HomePeter Philpott

Author Biography

Peter Philpott in ProvencePeter Philpott was born 1949, in Martock, a decayed town in the South of Somerset, and lived spent his childhood there, then from 1963 the seaside town of Minehead in West Somerset. At Grammar School (fortunately transformed into a comprehensive while he was attending school in Minehead), he ended up doing science A-levels (there seemed more chance of high-paying job). He attended University of Keele 1967-1972, originally to study Psychology and English, but changed the study of the behaviour of lab rats for American Studies. He became engaged with contemporary poetry, thanks to Andrew Crozier, whom he encountered teaching American Studies — Philpott followed his degree with an MA in American literature at Keele. He started Great Works magazine with Bill Symondson in 1972, publishing a magazine and some books over the rest of the decade, encouraged and enthused by the scene around Crozier — effectively he was a late hanger-on to the First Generation Cambridge Poets (encountering Crozier just as he was finishing with The English Intelligencer).

Philpott took a job teaching English and Communication at Harlow College (then Harlow Technical College) in Essex in 1973, and settled in nearby Bishops Stortford, whose position midway between London & Cambridge then suited him fine. He slowly established a career there, eventually as a Media Studies Lecturer. He created too through the 1970s a career as a poet/publisher. Both Great Works and his largely mimeo'd booklets contained an increasingly wide range of poets, including Allen Fisher, Neil Oram, the American poet and editor Louis Patler, John Welch, whose first full length collection he published, as well as the prize-winning Pleats by Andrew Crozier. His own work began to achieve publication across a range of magazines, with Crozier's Ferry Press giving Philpott a pamphlet in 1980 (What Was Shown) and undoubtedly expediting Grosseteste's publication of the sequence Some Action Upon the World in 1982. He regularly attended the Poetry Society in Earls Court, during the unique period when innovative poets were the dominant players in it, and the Cambridge Poetry Festivals. His inclusion in what many feel a seminal volume, Crozier and Longville's anthology A Various Art (Carcanet, 1987) might be regarded as the high water mark of his early poetic career — except the tide had turned, and the poems cast up were all ten years old.

The combination of the pressure of a young family, despair at the Thatcher regime's crushing of political and social hope (which had been presaged, it should be remembered, with the purging of the poets from the Poetry Society in the late 70s), the realisation that the avant-garde poetry scene was totally irrelevant & ineffectual, the shameful inadequacy of his own contribution to this scene, the demands of taking his paid work seriously (impossible for some elements of it), the slick all-consuming & all-knowing totalitarian propaganda of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E (and indeed the whole Theory Thing he had to work through by himself), all led to a sudden break in 1981 with poetry as a social enterprise. He pulled out at short notice of a reading at the Cambridge Poetry Festival, and stopped all publishing activities. Writing the damned stuff was not so easy to get out of, though. He carried on, working especially in often complexly structured long sequences, which helped maintain a creative momentum.

Some engagement was taken up by adult ed. teaching courses on contemporary American and British poetry run through the College in the early 80s (and a planned but never delivered course on Blake), and setting up a little poetry group in Saffron Walden (a more cultured place than Stortford or Harlow, where the courses had also been delivered), and a little later, joining with two ex-Harlow students in a band: The Playground. Philpott declaimed poems as vocals to a guitar & bass accompaniment, with lots of distortion & reverb. They operated in a local post-punk scene for a year or so, before events led to The Playgound's ending. Philpott at this point shifted a focus of his work activities to Film and Media, which he found more congenial to think about than poems, and with more interesting opportunities at work than teaching English. Study at PCL (transforming into the University of Westminster) led to part-time teaching there through the 90s on the MA in Film & TV Studies he'd just taken, including a module on "Film and Modernism & Post Modernism". He gave this work up at the end of the decade as the pressure of combining this with a full time FE job was too great.

