John Tripp and Leslie Norris he brought out an early pamphlet of the new-gen Anglo-Welsh verse), he was always interested in non-conformity. For his formative-years support I owe a lot.

John Ormond taught me how to take poems apart and put them back together again. We sat opposite each other in the front bar at the Conway. He showed me his poem about salmon. Told me how he'd made it. Then spent time explaining how my stuff might work much better if I took the ending and put it at the start. Work on things, he advised. Pick them up, put them down, pick them up again, never stop.

At that time - and let's remember that this was a good twenty-five to thirty years ago - the Anglo-Welsh litterateurs were few in number and regularly overwhelmed by their literate Welsh-writing fellows. Writing in Welsh, the senior literature, culturally took pole position. A lot of south Wales, anyway, imagined itself to be a sort of post-industrial West Country The miner's libraries were closing. The great mass of the population did not consume literature, especially poetry which, if they ever considered it at all, they claimed they did not understand. When they did take an interest in verse then it was usually the poetry of Philip Larkin or Ted Hughes or Sylvia Plath. Welsh authors were invisible. Totally. Subsidised volumes of verse brought out by Gomer or Christopher Davies sold as few as 150 copies a time. It was no wonder, looking back on it, that I failed to make many inroads. Even as late as the mid-1980s many established Anglo-Welsh poets - or Welsh writers in English as they had become clumsily renamed - still failed to understand the job that second aeon had done.

Wales had no tradition of avant gardeism. Still hasn't. For most of the twentieth century Welsh art forms worked inside their own boxes, rarely venturing out. Wales liked poetry to be poetry. Recognisable. Spelling dsh's name correctly was more important than anything else.

What kind of logistical difficulties did you face producing an international literary magazine from a humble flat in Llandaff North, Cardiff?

Peter Finch: Leyland WF
Leyland Pilot Cab
Morris LD02 with factory-built bodywork
AEC Mammoth Major
Atkinson L1586 Bow Front
Bowker Guy Invincible
British Road services Guy Otter Artic Flatbed

The Guy Otter couldn't enter the square, had to stay in the road.

Next door they were evangelical Christians. Sang much of the time. Always smiled. They dressed well, crisp white shirts, ties and cardigans. Cleaned their windows. Tried to convert me with tracts and talk. When someone ran over their cat they knocked my door, full of tears, and said that I'd done it. You or your servants. Wasn't. They moved and a single parent from Glasgow took their place. Three girls under five shrieking and running. No money no god that I could discern. They planted annuals in the long border where the cat had been buried. Colour and charm. Almost everything they scattered came up.

These were pre-computer days which meant that everything had to be prepared using an old-fashioned typewriter - I advanced slowly from ancient sit-and-beg hand-thumped via office Olivettis through to various electric typers including golfballs and machines with discs. None of them had word processing or memory of any kind. They were heavy and large, like desks. They had one time-saving device which was a sort of sticky-tape reel which you could call up by pulling a lever and if you rekeyed any errors you had made then the machine lifted the incorrect but inked letters back up off the paper. Justified type meant typing it out once, right hand side raggy edged, counting the spaces, inserting the right number of extra ones, and then doing it again to get both margins parallel. Slow as paint. Compared to today impossibly so. But, as Anais Nin discovered when she set herself up as a self-publisher and began the laborious procedure of setting each letter carefully by hand, the process improves your work. When everything needs to be pedantically read and reread then you begin to drop the doubtful, reduce the verbiage and become much less garrulous. Everything gets tightened up.

But then the machine would break down and the spool of black-ink tape would unwind and keys would stick and snap and you'd feel like fixing the thing with a hammer. Money was so tight that the high costs of formally repairing these office machines could never be contemplated. Screwdriver, pliers, bits of wire. I had to mend mine myself.

When I eventually did buy a computer, a word processor, an Amstrad PCW with a green font on a tiny black screen, the magazine was long over. I took great pleasure, nonetheless, in throwing my huge electric typer, hopelessly misaligning words and skewing letters by now, in a great crashing arc in the lane. It hit the tarmac and just sat there. No smash or flash of exploding parts. Just slump. Do these machines know where they've been? The language that has flowed through their keys? The twentieth century in brilliant dap and clatter. Smudges of ink, all that remains.

