Look out for the fine print: Peter Guttridge meets the founders and editors of the Greville Press

Peter Guttridge
Saturday 12 December 1992 00:02 GMT

'THE Greville Press is a ray of hope at a time when poetry is in dudgeon,' says Edna O'Brien. She has been published three times by the small, Warwick-based poetry press, which recently enjoyed a cermonial moment when it produced its 50th title, 10 Early Poems by Harold Pinter.

That the Greville Press should simultaneously publish a first collection by Kate Ellis, a 16-year-old schoolgirl from Derby, and the first translations of the poems of Arseny Tarkovsky, father of the filmmaker Andrey Tarkovsky, is typical of the small firm's exhilarating eclecticism.

The Press was founded in 1975 by the poet and teacher, Anthony Astbury, to publish the work of poet Geoffrey Godbart, his friend since the early Sixties. When they first met in London, in 1960, Astbury was working in a bookshop and Godbart was 'trying to be Mallarme'. They were drawn together by a shared enthusiasm for poetry.

Thirty years later, squashed in the corner of a crowded and noisy pub in Charlotte Street once frequented by Dylan Thomas, their enthusiasm for poetry's possibilities remains undimmed. Astbury, tall, polite, dapper, and Godbert, bearded and chain-smoking, are optimistic. 'Poetry has not been alive and well and living in England for some years,' Astbury says. 'But it will happen again.'

If it does, it will be thanks in good measure to their persistence. 'I wanted to be a publisher so that I could publish Geoffrey's work,' Astbury says. 'But I didn't anticipate how it would snowball. When I started, I spent a couple of hours on the phone with another poetry publisher finding out how to do it. He warned me to be careful: once you start publishing you can't stop. He was absolutely right.' Over the years the Greville Press has published the poetry of George Barker, David Gascoyne, W S Graham, Edna O'Brien, C H Sisson and David Wright.

It has the only collection in print of poems by the Elizabethan Fulke Greville (who gives the Press its name) and the early 19th- century poet Hartley Coleridge. Translations have included A Sad State of Freedom by the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet.

'We started with hardbacks, then went into paperback, then into the pamphlet form,' Godbert says. 'Pamphlets relate back to the Elizabethan tradition of Fulke Greville. The problem with the form is that many bookshops are unwilling to stock them. They say they can't be displayed.' This is certainly a pity, though one of the additional reasons might be that the pamphlets are not cheap.

The official launch of the Press took place in 1979 at the Purcell Rooms. 'It was a sellout,' Godbert says. 'And with hindsight it was the last great occasion in English poetry, since on the platform were poets of the calibre of George Harker, W S Graham and Harold Pinter.' (It was filmed for television, although the film was never shown.)

Pinter has for the past five or six years supported the Press financially, and has been the third member of the editorial team. He first became involved in 1976, when Astbury invited him to come to Warwick to give a poetry reading. 'Although my main interest is poetry, I don't usually respond to these things,' Pinter says. 'But Tony's letter was so distinctive, I said I would. After the reading, we all got extremely drunk and we've been firm friends ever since.'

Pinter is quick to give Astbury and Godbert the credit for the success of the Greville Press. 'They possess extraordinary resilience and total dedication to poetry. Neither of them are pretentious and so I hope I'm not when I say that what they do - and their strength of purpose - has kept the spirit of poetry alive.'

All three play an equal part in the process of selecting poems for publication. 'It has to be a unanimous decision, 3-0, or we don't publish,' Astbury says. 'We have lost a few friends, some of them quite celebrated, because we did not all agree about their poems and so said no.'

Poems come to the Press both solicited and unsolicited. Pinter asked his friend Edna O'Brien for her poems. At the time she felt they were not 'crystalline' enough, but since then the Greville Press has published several volumes of her work. 'All three men are faithful, excited and diligent where poetry is concerned,' she says.

Kate Ellis was 16 when she learned the name of the Greville Press from a writer's handbook and sent her poems to them. 'Six months later, Geoffrey got in touch and Harold was saying he wanted more,' she says (now aged 18 and a student in London). 'It was hard to make the adjustment from thinking I couldn't write to having that sort of attention.'

One product of the collaboration between the three friends has been an anthology, 100 Poems By 100 Poets, published by a mainstream press. It is soon to be followed by 100 Poems By 100 Poets In Translation. 'Harold is very keen on translations - he has a deep interest in certain countries, like Nicaragua and Turkey,' Astbury says. 'So we publish wonderful stuff from there.'

'We have unearthed some remarkable work,' Pinter says. 'Tony and Geoffrey come to my place with hundreds of pieces of paper and we settle down and sort through them for hours. We are very thorough.'

The Greville Press pamphlets are a pleasure to own partly because of the quality of the poetry, but also because they look so good. They are designed and printed by Peter Lloyd of The Gamecock Press in Rugby. 'Peter knows nothing about poetry,' Astbury says, 'but he lives for designing and printing beautiful things.'

Astbury and Godbert continue to write poetry. Godbert is involved with a separate co-operative venture which publishes poetry, including his own. Astbury too, has his poetry published by another press. But the Greville Press is their main focus.

'The administration of publishing is deeply boring,' Astbury says. 'The joy is printing people whose work you love.' Godbert adds: 'We are serious and idealistic in wanting to publish wonderful poetry - but essentially publishing is glorious, privileged fun.'

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