Publisher turned poet Jeremy Robson on life after a 30 year writing block

Gerald Isaaman talks to poet Jeremy Robson about his new collection and reading at Kings Place as part of Jewish Book Week, which ends on Sunday

Thursday, 2nd March 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman

FT Oxford Literary Festival 2016

Jeremy Robson and Maureen Lipman at a Blues in the Park reading in 2014

“You’re only a poet when you’re writing a poem,” the late, great Dannie Abse told his fellow scribe and publisher friend Jeremy Robson. And Jeremy understood that only too well having suffered what he calls “the longest writing block in history”.

Now, some 30 years later – and sadly after the death at 91 of his Welsh poet, playwright, novelist admirer in 2014 – Jeremy is playing catch-up, having ditched his career as a publisher to concentrate on the muse that has no longer deserted him.

“Hopefully by now I have developed a voice that is uniquely mine, in every poem,” he told me in defiance of frustrating past times and as he prepares to go on stage with Maureen Lipman for Jewish Book Week on Sunday.

With Abse not present in the audience at Kings Place, King’s Cross, Jeremy admitted: “I miss Dannie greatly, the frequent phone calls, the weekly get-together, the lively talk, the readings, his warmth and wit and his critical guidance.”

That artistic emotional link in their lives in Hampstead and Golders Green was expressed in Jeremy’s earlier collec­tion, Blues in the Park, and again in his new one, Subject Matters.

“I was so fortunate in being able to show Dannie the poems in that last book just before he died, and to get the thumbs up,” said Jeremy. “It meant everything.”

Indeed, Jeremy has now produced some 110 poems in the two books in three years, 52 in Subject Matters. “Where did they all come from?” he asked. “It seems to me a kind of miracle after the 30-year writing block I suffered.

“For the moment I feel I can justifiably call myself a poet, though I know the tide would swiftly turn if I suddenly wondered where the next one will come from.”

As it is, his compelling poems cover a whole range about yesterday’s and today’s bustling world, snatched in moments of delight on bustling bus, tube and airplane.

They can be poignantly personal, filled with nostalgic laments that take in childhood movie characters like Roy Rogers, Tarzan and radio’s Dick Barton, the comics The Dandy and The Beano, and on to exploits of James Bond and references to the dangers of Putin and Donald Trump.

All subjects that matter, as the title suggest, providing their own vital truth to history, his Jewish roots also hovering on the horizon. The Bible features too, though Jeremy remains an outsider.

And, of course, for those who remember his brave creation of the first Poetry and Jazz sessions at Hampstead Town Hall in the 1960s, music has always been another passion.

Readings in public alongside Abse and others in Soho over half a century have been fitted into his publishing career and nowadays he has appeared at sessions from Blenheim Palace to Gibraltar. Now he is looking forward to sharing the stage in Jewish Book Week with the jazz singer Jacqui Dankworth, her singer /songwriter and keyboard artist Charlie Wood, plus jazz saxophonist Art Themen.

Jacqui Dankworth

“Some of my poems are actually written for and read with jazz,” he pointed out. “It has been a privilege to do so with some of the finest jazz musicians in the country. Their relaxed and ‘cool’ approach always creates an informal atmosphere in which it is a joy and a challenge to read poems.

“I don’t get nervous, unless I’m unprepared, or the audience tense. But generally I work out very carefully what I am going to read. Ironically, the larger the audience the easier it is, usually small, intimate groups are more testing.”

It is all a test of Jeremy’s talents and dedication, the intensity demanded in creating poetry, as he puts it, being a be-all-and-end-all existence event. “But it’s yours,” he insisted. “It’s my world and can’t be intruded upon.”

• Poetry and Jazz in Concert with Jacqui Dankworth, Oli Hayhurst, Maureen Lipman, Jeremy Robson, Art Themen and Charlie Wood, Kings Place, 90 York Way, 8pm on Sunday March 5. £10.50. Call the box office on 020 7520 1490 to book or go to for more details.
Subject Matters: Poems. By Jeremy Robson, Smokestack Books, £12.95

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