At dawn on Friday, September 14th. I received a short and by inference (the first paragraph of the message vanished in transit) shocking note from Tom Pickard at dawn: I'm assuming Bill Griffiths is dead. Bill was a genuine in a poetic and academic world of mostly arseholes.
he was in hospital last week but discharged himself and went to do his dialect gig at the tower on Saturday but felt so ill he went yem half way through. I think it was a heart attack as he was found with the radio and tv and computer on. He'll be badly missed – such an asset to this region and a good comrade, like they say.
We exchanged notes only a week ago, about his Dialect Talks at the Morden Tower: his last words:
Well, the first year we had about 5 visitors (by mistake?), 2nd year about 20 genuine callers, this year...whee knaas? Perhaps a riot over how to pronounce the word butterlowey, with defenestrations and arrows arc-ing ower the ramparts. Assuming I get there myself. Prostate seems to be growing unduly, my photo must be on every CCTV in every public convenience in the region. Am due an op "in the next six months" but they have a grand sense of humour up here. Hope celebrity Cambridge suits ye still. A friend's mother lives in Trumpington, which is a bend in the road and a few houses and an admirable church. She is now an old widow with a cat, how about that! Have run out of rhymes, but save some up for Saturday,
seeya oneday Bill
We won't, Bill: and I fucking regret it.
You can find work of Bill's here and here (where there is also this brief but informatory note:
Bill Griffiths was born in Middlesex in 1948, studied history and later Old English language and literature at London University, worked for a while in Germany, and is now based at Seaham in County Durham.
By instinct a poet, Bill was first published in Poetry Review in the early 70s when it was edited by Eric Mottram (remembered for his support of innovative American and English poetry, and for his dedication as teacher at King's College London). Subsequent work was produced in collaboration with Bob Cobbing's Writers Forum, a vast little press that concentrates on (celebrates might be a better word) booklets of experimental writing, visual poetry, and much more, From manual typewriter, stencil and Gestetner, to PC and photocopier; from stapled miniature and appearance in little mags to larger commercial texts; from creative writing to vivid translation to a PhD in Old English; and from suburban sunny lodgings to canal houseboat to a terrace half-house in County Durham, Bill's work and life has covered a remarkable range, reflected in the variety and number of his publications currently in print.
Durham and Around is a two-volume production covering dialect literature and vocabulary in the north-east; also booklets on local history and local government, essays on reality as a lever of social control, a review of the history of the concept of the soul - these are issued by Bill's own press, Amra Imprint, along with the poetry titles Starfish Jail (written to raise funds for a prisoner in Wandsworth) and Lion Man (a fantasy after Bob Marley).
and there is an mp3 of Bill's voice here: other recordings can be found on The Archive of the Now and Penn Sound.
A few quick notes from recent emails:
from Ken Edwards:
Bill was a terrific poet. He visited us in Hastings at New Year – he was staying with his sister, who lives here. He and Elaine played some piano duets. Last saw him on television being interviewed about his book about Northumbrian miners' dialect.
from Clive Bush:
I'm very upset about it indeed, and shall simply deeply miss his wonderfully funny, dry and insouciant conversation. Only a couple of days ago he sent me some Tchaikovsky piano duet Russian dances we were going to play together.
One of the very very best not that this filthy culture will ever understand that....
from Thomas Evans:
It's stunning news, although in latter years the first Bill-related image I conjure is of him wheezing and panting. But your note was helpful and warming to read from this distanced outpost. He was my first friend in BritPo realms, always completely welcoming of myself and my friends (as long as they weren't poetry peops). I'm trying to recall the name of a young kid he was helping, when we first met, who'd been in and out of jail a lot – perhaps Damon? – but anyway I certainly recall the sub-current of support and encouragement he lent him. Once he came to stay when I was in Edinburgh, and took me to a wonderful piano museum that no-one (including me) seemed to know of. We strolled down there – it was on the Grassmarket – knocked, and the door was opened by a nice enough but vaguely prissy curator, who gave Bill (in his shiny shell suit etc) the once-over and quivered slightly. Bill then promptly freaked his mind by dashing off some Scarlatti sonata from memory, on an old harpsichord the curator had invited him to play. Last time I saw him, actually, was at a piano auction at Conway Hall, in late 2004. And we exchanged emails a couple of months ago. But I would have liked to have seen him more recently than I did.
