Mole Valley Poets, 6thJune 2011, Tony Earnshaw: The Poetry of Adrian Mitchell

The group last came across Adrian Mitchell when looking at Poetry and Jazz, when his readings with Michael Garrick and other were heard. His name also came up when discussing the Liverpool Poets and performance poetry. His influence and connections have been wide and varied so it's perhaps time for a closer look.

He moved publishers to Bloodaxe when his original publisher folded and the film we willl see of him reading is taken from a Bloodaxe publication - '30 Poets'.

The words below are largely taken from the website www.adrianmitchell.co.uk - Adrian Mitchell aka The Dogfather, Apeman Mudgeon

In his own words....

I was born near Hampstead Heath on October 24th 1932. My mother was Kathleen Fabian, a Froebel-trained nursery school teacher and my father was Jock Mitchell, a research chemist from Cupar, Fife. They were always kind and loving parents. I was educated at a nameless school in Hell and then at Greenways, a school in Heaven, where my first play, The Animals' Brains Trust, was staged when I was nine to my great satisfaction. I was a teenager at Dauntsey's School in Wiltshire, where my friend Gordon Snell and I staged and co-starred in many plays. I was conscripted against my will into the RAF, which taught me to touch-type and confirmed my natural pacifism. I spent three happy years at Christ Church, Oxford. Deciding not to be a primary school teacher because the classes were far too large - as they still are - I became a reporter on the Oxford Mail, then the Evening Standard in London. Inheriting enough money to live on for a year, I wrote my first novel and my first TV play. Soon afterwards I became a freelance journalist, writing about pop music for the Daily Mail and TV for the pre-tabloid Sun and the Sunday Times. I quit journalism in the mid-Sixties and since then have been a free-falling poet, playwright and writer of stories. The rest of my life can be traced through the lists of my work in theatre and my books. I am married to Celia Hewitt the actress and bookdealer and we have two grown-up daughters. I also have two sons and a daughter by my first marriage. More and more of my time is spent writing for children. This is partly because I have six grandchildren.

(three more grandchildren followed before his death)

Adrian Mitchell on poetry (from the Poetry Archive)

How important is poetry? Poetry isn't really important, it's necessary. There have been lots of tribes in the history of the world who've had no education, no schools, no television, no all sorts of things, but every tribe in the world has always had poetry. Sometimes it's poetry that's song and dance, sometimes it's poetry that's recited in a trance - it's all sorts of poetry. But you can't have a tribe without poetry. And if you have a country without poetry it's an impoverished country. It's like a country without music - unimaginable.

Where and when do you write? I write in my house, at home usually - I have a small room in which I have an Applemac, and I work on that some of the time and then sometimes I go into a bigger room which I've got which I call my study, rather laughingly, where I do what I also laughingly call research - which means reading lots of books by other people, and lots of poetry, and newspapers, and sometimes doing a crossword, or just talking to the dog. But I write wherever I am: I carry little cards, little library file cards in my pocket and always about three pens, and wherever I am I scribble things down while they're hot, and I take them back and I then look at them and see, you know, I throw away some of the cards, I say oh that's rubbish . . . that's rubbish . . . that's rubbish . . . ooh that's a good one, needs some work, yeah, cut out the boring bits, and maybe I get enough cards and they form themselves into a poem sometimes.

How does a poem begin for you - with an idea, image or phrase? It's usually, a poem begins by words in my head starting to do acrobatics or having fun or just repeating themselves. Yesterday what happened was I'd been watching a documentary about Bob Dylan the night before; and it was very exciting, and I went out with my head full of Dylan, and I was walking my dog on Hampstead Heath, and along a hillside and I started off with a sort of a line about walking on a hillside, "My trainers drenched in dew/One of my legs is longer than the other, but only by a sentimental metre or two/My head was kind of empty I was thinking of you" And it was sort of coming out a bit Bob Dylan-ish. "And it was something else" (that's the chorus) and that was sort of coming out as a song and I was writing it in my head as I walked along to the beat, which I was walking and it was about the fact that I was walking -So it can be that, or it can be I'm on a bus: I travel a lot on the bus because I have a free bus ticket these days, and I listen to people on buses and they talk to each other and sometimes they talk on their beautiful little mobile phones and they talk very loudly and I write down what they say. I'm a spy on the bus, and I write down things and sometimes I turn them into poems. So a poem can begin like that or it can begin by reading a newspaper and getting excited or moved or angry or sad or happy by something I read and I start writing about it. Or it can be a phone call, it can be what my wife says to me at breakfast, or doesn't say at breakfast, or the way that my dog looks at me, it can be anything starts a poem, anything at all. I don't go looking for them, I've got enough to write about for the rest of my life, and for the rest of several more lives.