Contact with old associates etc was impossible to end, and some habits impossible to break. He was attending SubVoicive readings in London in the early 90s (often effectively in disguise, having shaved off the beard he grew in the mid 70s), and many of the Cambridge CCCP events in the late 90s/beginning of next decade. Theoretical interest in hypertext and its relation to non-linear writing led to the project of putting a text written as a 7 x 7 matrix of 49 poems online as the only way of making it authentically readable. (The poem, IL, itself reflected his father's death in 1998, an event, of course, precipitating some psychological changes.)

Thus, as a personal project replacing the Film Studies postgrad teaching, appeared the Great Works website. Philpott slowly and clumsily taught himself some HTML, explored a little what could be done, thinking too he might as well be hospitable if others wanted to publish on the site. More about the website is written elsewhere. It led Philpott back into what was soon to call itself the Innovative Poetry scene, where he now decided to base himself solely in London. The accident of a much better train service to, and especially from, London than Cambridge, coupled with the difficulty for an outsider of finding, let alone joining in with, what are often college-based and thus fairly inaccessible venues, and a certain boredom with the remarkable narrowing of the poetic discourse accepted there, had led to a shift southwards from his earlier position between or across the two poetic culture hearths. He had always been pained by the contrast between the conditions found appropriate for the young gentlemen of Cambridge compared to those offered the youth of Harlow, whose needs plainly were in fact greater.

The Internet (Douglas Clark's website must be mentioned), the newly started Crossing the Line reading series (David Miller, Jeff Hilson & Sean Bonney then all responsible), contact with some individuals through Crossing the Line (especially Andrew Duncan and Simon Smith), and gentle participation in the then still quite active poetry newslists, especially BritPo, led Philpott rapidly into increasing engagement with what was happening around him in the sort of poetry he felt at home with, with Great Works attracting more and more interesting material. At good periods, he experienced a continual opening of possibility, with fresh waves of interesting poets appearing. Within Great Works, its beginnings as essentially a kind of hobbyist site open to any who caught the editor's interest slowly shifted more to a more consciously avant-garde commitment, though that was, quite programmatically, never total. He began to be published again — a book from Shearsman in 2004 (Textual Possessions) which collected an expressive memory haunted lyric sequence from the early 90s with two more recent sequences attempting a greater element of impersonality. From 2005, to give himself more time to devote to online publishing (and to lessen the stress of full-time teaching), he switched to part-time work at Harlow College.

Philpott did try to escape the ghetto that is British counter-establishment poetry, and had been trying to do so since he first pinned the despised yellow star of a follower of the American contemporary (post-)modernists on himself at Keele. A neighbour of his during the 70s and early 80s was Kay Dunbar, who in 1991 started the Ways With Words literary festivals at Dartington, where she had moved to. Philpott and his wife Ginie were part of the discussions around Kay's kitchen table and fireside that led to this, and he attended every festival until 2009, introducing a wide range of authors, remarkably few of whom were avant-garde poets. He enjoyed this greatly, finding the experience of a literary festival at the beautiful medieval house/modernist educational community of Dartington entrancing, like the visions given the devotees of Hassan-i-Sabbah, and felt often braced by interaction with writers of different backgrounds from that he was used to. He did introduce Fiona Sampson at the Festival, and used this to make some contact with the Poetry Society when he started working seriously on online publication. The main result was his writing two entries for the UK section of the Poetry International website, for Lee Harwood and Denise Riley, which appeared in 2005. There was little support for the plans for an informational website on contemporary innovative poetry, which coagulated in 2007 as modernpoetry.org.uk.

Even as this occurred, Philpott's life was altered by industrial conflict at work, where he was meanwhile College Branch Secretary of UCU. A new Principal, believing utterly in the Platonic Ideal of Excellence and his own direct and immediate apprehension of this through the mathematical rigour of "league tables", implemented a rapid destruction of the existing College, starting at once in September 2006. The resulting conflict involved UCU top national officials, rallying of support by the strikers from the local media and community, and the defeat of the Union, with more than 80 redundancies next summer, including of course Philpott's. He spent a further year in employment, at another, morer ramshackle, local college, but retired when this agreed to be taken over by a larger institution.

