Robert Calvert on Poetry, Other Poets, and Science Fiction (and others on these aspects of Calvert)

This section brings together a selection of Calvert's own remarks from interviews etc. And inevitably reveals the contradictions and inconsistencies which form part of the make-up of a creative, developing and mood-affected human being. These inconsistencies are themselves in many ways illuminating and helpful for recognising his own capacities for self, and wider, insight. As Emerson said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

It is also worth noticing the degree of self-denigration, a reflection of the personal and creative insecurities at whatever level, which appear in places amongst the quoted remarks.

The abbreviations used in connection with the various quotes refer to the sources, further details of which are given in the Bibliography:

BTG - Born To Go - Hawkfamily Tribute
KGS - Knut Gerwers Spirit Of The Page Internet Site
TAM - The Action Man Explains
WATE - Warriors At The Edge Of Time

Calvert on...
His own poetry, generally, methods and particular poems:

"What I've achieved so far seems to be a rather diverse body of work that has to be looked at as a whole, really. The songs and the poems, and the plays I've done, the one book I've done so far, the book I'm doing at the moment, and others I think I will be doing, will have to be looked at, if I live long enough, as sort of different facets of the same output, rather than just firing off in different directions."

Re his teens:

"Then I turned very snobbish and decided to be a poet instead of a singer. I even got snobbish about music for a short time, decided it was an inferior form. When I moved to London I had an exhibition of environmental poetry at the Roundhouse "Better Place To Live" Exhibition. I looked on myself as a kind of anti-literary establishment guerilla.

I hated the weak impact of straight poetry, and realised that the only way to get through to people is through music. I still don't like iambic pentameters. I am more interested in what a poem can do - what a piece of music is good for. What I liked about Hawkwind is that they were experimenters you could understand.

If you take two almost opposite things and mix them together in the right proportions, you get an effect which is quite resonant."

"It takes me a long time just to write one poem; months and even longer to decide if it's any good or not."
(From "Dear Trevor" letter May 1985, quoted TAM)

"My fear of rejections, even after all these years, is still very pronounced."

"I think the concerns of an urban poet are really to do with manners and interrelationships in the time he's living in. This has not really ever been a subject I've been interested in. In the seventies, perhaps what I should have said was a "cosmic poet"29 but I don't really like using terms like that - there was too much of that kind of terminology being bandied around in a less than serious manner, but I think that a lot of the things I've actually said in public and probably a lot of the things I'm saying now have to be taken for their humour value rather than their attempts at being too serious. I don't like to be serious - I think that if you were too serious about being alive in this century it would be just too serious for words."

"I read this essay by Alfred Jarry called "How to construct a Time Machine", and I noticed something which I don't think anybody else has thought of because I've never seen any criticism of the piece to suggest this. I seemed to suss out immediately that what he was describing was his bicycle. He was the kind of bloke who'd think it was a good joke to write this very informed-sounding piece, full of really good physics, describing how to build a time machine, which is actually about how to build a bicycle buried under this smokescreen of physics. Jarry got into doing his thing called Pataphysics" which is a sort of French joke science. A lot of notable French intellectuals formed an academy around the basic idea of coming up with theories to explain the expectations of the laws of the Universe, people like lonesco. The College Of Pataphysics, I thought it was a great idea for a song. At that time there were a lot of songs about space travel and it was the time when NASA was actually, really doing it. They'd put a man on the moon and were planning to put parking lots and hamburger stalls and everything up there. I thought it was about time to come up with a song that sent this all up, which was Silver Machine. It was just to say, I've got a silver bicycle', and nobody's got it. I did actually have a silver racing bike when I was a boy."

Here, although discussing a song lyric, rather than a poem subsequently given a musical context, he was very illuminating; hence the extended quote about methods and attitudes, including the ambiguity about space travel and technology further reflected in the selection of his remarks on these topics in this appendix. Another kind of unresolved ambiguity of attitude and its role as a creative trigger is clear in the next quote:

"I've always been very much against the system in South Africa and couldn't live there myself, although the rest of my family seem to have no problem dealing with it. My feelings about this are expressed as clearly as I can in the poem White Dynasty'."