Can you remember the first poem you wrote? I can because my mother wrote them down, some of them. When I was about two and a half, I used to go round the house shouting rhymes, and some of them went, 'Molly and Polly get your dolly', and 'Gertie and Bertie don't be dirty'... But the first one I can remember that I wrote for other people was - I was about seven and I wrote a poem about Christopher Columbus, a pretty bad poem about Christopher Columbus which I'm not going to do for you, and at that time I was writing to please my friends, just to make my friends laugh, really. And when I was fourteen I started to write because I fell in love, and I didn't know what to do with it, and so I wrote poems every night to this girl I didn't see except once a year, and never showed them to her. And at the same time I was writing poems about war, because I was getting very angry about war and trying to find out why it was that people killed each other. So I was writing poems to try and understand love, and to try and understand war.

What is the relationship between your speaking voice and your writing voice? I'd like the voice in which I speak poems to people to certainly be my own voice. I don't want to turn it into a solemn poetry voice, which I detest. I hate that kind of pompous, serious, "This is poetry so listen" voice. Can't do it. I hate it. I want it to be real. And I want it to use my own rhythms, my own speech rhythms, but I intensify them for poetry, and what I'm aiming at is somewhere in between speaking and singing. That's what I'm going for when I'm doing poems out loud. Sometimes I use my own voice, sometimes I use voices of other people - people I've met, enemies, friends, famous people - different styles, like I do some Country and Western poems sometimes, and I have to do an accent for that, and I've got a Scottish poem that I do, using my father's Scottish accent as far as possible, and I get away with it in Scotland. So, you know, it varies, I like to vary it. When I'm doing a poetry reading it's a variety show: I like to have a sad poem and then a serious poem and then a funny poem and then an angry poem. I like a patchwork quilt of different moods and different kinds of poems, so, yeah, different voices for different poems.

What do you think should be the relationship between a poet and the society he or she lives in? I used to dream about the bomb and I sometimes still dream about the bomb because the bomb hasn't gone away to fairy-land - it's still above our heads. So I react to these things. And I react to the fact that we've got an incredible number of poor people in this country, and throughout the world there are an awful lot of poor people, and there's a war between the rich and poor people, and so I take notice of these things. I try to write about everything. I write about nature, I write about dogs, I write about high art, I write about low art, I write about the people I love especially, and I write about politics and war, and peace. Peace most of all. But I can't tell anyone else what to do, and I wouldn't want to. Poetry is a free country, a really free country: you've never been in such a free country. And there's room for everybody. Well, just about, I mean I'd kick you out if I thought you were a racist. Or a fascist. Or you were trying to tell me what to write. No, don't let's do that to each other. When people ask me "can I do this in a poem?" I say "yes". I spend a lot of my time saying "yes". When I work with children, they say "Can I write about my dog?", "Can I write about my football team?" Yes. Yes yes yes yes. So I like to say yes. My poetry likes to say yes. And I'm sorry so much of my poetry says no, but so much of the world is poisoned and painful and dangerous, so I say no as well as yes.

Do you think poetry ignores more or fewer people now than when you first started writing? Way back, I said and wrote, "Most people ignore poetry because most poetry ignores most people." And at that time I'm sure it was true in England: published poetry was very much the prerogative of male, middle class, university-educated poets. Now there have always been a lot of poets who are none of these things, but they weren't getting a shake, they weren't getting the exposure, they weren't getting their books published. Well, luckily, Michael Horovitz came along in 1959 and ran a magazine called New Departures, and then started a sort of circus for poets to go round performing, called Live New Departures, and that led to a huge explosion of poetry readings in this country. There were very few when I was young: there were about ten poetry readings in Britain a year. And now there are thousands. And this has led to an expansion of poetry in all senses - I mean we have all kinds of poets being published, and some of them are intellectual and academic, but not all of them by any means, and that's right because the days when only very difficult poetry could be published are gone, are gone for good, and now we know that a poet can be quite clear in what he or she is saying or they can be very complicated and it doesn't matter if the poetry's good. As long as the poetry's good. As long as the poetry's good there's room for everyone - there's room for all good poets, whatever kind - whatever belief, whatever colour, whatever sexual preference, whatever - you know. There's room for everyone.