Somewhere online there's a poem we supposedly collaborated on, but that only meant that he interwove journal notes from my months in Burma with a poem of his on Buddhist architecture.
Another Bill recollection just comes to me, him describing Barry MacSweeney's funeral and sitting with you and Tom Pickard, devising epitaphs for BM. I remember him enjoying yours, "He rests with the onions." I also now recall Bill doing a reading in Edinburgh with a couple of really dull un-named poets. They were all sat on a makeshift stage together, and Bill fell asleep, snoring so loudly that he drowned out the reader – but no-one was prepared to wake him. Then of course when it ended and the applause came, Bill was stirred and joined in. Personally, I was applauding him. That was a great moment. And a missed Writer's Forum publication: transcription of Bill Griffiths snoring to the verse of [ ].
from Katherine Pickard:
yes mum and dad are devastated, mum especially as she was with him on the Saturday day doing the dialect day, she said he had to leave half way through as he was really ill which was unlike him. I have added a Tower blog, linked from the home page: I guess the first post will be a tribute to Bill. Never used a blog before. Another learning curve.
We have one of Bill's poems on the poem page at the moment - to coincide with his dialect day - so I can leave it at the top for little while longer in light of the news.
from John Muckle:
So sorry to hear about poor Bill. I loved him dearly. I can't believe it!
I first met him when he wrote to me about some poems I'd had published in Peter Hodgkiss' magazine Not Poetry. These were about a speedway riding great uncle of mine. Bill loved their subject matter, sending me a photocopy of his early War With Windsor sequence with its harrowing prison poems. I came to love his erudite, witty letters, and we became friends. I remember staying with him on the canal in Uxbridge, his boat a battered steel-hulled vessel which had all the amenities of a Viking long ship, plus an Amstrad and a microwave. We wandered along the canal banks, over a strange estuarine rubbish dump of ancient bottles from the pubs of London, great heaps of glass and pottery from many quaffings past that made me think of the excavated potsherds of Roman and Anglo-Saxon settlements: you could spend a lifetime picking through the waste products of an unregarded past, and any meanings you managed to wrest from them were your own to keep and lay claim to, because nobody else cared.
So many memories of Bill. I remember staying with him in Seaham when he was looking after his mother and he'd wheel her into the front room every morning and play her a piano sonata. He hummed along with his playing and asked her afterwards, "Was that alright, mum?"
from Trevor Joyce:
Just saw your note about Bill Griffiths, and it was a shock. Only time I ever met him was in 2005, but I liked him a lot, and we were planning to invite him back when there was a smaller crowd here, and less noise, because his voice was quiet and got drowned out. He was the best critic of those readings he attended, because he'd often just nod off and snore like a buzz-saw from the back of the room.
Well, I'm glad I got to meet him even the once.
from Charles Bernstein:
I knew Bill through his work and had no idea what he would be like when I finally met him. His writing had a swiftness and necessity and I guess freedom only dreamt of in much else. And his particular constellation of style and person is undeniably unexpected and stunning.
I was very taken with Bill's poems, but also his translations and his dialect work. He came to Buffalo maybe ten years back, must have been a rare visit to the U.S., and he was great. I am sure I have a recording, for PennSound at some future time.
from John Seed:
Three emails arrived within an hour of each other on Friday afternoon with the dreadful bloody news and it's still sinking in 48 hours later.
He emailed me last Friday saying he wasn't well but was looking forward to his next trip to London early in October and then in November another jaunt with Shim to Hungary, which he loved:
Have booked a week in London 9 - 15 Oct, will surely see you then, and off to Budapest in early November - just as the coffee/wine/truffle season starts...
but good to hear from you
So much knowledge and understanding, so many connections and future projects involving so many different people, have now been wiped out by Bill's disappearance – a big torn Bill-shaped hole. I wonder if he knew how loved he was by so many people.
