New UK imprint's stamp of Ferlinghetti
When Nic Outterside, poetry and music fan, retired from the world of journalism, he decided to launch Cast Iron, a publishing venture with a strong flavour of the Beats
For almost 10 years, from the 1990s into the new century, I was employed by a celebrated liberal arts college in the North of England which, in 1992, had the brilliant, and certainly radical, idea of launching a BA in Popular Music Studies. Fortuitously, I had very recently gained an MA in the subject – the world’s first – at the University of Liverpool and had the good luck to be engaged as a lecturer by Bretton Hall College. Earlier this year, almost three decades on, I came across Nic Outterside, an English graduate of the college who had been a student there in the 1970s, long pre-dating my arrival on campus as a teacher. He not only went on to succeed in education and journalism, but also shared a fascination with verse and music and the ways in which those worlds made creative links. So intrigued was he that in 2020 he launched his own poetry imprint, one with a strong hint of City Lights about it. Here he speaks to Rock and the Beat Generation about the Cast Iron series and the lasting influence that literate rockers like Bob Dylan and Patti Smith have had on his life…
Greetings, Nic! Please explain your Bretton Hall connection and experience: did you study or teach there, or indeed both?
I was brought up in Sussex but had family links with Yorkshire. I studied for my first degree in Humanities (Geography and History) at Huddersfield Polytechnic. But as non-vocational subjects there were few career opportunities after I graduated, other than teaching.
Two school friends had taken English/Drama degrees at Bretton Hall College and both spoke very highly of the place. So, I decided to study for a PGCE in English there. I was blown away by the course and the whole environment of the college. After three years at an industrial engineering orientated polytechnic to find myself in such an amazing creative space was truly mind blowing.
My room mate was a graphic artist who seemed to play the music of Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground 24/7 and my best friends at Bretton were a sculptor and a brass band musician who later was best man at my first wedding. This was all life-changing.
Tell me something about your subsequent professional and life experience as journalist and author
I left Bretton in 1979 and obtained my first teaching post at Darton High School – less than two miles from the college, where I taught for three years. I then moved to Shropshire and taught there for a further two years.
In 1985 I was intrigued by the new micro-computers that were flooding the market at the time and bought myself an Acorn Electron – the BBC B’s little brother. In my spare time I started writing letters and reviews for two magazines BBC Micro User and Electron User. Then suddenly, in 1985, I was offered a monthly column in Electron User and two years later the full-time position of Assistant Editor of Atari ST User. Two of the highlights of that period were interviewing Midge Ure and Alan Parsons who were both using the ST to develop new sounds within their music.
By 1990, I felt constrained by computer magazines and moved to newspapers and general news and features. I got my first editorship at the small weekly the Argyllshire Advertiser in the western Highlands of Scotland and then the Galloway Gazette, where I discovered my forte as an investigative reporter. After moving to the Scottish daily The Scotsman in Edinburgh and later the Press and Journal in Aberdeen and the Sunday Sun in Newcastle I won a raft of press awards – someone must have been paying good bungs! My successful newspaper career ended in 2013 after eight years editing the Denbighshire Free Press in North Wales.
Music highlights of those years were interviewing Joan Baez, Bryan Ferry and Mark Knopfler and starting life-long friendships with Michelle Shocked, Mary Lee Kortes, Dave Swarbrick and Maart Allcock (Maart and I were both at Huddersfield Poly at the same time and would often share bizarre drinking stories). Swarb, Maart and I shared similar political views and would spend hours ranting about the “fucking Tories!” It hit me very hard when they both died within two years of each other. I am not materialistic but my prize possessions are one of Swarb’s fiddles and a Ashley Hutchings’ Danelectro bass. Both now hang on the wall at home.
Also through my friendship with various members of Fairport Convention I managed the young girl band Tiny Tin Lady. Their bass player Helen Holmes ended up being the witness to my wedding to Gill and remains a very close friend.
How did you become interested in the Beat Generation writers? Who do you enjoy within that community of novelists and poets?
I have always loved poetry and my maternal grandfather was a published poet. When I was young I was wrapped up in the poetry of William Blake and Wilfred Owen chiefly for their imagery and poetic styles.
My introduction to the Beat poets and novelists began with my love of Bob Dylan and Patti Smith in my early 20s, which in turn introduced me to Jack Kerouac and Woody Guthrie and then to Ferlinghetti (after watching the Band’s The Last Waltz) and Ginsberg and via a separate Arthur Rimbaud detour to William S Burroughs and Hunter S Thompson and Charles Bukowski.