What advice was most helpful to you when you began to write? I think it was Allen Ginsberg on New Year's Day, 1964, in New York City, and it was the morning, and I'd been asked to do a reading in a New York coffee house at about ten o'clock in the morning. New Year's Day, hey - who's going to turn out? Well, a couple of English friends turned out, and about six Americans, who included Allen Ginsberg, and his boyfriend, Peter Orlovsky. And Allen was very kind. He stayed, he listened, and at the end he said "Well, I think a lot of your poems are very uptight because you're writing in such strict form and things like that. It doesn't seem natural. But I think you should listen to the way you talk and take those rhythms and use them. You've got to listen to those rhythms in your own voice and use them to drive the poem along, use them to find out how long the lines of your poem ought be, and so on. And there's this poem you've done about your mother, which is in free verse, and I like it better than any of the others." And I said, "Well, it's not finished." And he said "Well, no, but, maybe it is!" And, yeah, Allen was very understanding, was a very understanding poet. He was a great poet, and he helped a lot of people. So that was the best advice I had.

Do you write with a specific audience in mind? When I'm writing, I quite often beat out the rhythm or walk around trying to get the right rhythm on the poem, and so I do think about the audience a bit. Sometimes I write a poem specifically for somebody, and sometimes I name them, sometimes I just think "Hey, would Albert understand this, or would Celia like this bit, would it make them laugh?" With plays, of course, it's even more: when I'm writing a play for children, I think about my grandchildren and I think "Would Lola understand this? What would Lola like in this play? She likes ponies very much: maybe I could get a pony in this play..." And so it's very good, I think, to write for a particular person, to have that person at the back of your mind - not necessarily when you're writing your first draft but when you're thinking about your first draft and rewriting and thinking "Would this work for this person?" Because all the great children's writers, for instance, wrote for particular children -Lewis Carroll wrote for Alice, the real-life Alice, Edward Lear wrote for the children of his friends, Beatrix Potter wrote for specific children that she knew. And that's a good guide, I think: you don't write for children in general because it doesn't work, there aren't any children in general. You don't write for adults in general, you write for your friends. Or your enemies, if you like. Write with somebody in mind, maybe. Or re-write with somebody in mind. Because poetry is a gift, so the only point is to give it. I mean, just writing for yourself, well it may satisfy you, but it's no use to me or anyone else. Poetry is a gift so give it with open hands.

Obituary (Michael Kustow, The Guardian 21/12/08)

The poet and playwright Adrian Mitchell, in whom the legacies of Blake and Brecht coalesce with the zip of Little Richard and the swing of Chuck Berry, has died of heart failure at the age of 76. In his many public performances in this country and around the world, he shifted English poetry from correctness and formality towards inclusiveness and political passion.

Mitchell's original plays and stage adaptations, performed on mainstream national stages and fringe venues, on boats and in nature, add up to a musical, epic and comic form of theatre, a poet's drama worthy of Aristophanes and Lorca. Across the spectrum of his prolific output, through wars, oppressions and deceptive victories, he remained a beacon of hope in darkening times.

He was a natural pacifist, a playful, deeply serious peacemonger and an instinctive democrat. "Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people," he wrote in the preface to his first volume, Poems (1964). For all his strong convictions, he abhorred solemnity. From Red Pepper, a small leftwing magazine, he gleefully accepted a nomination as "shadow Poet Laureate", and demolished royalty, cultural fashions and pretensions in monthly satirical sallies.

He was born in north London "near Hampstead Heath", which he loved like an extra limb for the rest of his life, walking it daily with his dog Daisy, "the dog of peace". His mother Kathleen was a nursery school teacher, his father Jock a research chemist, who underwent the agony of the first world war, an experience which helped to plant in Adrian a hatred of war.

He went through his own childhood version of hell in a school full of bullies, whose playground he characterised as "the killing ground". His next school, Greenways, was idyllic, and there he staged his first play at the age of nine, and went on writing and performing plays, with his friend Gordon Snell. His schooling was completed as a boarder at Dauntsey's in Wiltshire.