"I'd done (poetry) readings first of all in folks clubs... then around rock gigs, particularly around gigs that were put on at the Seven Sisters Club... which was jointly organised by IT and Frendz, that was the first gig with Hawkwind I actually played, I got up on stage with the band at their invitation and read a long poem to start the show off which was called Co-Pilots of Spaceship Earth'. It was something I'd been working on for quite a long time and it was the beginning of... the germ of Space Ritual."
Tim Gadd interview with Calvert from KGS

"At that time I think I was purely resident poet in the band and it was something that went down very well with live audiences and I don't think there was any other band, at least not in England, that was doing anything quite like this, playing long stretches of experimental free-form electronic music with spoken poetry read to it in the same way that earlier poets read their work to jazz, but it seemed at the time we were doing it to be an inevitable extension of the whole experimental feeling that there was in the days of the underground. Obviously poetry and music wasn't seen as at all commercial by the record companies and it wasn't until the astonishing success of Space Ritual which I think must be the most successful combination of poetry and music that has ever been sold on a record."
Tim Gadd interview with Calvert from KGS

Calvert on...
Other Poets

On Ezra Pound, a poet admired by Calvert and about whom he wrote one of his best poems and planned a stage play:

"I want to do this play about Ezra Pound, and actually do the whole thing to the extent of growing a beard like him. I've got this marvelous tape of Ezra Pound reading his poetry. He's got this extraordinary voice, like a cross between Irish, Scottish and olde English, which he consciously developed as a way of speaking himself, totally eccentric. He was arrested by American forces and locked up in a sort of cage in Italy, and he had a searchlight trained on him night and day so that he couldn't sleep. Eventually, he broke down from pure lack of sleep, he collapsed in a catatonic state. But in the meantime, what was fascinating was the way he behaved in this cage which is what the play's about. His way of passing the time with the guard and with characters of his imagination."

"Poet is a terrible word, but there really isn't another. Bertolt Brecht's my idea of a poet; a leather jacket and three days growth. Morrison was a poet; he respected words."
Interview with Julie Burchill NME 28/10/77

"Harry Haller (in Herman Hesse's Steppenwolf) is a fascinating character. He's sort of the last of the great romantic heroes, a solitary figure who stays in his room writing poetry and letters in a smoking jacket. The hero figure is something I am fascinated in mostly sending up."

In his teens:
"I used to enjoy sitting in churchyards and reading Verlaine, Keats, Shelley, Dylan Thomas. God I was naive! I thought you could make a living as a poet."

Calvert on...
SF and Technology

"Yes, I think there is going to be a boom in Science Fiction generally and that this will be reflected in Rock music. I've got a feeling that, in any sort of art, realism isn't going to tell you anything today - it's not a real world we're living in, it's a Science Fiction one and Rock will reflect that if only because Rock music is this generation's literature."

Another poet, Allen Ginsberg, made a very similar remark: "We're all living in science fiction now." Calvert's expressed disinterest in "establishment" poetry could be interpreted at least in part as stemming from its general inability to recognise this fact.

On Science Fiction and sources of inspiration:

"I don't like SF that much. Nobody in this band (Hawkwind) is particularly an SF fanatic. I think for a practitioner of that kind of thing in literature or music, there are much more interesting sources of inspiration to be found outside this field altogether, in newspapers and magazines like Scientific American', which is where the Quark, Strangeness and Charm' idea came from. Most SF is trash actually..."
12/78 (KGS)

In this quote, Calvert appears to contradict clear evidence of intensive SF reading. The central point he makes of the SF poet's need to go directly to sources of information on development in science and technology is a widely shared one. Many poets have cited "Scientific American" as a key trigger in their work.