As a result Philpott was able to devote more time to developing modernpoetry.org.uk, achieving a commendatory namecheck on Ron Silliman's blog in 2010. Two further publications occurred in this period of material written before the events at Harlow: Are We Not Drawn . . . (Shearsman, 2009) was a rather flawed attempt at a radically impersonalised sequence, and To the Union (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, 2010,) a short sequence written earlier in which he had worked up the line he would use in the longer piece. He also initiated another project, Sundays at the Oto, combining poetry and music at the newly established Café Oto in Dalston — its proprietor Hamish Dunbar was the son of his friend Kay Dunbar, and at this early point had needed events to fill his calendar. These events ran monthly on a Sunday afternoon, with cakes baked by Philpott supplied to the Café also for the occasions: cakes and ale, innovative poetry and innovative music (relying much on Hamish's advice here). The desire to give his audience useful information led to his compiling "Poetry Events in London", initially as an A4 sheet, transferred to a still constantly updated webpage by February 2009. The Café Oto performance events ran from September 2008 to December 2009 — the events in the latter half of that year on weekday evenings, as Diverse Deeds. The rapid success of Café Oto as the venue for improvised music in London led Hamish to make the business decision to concentrate on music events.

At this point another limiting factor cut down Philpott's activities. Almost immediately after the ending of Diverse Deeds, he found himself increasingly engaged in childcare for his granddaughter, Ianthe. This was sporadic at first, but with his daughter's return to work at the end of the summer in 2010, it occupied three days a week at least. As it happened, his grandchildren turned out to take their naps in the pram, at first only when in motion — he began to acquire a good knowledge of the area in 30–40 minutes' radius from Finsbury Park until his daughter and family moved to Bishops Stortford. He discovered the use of coffee shops as locations for writing, which informed not only Ianthe Poems (Shearsman, 2015), but most of his writing since. He made a final attempt at establishing a poetic social environment for himself, nearer at home than Dalston and Stoke Newington, by starting a poetry group in Bishops Stortford, launched with a reading by Simon Smith, who spent most of his childhood in the town, in September 2011. The Stort Poetry Group was established, which moved from the cafe upstairs in Waterstones to a delightful local cafe, Coffee Corner, and then the bar of the small local civic theatre, the Rhodes Centre. There were slowly dwindling numbers, and some mixed reactions to the London poets he invited to read and discuss their work (and who had seemed to enjoy the experience). He found too the enterprise increasingly unrewarding and time-consuming, with the continuing burden of childcare. He pulled the plug in November 2013 (a second grandchild now also!), as also on any updating of Great Works and modernpoetry.org.uk. The latter he had unsuccessfully tried to gain assistance with or offload onto a successor. The only online presence kept active was what is now called Innovative Poetry Readings in London.

Another, more congenial social environment for poetry had opened up for him. Johan de Wit, who he had first met at the beginning of the previous decade through David Miller, invited him to join Writers Forum Workshop — New Series in early 2011. He was flattered and interested — the aura attending Writers Forum had impressed him increasingly, and he had come to the realisation that one unfortunate side effect of his socialisation into poetry through Crozier and Cambridge had been the inability to take Bob Cobbing seriously. The split which had occurred shortly beforehand in the Workshop made it more congenial to him: he took it axiomatically that the spirit must inhabit the congregation rather than be passed on through apostolic succession. He attended, and found it a valuable testing place for his writing, with most of two long sequences read and tested at workshops as they were written. Like most of his sequences, there were difficulties in book publication of the material — they included images, and both foot and endnotes. He presented them, after their completion, online in a blog format: Within These Latter Days and A Second Life. These are now presented as a single cut down text in a book format (prepared for publication, but not proceeded with) as Within These Latter Days, a Second Life. Getting this material some airing, even in the cavernous emptiness of the Internet, helped push him into reviving Great Works as a more personal website (though keeping its archive open), and to hope that he could return to modernpoetry.org.uk one day, and carry it on.

September 9, 2016

There is an earlier, and more detailed, autobiographical account on modernpoetry.org.uk as "Poetry & Me: A Writing Biography: the personal and social factors affecting my activities as writer and publisher", dating from 2007.