Goodbye to Roy Fisher

Birmingham’s what I think with.

It’s not made for that job
but it’s what they gave me.

As a way of thinking, it’s a Brummagem
screwdriver. What that is
is a medium-weight claw hammer
or something of the sort, employed
to drive a tapered woodscrew home
as if it were a nail.

It’s done
for lack of a nail, a screwdriver, a drill,
a bradawl, or the will to go looking.

This blog takes its name from the lines above, from ‘Talking to Cameras’ by Roy Fisher, who sadly died, after a long illness, earlier this year.

Fisher was more than just a Birmingham poet. He was one of the greatest poets of his generation, developing, through modernism and jazz, a poetic language of modern life. Though this transcended his home town, his subtle understanding of the local character was a continuing joy to Brummies like me. My tenuous but precious connection to him is that he went to school with my father, though I’m not sure either of them knew it. I worked out, from their ages, that my dad would have been in the year above him at Handsworth Grammar School. When Jonathan Davidson mentioned that to Roy, ill as he was by then, he emailed me to ask what my father’s name was, and also mentioned that he might have considered submitting to Flarestack Poets had he been in better health.

In October 2016, at Birmingham Literature Festival, I was honoured to take part in a celebration of Roy and his work in Birmingham Cathedral, in the company of Ian McMillan, Luke Kennard and Peter Robinson. What would turn out to be Roy’s last book, Slakki had just come out, but we also read a selection of his work. I chose the Brummagen Screwdriver passage, of course, an extract from ‘Paraphrases’ in which Roy satarises the sort of correspondence that arises from the minor fame of being a poet, and two short, lyrical poems about Birmingham from City, as pertinent now as when they were written over fifty years ago. We all joined in ‘On the Neglect of Figure Composition’ which makes fun of factions in modern art and poetry – the audience, on arrival, had been asked to declare their allegiance for one of the two ‘schools’ invented for the poem, Zoggist or Ianist. It was a joyous evening and very funny. Roy’s health stopped him from being there but i hope he heard hope much we all enjoyed his work and shared our love for him. We did hear his voice, reading the iconic ‘Birmingham River’ which you can listen to on The Poetry Archive


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