I also attach a photograph of Bill in September 2004, sitting on top of Richmond Hill, in characteristic pose.
from Peter Finch:
Just back from France to discover the loss of Bill. Younger than me. We were due to do a final alp blow out reading in the new year, to celebrate his big books and my selected. Been a time since he came to Wales and won't again now. I'd known him since the 60s. Great man with such a range.
from ian Davidson:
I heard about Bill this morning. I'd been offline a few days, a rare occurrence, and by a strange coincidence I'd been reading the Salt companion to his work during those days and reading out bits of his poetry to a friend and telling my friend all about Bill and his poetry. And then I came back to my computer to find he was dead.
Bill was someone I knew before the computer and the internet, when I was living in the Welsh mountains in the 80s and early 90s with only Peter Riley and his book lists, long phone calls to and from John Muckle and occasional contact with Ralph Hawkins and Kelvin Corcoran for poetic company. It must have been John suggested to Bill he did a pamphlet of my work. Well he did anyway. Neither of us knew much about PR and marketing so don't think it sold many but doing it with him was great. He'd got hold of a photocopier and ran off a load of copies. We did it all by correspondence but never met until about 8 years later when he read in Aberystwyth.
He seemed without compromise. How hard that must have been for him, but he made it seem easy. How can it be that a person is so giving (in all meanings of the word) but with no give in them. That range of voices in his poems says it all or as much as can be said. And the way he would not argue about injustice but demonstrate it. He wrote about the working class, and the unrespectable working class, without sentiment or celebration. He told me things about myself and people I knew and gave permission for them to be written about in ways that allowed them to be themselves.
His readings were magical. I saw him maybe four times. He balanced the sound of the language as if on tiptoes. I was never sure how he managed such delicacy with such strength.
from Harry Gilonis:
I realise that, as well as mourning Bill, we must mourn the loss of all
those unwritten books, which no-one else alive - or dead - could possibly
write, or have written. It isn't daft to say that English itself is
bereaved. I can't think of anyone else of whom that would be true.
from Tony Baker:
Don't think I have anything to say, am too
stunned, but need very much to share something, register a voice, I don't
know. Bill was, in a happily inconsequential and enjoyable way, one of the
few souls I corresponded with regularly. He did stay with us a while after
his houseboat burnt but other than that we only ever spent snatched hours
together, so I can't say it was close. But it was vital, more so than I knew
it seems, now that the contact's obliterated. Am at a loss. I suppose I'd
like to know what happened but then again I don't really. I hope the angels
from hell recognise what they have if he makes his home among them. The most
naturally gifted and strictly incomparable of humans. Can't think I've ever
thought to use the word 'genius' of anyone - seems a valueless term nearly -
but have often thought it of Bill.
from Tom Pickard
Here's a paragraph from a recent email to me (from Bill) in response to a proposed anthology of indigenous North East poets to which I was invited to contribute but refused on the grounds that Bill would be excluded. We both enjoyed it as a sick joke. As far as I am concerned he's done more for the region in terms of language and literature than anyone I can think of, and all without funding from the usual places. His commitment to the region and the culture was unshakable and inspiring and ultimately selfless; he was no bounty hunter parachuting in to suckle on the generous subsidies. He is our northern rock and unsinkable.
Therefore happy to note I am not on list of 'North-East poets', having only been a regular visitor to Tyneside and Co.Durham since 1966. Of course, I have doubts about whether it is where you are born or where you are conceived that matters, and lately have taken to asking the question about where I was born with the answer 'in a hospital'. It strikes me there is something feudal about the verb 'belang' but as Seaham is my first settled home of a lifetime, am no expert on this. In fact there are quite a few Griffithses in Seaham - one lives opposite me, not to mention Scots, Irish, Cornish and the occasional Pole. Will we all lose the vote I wonder...
from Keith Tuma
Sorry to have this news.
Bill was signed on to UKPoetry briefly in 2001. I've had a look at the
archives and thought I might copy here the last paragraph of his first post.
I can't remember the context, but the post offers a glimpse - it dates from
May 7, 2001:
My quick second [thought], was about 'writers' block'. I have this most of the time, with occasional lifts. When discouraged I try something different: if poems so far, then prose or found text or translation or drama, and vice versa. In extreme cases, you may need a break, like pingpong or shark fishing.
Nate Dorward has a human note on Bill here.
A note by Pierre Joris includes the opening of Bill's Cycles on Dover Borstal.
There are a few pictures of Bill in the batch on an occasion at The Baltic five years ago.