The pub, The Pineapple, was at the end of Maplewood Avenue. It exerted a magnetic pull. Tripp and I would go in there when he came round to do his stuff as reviews editor. We'd sit over a few beers in the dark interior and talk about anything but the work to hand. second aeon had a section towards the end of each issued called The Small Press Scene where I tried to list everything that was going on. Who was publishing what, how much they charged, who was in them, what they were like, and where these things could be obtained. This section of the magazine had proved so successful that it had got completely out of hand. Cavan McCarthy, the concrete poet, had once told me that what was missing from the present day (i.e.1960s) poetry scene was information. "No one had a clue what's being published. No one is collecting these things. Most people don't know that they come out." I wanted to change this and went about it by offering exchange subscriptions (I send you mine, you send me yours and we both mention each others work) to anyone who wanted to join in. Almost everybody did. The network grew like topsy. The hundreds of small press (and increasingly big press) publications arriving at Maplewood Court began to turn into thousands. Getting them into the flat was the first problem. Opening them, stacking them, tracking them, listing them, thinking of something to say about them. Some of these errant publications were far too important to just list with a price and an address. I kept them in boxes and then laid them out across the floor in alphabetical order by country of origin. Most of the stuff came from the UK and the USA but increasing piles slid in from Europe. South Africa, Australia and Asia. John Tripp had offered to help. I should have known.

He scuffled through the stacked mags and torrents of pamphlet paper and hauled away Balzac by V S Pritchett, Behind Hesslington Hall by Cal Clothier, Walter Benjamin on Charles Baudelaire, Dannie Abse's Corgi Modern Poets In Focus, Dave Calder's Cube, Philip Roth's The Great American Novel, David Rhodes' The Last Fair Deal Going Down, Charles Bukowski's Mockingbird Wish Me Luck. "these are longshot poems for broke players who run with the hunted & the cold dogs in the courtyard….yarns & anecdotes….this articulate Buffalo renegade who tries to live up to the hilt."

I did the mass of 64-mil hard sized roneo poetry - the stuff on beer mats, on foolscap sheaves, on cards and stapled handsheets, on folded pamphlets that smudged when you handled them, the dynamic, burning world heart of poetry.

We talked about it in the pub. You don't pay me, JT accused. You get to keep the books, I replied. Not enough, boy, he grumbled, downing his Hancocks. Later he was seen about town wearing my suede jacket. The brown one with the push fasteners. Bob Dylan hip. I've borrowed this, he told me. I've taken this in lieu of payment, he told everyone else. You'll get it back, he said. I never did.

I spent my days in work, back late through the south Wales drizzle to distant Llandaff North, Llandaff Yard, where the Canal had once flowed, where my father had been brought up. I'd read manuscripts on the bus. Unless someone I knew sat next to me in which case we'd talk. To shave time as thin as it would go occasionally I'd deliberately sit next to someone I didn't know, just to ensure silence. The volume of unpublished and unpublishable manuscripts reaching me was incredible. What made the magazine successful was that I generally got what I wanted by writing to those I wanted to include. The unsolicited slush pile - life blood of many an amateur lit mag - usually gave up very little. 10% or maybe less in the magazine's whole lifetime. I read crap poems until my head was dull with them. I felt I sort of owed this to the hopeless hapless out there who were determined that I would become their literary salvation. I tried. But in the end the bulk wore me down. Sacks of the stuff arriving everyday by every post. Brown envelopes like kippers, to quote a line from my own poetry (Little Mag - Poems For Ghosts). I cut back to reading the first poem in the stack and then only going further if something sparked. It rarely did. Submitting authors tried to catch me out. They cellotaped poems together. Inserted hairs. Put pages in upside down and then when I sent them back this way wrote to me long accusing letters, banging on about how I was undermining their creativity and an affront to the world of poetry. I let them go on. Filed their letters in the bin. Put the phone down when they called and call they did. All hours. All the time. I'll get him, I'd say, answering the phone to some irate voice asking to speak to Peter Finch. I'd put the phone on the floor and carry on with what I'd been doing. After fifteen minutes or so I'd quietly put it back on the hook.

