Rhyme & reason: publisher, now poet, Jeremy Robson on why the latter has supplanted the former…
12 December, 2016 — By Gerald Isaaman
LOVING poetry is one thing, writing it another, a strictly personal, almost indulgent emotional process, sometimes ecstatic, other times painful, according to the Hampstead poet Jeremy Robson.
And even when the muse departs for years on end, a fearful event he describes as “the longest writing block in history,” he declares: “When it dramatically returned that always astonished and thrilled me in a way I simply can’t describe.”
Yet chance, perhaps better called lucky breaks, which amazingly include lying almost paralysed in bed for a month, have played a remarkable part too in his progress. Now he expects that is less likely to happen as he has virtually ditched what has been his main livelihood as a successful publisher to concentrate on being a poet – there’s a new collection due out in April – and taking part in festivals.
After a variety of links with other companies, his Robson Press, part of the Biteback domain of frustrated politician Iain Dale, an old friend, since 2011, will find Jeremy in the Westminster office only occasionally. He will be acting in the role as consultant editor, though one adept at commissioning bestsellers like the Goon Show scripts. He finds that a relief because of the way new technology has changed publishing.
“It’s all electronic and done by email,” he protests. “Nobody rings anyone up and actually talks to them. I think I’ve chosen the right moment to opt out.”
Indeed, he opted first into journalism, then publishing after leaving Haberdashers’ Aske’s School, then based in Cricklewood, when he lived in Finchley Road, Hampstead, and become articled to a solicitor for an intended law degree as his career. One fellow member of staff, aware of his passion for poetry, suggested he moved on.
“It didn’t agree with me and I suffered a kind of paralysis at one point and was in bed for a month,” he says. “My father was a doctor. He called in a physician who said, ‘Tell your son to give up law’. And the minute that happened I was completely cured.”
So much so that he organised the breakthrough concerts of poetry and jazz that packed Hampstead Town Hall, the Royal Festival Hall and other venues across the country, an event that has returned in recent months with Jeremy performing at festivals as far apart at Blenheim Palace and Gibraltar.
Yet his constant preoccupation is in chasing the muse, as will be demonstrated with his latest poetry tome, The Subject Matters, a title with a double meaning, due to be published by Smokestack Books in the spring. Now he hopes the magic moments will arrive more often.
“I can be on the tube, a bus, an airplane when a phrase suddenly enters my head,” he explains. “I don’t carry a notebook and I know if I don’t scribble it down on whatever is available I shall simply forget it.
“Lines just come into my head, the last poem I wrote began with ‘The thought of death scares me to death’. I thought it quite witty and it just led to a poem. But where the phrase came I have no idea – except for me it kicked off a poem.”
Is it publishing, where he has given delight with books by authors as unexpected as Muhammed Ali, Leslie Caron, Maureen Lipman, Alfred Brendel, Dannie Abse and even Norman Tebbit, or poetry that is the toughest enterprise?
“It’s publishing because you are dependent on other people,” Jeremy insists. “It’s like being a playwright, there’s also the actors, the director. And more and more I found myself frustrated by having to discuss things with too many people.
“Poetry is tough in a different way. It’s obsessive, it’s demanding, it’s a be-all-and-end-existence when you’re working on a poem. But it’s yours. Nobody else can do anything with it. It’s my world and can’t be intruded upon.
“And if I like it, I publish it.”