He did his national service in the RAF - "it confirmed my natural pacifism" - then went to Christ Church, Oxford, where he became editor of the student weekly Isis. He wrote poems in the disciplined forms of the Movement, won prizes, published a pamphlet. Equipped for journalism, he joined The Oxford Mail in 1955 and then the Evening Standard's Londoner's Diary, until 1963. Later he became a television critic and wrote about pop music; the Sunday Times fired him for reviewing Peter Watkins' embargoed anti-nuclear film The War Game. But he had set his sights on becoming a writer and, with a small legacy from his mother, left journalism, and wrote a television play and his first novel If You See Me Comin' (1962), a bluesy, chilling account of an execution in a glum provincial city. Like all of his portrayals of injustice, it is coloured by a barely suppressed sense of terror.

Meanwhile he was reading his poems in the burgeoning British movement of performed poetry. I met him in 1962 at one such reading, for Arnold Wesker's Centre 42 arts festivals for working- class audiences. He leapt on stage in a many coloured coat like a Blakean challenger and a rock'n'roll hero. He had fine music-hall timing, and a gravity under all the quickfire jokes and patter. He began to bring out a steady flow of poetry volumes, from Out Loud (1968) to Tell Me Lies (it will be published next year) - 15 books of free, syncopated, carnivalesque poems about love, war, children, politicians, pleasure, music. 'He breathed in air/He breathed out light/ Charlie Parker was my delight.'

With their zany Ralph Steadman covers, these books quickened the reader's imagination. Opening a new one was like an invitation to a party where the dancing never stopped. "He has the innocence of his own experience," said Ted Hughes; "the British Mayakovsky," said Kenneth Tynan; "the kind of tenderness sometimes to be found between animals," wrote John Berger.

To Whom It May Concern, a riveting poem against bombs and cenotaphs and the Vietnam war, with which he stirred a capacity audience in Mike Horovitz's pioneering Poetry Olympics at the Albert Hall in 1965, has lasted through the too many wars since: a durable counting-rhyme to a rhythm and blues beat.

The 1960s brought two life-changing events for Mitchell. He met the actor Celia Hewitt, working for Tynan on ITV's arts programme Tempo. She was his partner for the last 47 years. He also met Jeremy Brooks, literary manager of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He showed his lyrics to Peter Brook, who was looking for someone to adapt a literal translation of Peter Weiss's play The Marat/Sade. Brook jumped, and Adrian worked to the bone to meet a rehearsal deadline and make a glittering, dark text for this 1964 kaleidoscopic play about revolution on the street and in the head.

The encounter with Brook was an upheaval, and Adrian went on to join Brook's team for the collectively authored US (1966), about the Vietnam war, created out of 14 weeks rehearsal and no pre-existing script. His song lyrics, including Tell Me Lies About Vietnam already famous in the anti-war movement, sharpened the ironies of the show; his involvement in heated group debates about the direction of the show was critical, gentle and firm. My own favourite as a team member was Barry Bondhus, a talking blues about a father who dumped human excrement into army filing cabinets. It showed a love of Adrian's true America, the land of Whitman, Guthrie and Ginsberg, which marked him out from simplistic anti-Americanism.

From a play about Blake, Tyger, (1971) for Olivier's National Theatre, a time-travelling musical about a visionary 18th-century poet in today's fallen times, with music by long-term collaborator Mike Westbrook, to a version of Pushkin's Boris Godunov for the RSC (due next year) Adrian wrote more than 30 plays, operas, children's plays, classic adaptations. Some were for major companies, many more for the alternative British theatre, from regional playhouses to site-specific groups such as John Fox's Welfare State. The Liverpool Everyman in its heyday staged his Mind Your Head, a phantasmagorical bus journey. His Pied Piper ran at the National for three years, and his The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe became a perennial favourite at the RSC. He made a Beatrix Potter trilogy for the Unicorn Theatre for Children, adapted Spanish classics and Gogol's The Government Inspector for the National, and wrote songs for Peter Hall's version of Orwell's Animal Farm. In 2006, for the Woodcraft Folk Global Peace Village, he staged The Fear Engine in a vast field, a panorama of threatening world politics for a cast of hundreds of young people.

The musical nature of Adrian's imagination led him to work with a cavalcade of composers and performers: Andy Roberts, Richard Peaslee, Steve McNeff, Dominic Muldowney, Andrew Dixon and Stephen Warbeck. His influence radiated widely, not least to generations of teachers, who used his poems with children in schools.

Last week he rang me. He sounded better than during his last three months of illness. "Can I read you this poem?" he asked. He did. It was a celebration. Next night he died. But this poem, and the poems and the plays and the politics - he went to Faslane on the anti-Trident demonstration and got arrested - will last. He is survived by Celia, two sons, three daughters and nine grandchildren.