Logistic problems faced by Llandaff North second aeon:

Delivery from the printers occurred when at work.
Arriving post often wouldn't fit through the letterbox.
John Lee Hooker.
Distance to outgoing post office.
Swearing in magazine.
Overwhelmed by review copies.
Overwhelmed by contributions.
Spelled Houedard three different ways in the same issue.
Bottom line.
Brown paper.
Lettraset melt.

The magazine was printed by Brown's Typewriting Services of Burnley - a secretarial services outfit that had moved early into small offset printing. They were economical, fast and offered a friendly and responsive service. They printed every issue bar nos #1 and #2. I never physically went there but on my recommendations Bob Cobbing and Eric Mottram did at the time when Cobbing was, amazingly, Poetry Society Treasurer and Mottram editor of Poetry Review the Society's magazine. Small, northern, pipe smoking and brown overalls, Bob told me. For a time Poetry Review came out looking just like SA.

I notice you are the only living Welsh person in Richard Kostelanetz's
Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes. At what point did you go from using traditional poetical forms to becoming an experimental poet employing avant-garde techniques? And why the change of outlook?

Peter Finch: Richard Kostelanetz was an early contributor to second aeon and we regularly exchanged publications. He did these letter poems using plastic stencils. At that time print, especially in large point sizes, was difficult, expensive and pretty inflexible. The more economic alternatives were dry transfer lettering, Lettraset, which I used or stencils, which Kostelanetz employed. He published whole 200 page books using such techniques. Kostelanetz was amazingly productive, still is. It was a real honour to find myself listed in his Dictionary.

Change was the spirit of the age. The concrete poetry movement, born in the 50s, really came on as a force in the sixties on the back of Marshall McLuan's Medium is the Message philosophy. That idea, that what is significant is not what is said but how it is said, was very important to me. Olsen had worked the territory too with his form vs. content arguments. And when I opened the box and looked inside I found that the surrealists and before them the futurists and most importantly the Dadaists had all worked the field as well. These discoveries set me on fire. F T Marietti, Russolo, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Hans Arp, Khlebnikov, Carlo Belloli, Raoul Hausmann, Hugo Ball, Man Ray, Kurt Schwitters, Tristan Tzara. In America were e e cummings, Dick Higgins, Jerome Rothenberg, Jonathan Williams. In Europe Ernst Jandl, Henri Chopin, Diter Rot, Frans Mon, Francois Dufrene. The Anglo-Welsh Poetry anthology of the period was Dragons and Daffodils, Contemporary Anglo-Welsh Verse edited by John Stuart Williams and Richard Milner, Christopher Davies, Llandybie, hardback, seven and six. Its content was so tight buttoned, so worthy, so introvertedly provincial. No confidence, no flair. Poetry on rails. Pat Boone in the face of Elvis. Alan Breeze instead of James Brown. Jimmy Young not Bo Diddley. Where else could I go but the avant garde?

If I had to nominate a point when I changed direction it would be when I first met the great late sound poet, Bob Cobbing. I'd already realised that if second aeon was going to be any force in the world then I had best stop thinking that the mailbox was the answer.

Occasional thoughts, random feelings, meanderings, points of view, fog, recollections, distant recollections, idle recollections, soft recollections, old recollections, failed recollections, dismal recollections, wise recollections, faint recollections, traces, trails, tracks, tricks, toast, terror, tremblings.

I wrote instead to those who were making a difference and asked them to contribute. Roland Mathias, who'd published my diatribe against parochialism A Welsh Wordscape in his Anglo-Welsh Review and given me an early boost, suggested that I ask the poet Bob Cobbing. To this day I don't know if Roland understood Cobbing for what he was, an innovator and ground-breaker, or had merely come across the name. I'd never heard of Cobbing but I tracked him down. London, Randolph Avenue in Maida Vale, tan tandinanan tankrina tanan tanare tantarane tan rotu tanrita tantarane tandinanan tanan tan tan tan just tan.

Bob taught me how to pick something up and make a poem from it. This scrap, we'll do it. He'd pulled a label off a jar. Make the sounds. Take the letters apart. There are sounds inside them. Chopin calls these language's microparticles. We sang the instructions for making Nescafe. Once you've recorded something onto tape, Bob told me, you can then process it, slow it down, speed it up, cut it, slice it, reverse it. Hear your old voice made completely new. And, having heard that processed voice, you can then imitate it. Take it further. Remake it anew.