In two extensive answers in the 1987 WATE interview (reprinted TAM), Calvert confronts the ambiguities and dichotomies vis a vis technology, and a world become (as he said above) SFinal, in such interesting depth as to well deserve extensive quoting. Here, he indeed faces technological change as the essence of the Medusa (to make the context clear, the interview questions are also included):

Q: Right, we'll move along then. Many of your poems and lyrics reveal a mistrust of industrial progress, especially those in Freq' and Test-Tube Conceived'. This is perhaps strongest in your concern about the hubris of flying demonstrated in Captain Lockheed'. Do you consider yourself to be opposed to scientific progress as such, or are you more concerned about its effects on the individual, like in Robot'?

Robert: Scientific progress, yes. I'm not at all opposed to scientific progress, but what I am opposed to is the possible misuse of scientific discoveries which is the main danger we face. Since the industrial revolution, there's been so many scientific... I mean, we're now living in an almost infinitely scientifically possible world. When you look at the advances that we know have been made already in, say, biology, we have to look very carefully, there have to be very strong controls over what is actually available to scientists in research laboratories who haven't published their papers yet. I mean, the prospects are quite terrifying that a human being can actually be created... it seems likely to me that they have already found a way of being able to create human life without the necessity of a womb being involved at all - I'm sure they can do that. If they haven't done it yet, they certainly soon will be able to, in incubation machines of some sort. The prospect is absolutely terrifying - I think that in fact is the most important thing we have to worry about in this period of history - in my opinion it overshadows nuclear war as a threat. I think what it does is it fundamentally questions what a human being actually is. It enables the possibility of human life being considered to be extremely expendable if it's extremely creatable. I mean, if you can create a human being without any trouble at all than why should you worry about getting rid of it? You know I think actually the writer who had most to say about this is Philip K. Dick, the science fiction writer; in the one (book) they made a film of. "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep". They made quite a glamorous film out of that, but the actual book, talking about the difference between what a human being is and what an android is... I mean, are we actually a form of android anyway? Are we, sort of biologically, a sort of android? Not enough has been said about this subject, I mean the debates in the House Of Commons about bringing in (a) law, and the Pope's directives on the subject are not enough actually. I think it's much more serious than just legislating against how many eggs you can use or dispose of, or whatever. Obviously you can't say "Stop doing this", you know nobody's in a position to say that it is absolutely categorically wrong either. This is what's quite frightening about it - there's nobody who's in a moral position to judge on this. Having come this far escaping from religious governings, where do we stand? You know, we're getting into a slightly lost area. So that's all I can say really. I mean, scientific discoveries obviously have given us fantastic benefits, you know, like this ability to be able to answer these questions without having to sit down and type them out and so forth. No, I'm not opposed to science at all. In fact, science was my best subject at school, and I did sort of harbour ambitions or being some sort of scientist when I was younger but... I think I've answered the questions really.

Q: In the seventies, you said you wanted to be a real 'space-age poet'.

A: I think that to be a poet in what I called the space age' in the seventies... which was a misnomer because in fact there wasn't a space age, there was an attempted space age and then it backtracked very quickly. Getting to the moon, I think , was a fantastic achievement. I tried to convince people at the time that it was more fantastic than Crossroads' or whatever else was on telly - a lot of people weren't that interested. I always thought as a boy that the landing on the moon - which I knew was going to happen in my lifetime, I was convinced of it - I thought it was going to change the whole consciousness of the human race, but in fact, it didn't change anything at all, and it makes you wonder whether contact with aliens is going to change anything. Arthur C. Clarke went on about what great changes would be made to humanity by contact with aliens, and is still on about it, I believe. It's very difficult to change the consciousness of the human race, actually, but back to your question whether I am a poet of the space age, is obviously a question that will have to be answered when the space age is actually in progress and has been reviewed from a future perspective.