There was little difference between sound and visual. The trick was to turn one into the other. I did. That older stuff I'd worked on - the faux Beat Generation in the south Wales drizzle, my R S Thomas dribbles, my Shelley fantasies, my blues song ramblings - I put that in a drawer in an old cabinet. Locked it. Lost it. Just as well.

This experimental work - material that goes under the banner of innovative poetry today - was a much harder act than emotion recollected in tranquillity. So many things needed to be put in a straight line before the work could flow. Not anything would do. I can do that. I can. But you didn't.

No tany thin gw o ulddo. Ic an do that. I c an. Buty oudid n't. Notany thi ngw oulddo. Ica n do thddthddthat. I can. Buth you dididididdidn't. Notno not anything little thing some thing any thing what thing this thing that thing thing thin gwould do. I can do that. I can. Can. But you did n't. n't. n't. Not anyth inginging w ould do da de du do dw. I can do that. this I can. But you didn't. The Anglo-Welsh were aghast. I left them to their loneliness.

Retrospectively what do you think of your concrete and visual poems? Do they stand up today or are they historical curiosities?

Peter Finch: No one seems to make visual poetry anymore. The day of Lettraset and Gil Sans in towers and streams and scatters and grids has passed. Things have their place in time.

Concrete poetry and the grappling to understand what it was all about was a huge factor in my early writing career. I won an early bursary award from the Welsh Arts Council to pay for materials to make concrete poems. I bought large point dry transfer lettering, inks, brushes, card, paper. The poems I made were never much good but the process of making them, and the fact that I was making them then, was vital.

In the Directors office his blonde assistant tells me I am unsophisticated. These can't be exhibited, she says. She has on a short skirt and I can see her pants. The white vee. She leans forward to emphasise her point. The Director sits impassively. I'll give the money back, I offer. She says no. Don't do that. The vee moves. I am mesmerised.

Peter Mayer was sticking things to the exhibition panels with a staple gun. dsh typestracts. John Furnival lettertowers and skyscrapers. Cobbing duplicator blurs. Purity from the Brazilians. Colour from the French. Henri Chopin typewriter shouting. A couple of mine were there. The Boom Poem. The Sun Poem. The Museum Place Gallery, ground floor of the Welsh Arts Council. At the opening reception Norman Schwenk told me to follow the free wine. Gets you through the cultured night. 60s. Black and white. Black and white. Black and white.

"The innermost alchemy of the word" - Hugo Ball

"We don't know if conventional poetry which embodies concepts is dead; we do know that it is dead for us." - Jean-Louis Brau

Photoshop can manipulate text so readily that you'd expect everyone today to be making concrete poems. But they don't. Computers have made the exceptional the norm. Concrete poetry itself was a cul de sac. The form transcended by the flowing and flowering of text in the world around us - in advertising, film titles, television credits, neon lighting, posters, graffiti, banners, headlines, flyers, flags, pull-ups, drop-downs, tattoos, stickers, road markings, sign boarding, led, plasma, sides of balloons, words in the sky.

What we made in the sixties and the seventies looks so tame today. But they are still there, valid records. I have a long section on my web site tracking my progress from the sixties Sunpoem, through the destroyed texts of Thatcher's 80s to photocopy smears and twists and the computer-aided texts of today. Can you see the wood from the trees? How does language work? How do we speak? These have been my recent pre-occupations and I have exercised them in cyberspace.

It's so bloody cold and it's 1986. Cobbing and I are walking through some deep-frost and abandoned dark London night. The reading was nothing much. Cobbing performing his greatest hits from memory, whiskey driven, immune to comment and interruption. Who'd do that anyway? The bearded ancient like a mariner under full sail. We pass trees, leafless, rods holding up a suspended slate grey sky. Cobbing reads them. I I I I I becoming eeeeeiiiii then iiiiiiiiiii. Me too. Mmm iiiiiiiii iiiiii. It's like singing. It is singing. We roar and thrash these sounds back and forth between us. No cars, no people. eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee eeeeeeee iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii . Keeps you warm.

The librarian at California exchanged his overstocks with me for copies of second aeon and associated publications. I got boxes done up with American cellotape and protected with American brown paper. Inside were the great books. The biggest prize was Mary Ellen Solt's great Concrete Poetry A World View (Indiana University Press, 1968) - comprehensive, de-lux, colour, pull outs. The whole deal. Re-reading it now it's easy to see that at the time it was published the academic backdrop to the movement was desperate to find legitimisation. Today we'd simply take that for granted. Back then critics struggled to pin down this surging and all-embracing beast. That was concrete poetry. Hard to believe today.
"It depends on what you mean by concrete."

"Whether or not the pure concrete poem will emerge as the 'sonnet' of the latter half of the twentieth century it is too soon to say….the new experimental poetry can be classified as visual, phonetic (sound), and kinetic." (Solt)

Kinetic clearly got short changed.

Your poetry is often very ironic and funny (I'm thinking of works like A Welsh Wordscape, Bigheads and Putting Kingley Amis in the Microwave) - is this comedic element important to you?

Peter Finch: I've never deliberately set out to be funny. It just happens.

I have, however, studied comedians in a way that others may have studied poets. I can readily identify the one's who've influenced me. Peter Sellers. The Army Game. Tony Hancock. The Goons. Monty Python. John Cleese. The Navy Lark. Spike Milligan. Ronnie Barker. Hancock especially. Watch The Rebel and the vastly underrated Punch and Judy Man. There are others but those are the core. Listen closely to the way their jokes unfold. Like poems moving through time. Watch the way they move. Observe their timing. Timing is king.

Being funny works for me. Minhinnick said something in a review years back when he reported that I "was a lot funnier on stage than I used to be". Maybe I was.

Making an audience laugh is a great feeling. You flow with it. You look at them, watch their eyes, make eye contact, no dark glasses, stay in touch. Play them like a fish on a line. Catch them. Move them. Then they laugh and you have to watch your timing to get the follow up just right. Too soon and it's lost, too late and the build will slow. Hold them, take them with you, keep them in touch.

Doesn't always work, of course, but increasingly these days it does.

The down side, and there is always one of these, is that they don't necessarily take you seriously as a poet. You are just a stand-up, bringing light and laughter in from outside. When I'm on the same bill with someone who isn't funny, or doesn't try to be, then their verse always seems to have a dignity and a weight absent from mine. Their books inevitably sell faster too.

Do I worry about this? Sometimes.

Performance poetry has become very popular over recent years - how much do you enjoy this aspect of the job?

Peter Finch: Some of the things you need to do before going on: check the audience, check the room, check the stage, ensure the pa works, look for where you might leave your poems - table, box, stand, piano - check the light, check the reading glasses, check your texts, check your running order, check your alternatives, breath, don't drink too much, drink one if you can, stop at one, don't manage two, if you do manage two do it slow, never go for three, resists it, have water within reach, don't drink on stage, blow your nose, ensure the shoes are tied and the flies flied, no stains, watch, know the time when you reach the stage, make sure you have an idea when you'll finish, breath, thank someone, arms, texts, hands, smiles, look at faces, look at eyes, smile, breath, in, start, don't stop, don't falter, don't drop, don't turn your back, don't leave the stage, watch their faces, don't be thrown, plough on, be in charge, you are in charge, you command, command them, tell them, speak to them, play to them, project, don't hit the microphone, don't move too much, move some, breathe, don't spit, look, speak, get inside the poem, stay in the moment, don't run ahead, build, listen to them, watch them, watch them, watch them, hold their eyes, don't be thrown, hold it, breath, finish, step back, smile,.

I don't enjoy it.

Not usually.

Except maybe that short moment, just after you've finished and it's gone well and they start to clap.

Can you tell us a bit about Cabaret 246?