Calvert on...
The boundaries of SF poetry

In these remarks, Calvert articulates one of the great definitional problems of SF poetry as a genre - that the "speculative" mood, the sense of "the other" is often present when there is no overtly SFnal material involved - an interfacing characteristic of much New Wave SF, both fiction and poetry. The poetry of D.M. Thomas, some instances of which appeared in Moorcock's New Worlds and in Thomas's "mainstream" Booker Prize-winning novel "The White Hotel", is a vivid example. (As an aside, the problem can be sidestepped by noticing that, as no poetry can truly reflect "reality", if such a consensus thing exists, then all poetry is fantasy.) Alternatively, an ad hoc case-by-case decision as to which poems are SF can be taken, although this is inevitably highly subjective.

"Although, for example, the title poem of "The Earth Ritual" has SF references and a strongly speculative' feel, it is I think very arguable whether it is actually an SF poem as distinct from a poem giving the earthly an SFnal 'feel'."

I wouldn't say I was an urban poet. If you are going to be rude about it, then I'm more of a sub-urban poet at the moment. I wrote the "Earth Ritual" book as a deliberate escape, obviously taking the "Space Ritual" and putting it back down to earth as a title, to approach subject matter from a different perspective other than the speculative or science fiction thinking process. But I think that a number of the poems still come out as science fiction - if you didn't fully realise that this book was meant to be a down-to-earth view of reality, I think you probably would suspect that it was still science fiction, like the title poem itself has a lot of SF references in it, and most of the poems in it do, actually, and refer back. A lot of them refer back to pre-history which again is hardly a suburban or urban outlook to constantly be placing things, say woodlice, in the perspective of evolution."

Calvert further hinted at his mind picture of the same crossover area (today often called slipstream) in a wider context in remarks on modern society:

"Diversification has really got hold of everything, it's almost like alien cultures on one planet, nobody really seems to be able to see eye to eye at all."

Others' comments on Calvert as poet

Andrew Darlington (poet):
"his penchant for cosmic profundity but not without interest and humour."
review of C232 in Ludds Mill no. 15

Gary Cooper (publisher of C232):
"Bob Calvert, wordsmith from another world."
Beat interview BTG

David Watson:
re: "The Awakening"
"A literate and effective piece of SF poetry, poignant an evocative."

John Weinzierl (founder member of Amon Düül):
re: their project, released unfinished and without permission as Die Lösung, of Calvert's poetry reacting with Weinzierl's music.
"His vivid imagination - these phantasy somersaults he'd do all the time - you could talk of the remotest subject to him and he'd be able to carry it away and paint it out in the most astounding, colourful way. He was a poet, a real poet." from a conversation between Knut Gerwers and Weinzierl, October 1996, excerpted on GWS

Others re: Inspirations and Working Methods

Nick Kent:
"He (Calvert) was working on the idea of taking a machine on stage to duplicate poems he would write spontaneously there and then to be handed out to the audience."
"Gone With The Wind" article, Frendz July 1972

Pete Pavli (Third Ear Band) notes a shared interest in the Futurists (Italian poetry and art movement early in the century)

"During the sessions, as we played along you could already hear it in the background; hack, hack, hack - Robert hammering the lyrics into his typewriter which he handed out to us immediately."

This comment and Kent's are of interest to contrast with Calvert's own remarks on the subject of time taken to write a poem quoted earlier from a letter to Trevor Hughes.

Knut Gerwers
on Centigrade 232's SF poems:
"Calvert combines scientific and futuristic themes on a highly emotional level - interspersed with his ironic and sarcastic overtones. Creating intense imageries and lucid, sometimes frightening visions of the human formulae."

On Earth Ritual:
"The subjects of technology and futurism are stepping into the background. Calvert describes and celebrates the (hidden) earthly secrets which his poetic perception unravels in his nearest personal surrounding; landscapes, day to day objects... He has the ability to find all the wonders of out space in the English/Kent countryside, once again proving his singular and often surprising ways of perception."

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