Peter Finch: Cabaret 246 grew out of Chris Torrance's famous Adventures In Creative Writing evening class which he taught at the University in Cardiff. Torrance had been travelling into the capital once a week in pursuit of his teaching career for what seemed like decades. He was a man of habits and his weekly big-city trips ran to an absolute pattern. Market, park, friends, coffee, pub. He'd visit me at the Oriel Bookshop mid-afternoon. We'd talk about poetry, the latest books, the weather, crops, who'd written what and when and where it all might be going. He invited me to talk and read to his class. A fellow traveller. We worked the same furrows. I took along tapes and tubes and a speaker system and showed his group how sound poetry worked. Cobbing impersonations, Schwitters shouting, futurist mumbling, Finch process and permutation. The session went down very well. Better than it should have, given the unconventiality of much of the material. But then again these were Adventures. Chris' class met in room 246 of the Humanities Building at the top of Park Place - on the site of the old Taff Vale Railway wagon works and engine sheds. That number turned out to be significant.

To get his writers out and into the real world Chris organised what he called "a sort of cabaret" in the upstairs room of the Roath Park pub on City Road. I went as a guest and the class put on a show. I don't remember much of what they actually performed, nor what really distinguished this from a regular reading, but they had a spirit of engagement with their audience that was often missing from the stuff I encountered elsewhere. People stood and read and actually projected their verse. No paper shuffling. Little rambling. It looked and sounded as if thought had gone into things. Pints, applause, laughter. We all enjoyed ourselves. Some of the poets - Dorcas Eatch, Ifor Thomas, John Harrison and others - wanted to do the show again. So we did. Called it Cabaret 246 and began to meet weekly, on our own, outside and away from Torrance's class. We'd try out ideas. Criticise each other. Work out in public just how we wanted our poems to sound. Experiment. Get it wrong then get it right. And all with mutual support. This suited me.

I'd been doing this kind of thing for some years on the London scene, working with Bob Cobbing and a whole range of other innovators - Andrew Lloyd, Clive Fencott, Lawrence Upton, David Toop, Cris Cheek, Sean O Huigin, Bill Griffiths, Adrian Clarke, Eric Mottram - mostly edging at the avant garde or, more likely, being the avant garde. Audiences were not the vital component - good, useful, desirable, yes - but not essential. Performances were long and exciting and worked brilliantly in the metropolitan capital but lost strength whenever they travelled west. I know. Cobbing and I had tried often enough - Henri Chopin and Peter Mayer at Cardiff's Reardon Smith; Cobbing and Finch at Chapter, Swansea, Aberystwyth, Theatre Felin Fach near Aberaeron, the College of Librarianship in Aberystwyth. Roaring, edgy, innovative, ground breaking, new blood, new age, new speed, new words, new strength and style. Uncompromisingly not Anglo-Welsh. But so unexpected in Wales that audiences, well, largely failed. "This is not poetry". "These are just noises". "T.S Eliot would turn in his grave." "It doesn't rhyme."

Cabaret 246 went for the audience by the throat. This isn't the place to detail a full history of that amazing group but suffice it to say that the scene was transformed. Poetry moved into the entertainment business. People who'd never read poetry before found that there was something here to enjoy. In reality, I suppose, this was an intermedia between page and stage. Ham acting, Histrionics. Stand-up alternative comedy. Costumes and props. Much nearer music hall than drawing room.

Cab lasted for about five years putting on public performances monthly at Chapter and at other venues, travelling to London and Swansea and Liverpool, working with musicians and performers and loonies in costume and blokes with strange haircuts and women who shouted. Cab had its own eponymous magazine and spawned Chris (later Topher) Mills' Red Sharks Press. The movement eventually ran out of steam and transformed itself into the poetry slam. Elsewhere stand up comedy had taken off in a big way and alternative entertainment nights were springing up everywhere. Poetry had come out of the closet. Some would say, of course, that this performance stuff wasn't really that literary an art and to a large extent they'd be right. But it did open doors and it did change the way people wrote. It gave me a new edge, that's for sure.

Many performers learned their material by rote and performed it as an actor would, no text, no script. But I could never abandon the book. Was this fear of forgetting my lines in mid performance? Or a feeling that poetry, my poetry, was too rooted in the written word for me to let it go. Both probably.

Why did you learn to speak Welsh?

Peter Finch: In my early days with second aeon and No Walls I regularly came into contact with writers and performers whose first language was Welsh and it seemed natural enough to try to join in. I was swayed by the history and the politics and by the sense of mountainous Wales being a such a different place from flat England. But in the end it was commercial necessity. When in the mid seventies I took the job of managing the Welsh Arts Council's Oriel bookshop I found myself in charge of actually selling Welsh literature to Cardiff consumers. How could I not take the language on board? I didn't find it easy, and I still don't, but it has been enormously fulfilling.

I've even written sound texts and concrete poems in the language, highlighted one famous year by Lol, the Eisteddfod's scurrilous satirical magazine as examples of how the avant garde mind of the Arts Council's bookshop manager actually worked. This can't be art. This is rubbish. They gave me a double page spread and attempted to embarrass me. But by reprinting my material Lol had unwittingly given me a new and enormous audience. Finch the avant gardist had touched Welsh speaking Wales.

Iain Sinclair, a once regular contributor to second aeon, has in recent times popularized the notion of psychogeography. Was he an influence on your books Real Cardiff One and Real Cardiff Two?

Peter Finch: It would be difficult for anyone to write about cities and not be influenced by Iain Sinclair's works. I'd read him and I'd read Peter Ackroyd's brilliant London: The Biography and W G Sebald's The Rings Of Saturn. There are many ways of writing about place. My own creative origins for the Real Cardiff books lies with Allen Fisher and that mid-eighties period when the innovative poets of Britain seemed to be in awe of landscape and location. Fisher's large master-work is actually called Place - about London and mixing history with topography. This was a poetry of process and science. Just like my Cardiff books.

You really get under the skin of the city in those books - why do you find Cardiff such a fascinating place to write about?

Peter Finch: Cardiff is containable. It's not a huge place but it's certainly big enough to get lost in. Seven or eight miles across. Knowable. It's also ancient - Roman at least - but has very little extant before the Victorians. It's a post-industrial city that has wiped its slate clean. My fascination has been in trying to find out what might be left and what might have once been there. It also seemed to me that most of the existing histories of Cardiff either drowned the reader in dates and detail or simply showed them black and white photographs of what Victoria Park or the City hall used to look like. Cardiff is the capital. It deserves better than that.

It's also the place I grew up in and writing the Cardiff books has enabled me to interweave the text with some of my own, inevitably literary, autobiography.

You have gone from a position on the margins of Welsh culture to being at the very centre of the Welsh literary establishment in your capacity as head of Academi. How did that happen then?

Peter Finch: The San Francisco band Jefferson Airplane had a slogan which read "We are the people our parents warned us against". It's been a bit like that for me. Years and years on the margins. My early works were all published by small presses because the Welsh literary establishment didn't want to know. Cary Archard's mid-1980s request for me to assemble a Selected Poems for Poetry Wales Press, which came completely out of the blue, was the turning point. Although, to be fair, I had been invited to become a full member of Yr Academi Gymreig as early as 1969. I suspect, though, that invitation had more to do with the then Academi's needing to be seen to be up to date than anything to do with official sanctioning of my work.

But then again being an outsider, an underdog, is a very Welsh condition. All my life I've been an organiser, an administrator and have picked up experience from a number of fields outside the arts. That's all served me well. Being an avant gardist or an innovator doesn't mean that you can't tie your shoelaces.

Finally Peter, Welsh literature seems to be enjoying something of a boom lately - in your opinion is this a short term result of devolution or is it more substantial, and crucially, more sustainable than that?

Peter Finch: That's a big question. Devolution certainly sparked the boom but its been going on for too long now - six years at least - and shows no sign of slowing down. Post-modernism places enormous attention on minorities, on the marginalised and on the excluded. The centre is not where the action is. So, too, with Wales. It's our time.

Is it sustainable? The will seems to be there. London commercial publishers are continuing to find Welsh material and Welsh authors acceptable. Welsh publishers are better supported by the state now than they have ever been. There is much more literary interest and activity than I can ever remember. Rather than dying out, as Marshal McLuhan and other 1970s media philosophers predicted, the written word seems to be actually increasing its penetration. The future is bright. The signs are good.

Thanks Peter.

(1) Feldman, Gene and Max Gartenberg (eds), Protest (London: Panther 1960).
(2) SPCK - Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge.
(3) The best of these was an eight foot diameter revolving construct of rods and globes covered in text. The poem permutated before your eyes.

ŠAnthony Brockway 2005