I just adore Ginsberg. I recently came across his 1996 Royal Albert Hall performance of ‘A Ballad of American Skeletons’ with Paul McCartney and was blown away by it.
It seems whenever I pick up any of the Beat Generation works I automatically find myself referring back to either an early Dylan stream of consciousness lyric (such as ‘It’s Alright Ma I’m Only Bleeding’ or his later the brilliant rhyming repetition in ‘No Time to Think’) or something Patti has either written (pretty much all of Horses) or said (her 2012 advice to the young).
Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights were clearly an inspiration to your poetry publishing imprint – how did that arise, what gave you the inspiration to found the Cast Iron Poetry series and how do you find your writers? How long has it been going and how do you find life with a publisher’s hat on?
My early retirement in 2013 was somewhat forced by a nervous breakdown. The breakdown was triggered by a series of incidents in my life: childhood abuse, cancer and bereavement. My GP suggested that a form of therapy was to try writing about these things. So I began a daily routine of writing. But, when the subject matter became too traumatic, I found myself writing free form stream of consciousness verse – often rants! And rather than being a shit conformist poet I just wrote whatever vomit came out of my head. By 2016 I had written and self-published two books and edited and published an anthology of other people’s poetry. Then one contact led to another and via social media I soon had a following of people asking me to edit and publish their work.
In late 2017 I formed and listed Time is An Ocean Publications (the title comes from Dylan’s lyric in ‘Oh Sister’) as an independent UK publishing house. I always have a forward schedule of work and was editing and publishing my own books and those of others: non-fiction, biographies, poetry anthologies, two football books were suddenly forming a backbone to my publishing. There are now 38 books – the most recent being a biography of my late grandfather Eric Pounsett.
Meanwhile I acquired a small cohort of friends in the USA, India and UK who were like-minded about poetry, all better poets than me, and all Bob Dylan fans.
During the Covid lock-down summer of 2020 we were all discussing the City Lights books and comparing our collections of them. Then someone suggested we could try and do something similar to break the young fascination with everything having to be online. I did a bit of simple maths and worked out we could print pocket size poetry books (up to 108 pages max) and retail them at just £3.50. That would give just 40p gross profit per sale, but enough to keep the series running and pay for author and complimentary copies.
We already had two brilliant surreal poets in our group, a Spanish American guy who was hooked on sonnets and an Italian American jazz poet. We had our first six books sewn up before we started. The rest came with contacts and osmosis. Now, after 14 editions we have editions written by poets from France, Austria, India, India, Merseyside, London, Ohio, New York, California and Oregon. The subjects have been a diverse as grief, music, domestic violence, the subjugation of women in India, global politics, parenthood and racism.
The series name comes from the Dylan ‘Cast Iron Songs and Torch Ballads’ scribble on the sleeve of his 1974 album Planet Waves.
I see that my own Howl for Now appears in an image alongside your Cast Iron editions. How did that link occur?
I was completely unaware of Howl For Now (it was long after I left Bretton) until the spring of 2021 when Susan Daniels moderator of the Bretton Hall Facebook group alerted me to it. I bought a copy immediately and researched how the performance came about. I then gave an ‘Oh my God!’ exclamation when I saw Bill Nelson was involved…a flashback to Be Bop Deluxe gigs I attended when I was at Huddersfield Poly! So now your green book acts as natural bookends between my collection City Lights books and our own Cast Iron Poetry books. It also got me listening to Bill Nelson again after a 40 year hiatus!
Pictured above: Items from the Cast Iron Poetry series, with a cover design which has a strong echo of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights editions. Nic Outterside has placed my own edited book Howl for Now among the selection
How do these passions link to your musical interests? You mentioned Bob Dylan and Patti Smith as particular heroes/heroines to me. How would you identify or describe the overlap between the literary and those rock artists or, indeed, other songwriters and musicians who attract you?
Everything about my passions in music are linked in a sort of timeless chronology.
When I was about 14 and surrounded by my father’s endless Glenn Miller and Nat King Cole playing on our old Decca record player, I discovered Marc Bolan, Tyrannosaurus Rex and T Rex. I didn’t know back that Bolan also wrote poetry and took his stage name from Bob (BO) Dylan (LAN). I was absorbed by his lyrics until in 1972 a savvy muso school friend suggested I listen to David Bowie. ‘He’s far better than Bolan,’ he said.
I heard the single ‘Starman’ on the radio and from my Saturday job pay immediately bought The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It played non-stop on my parent’s record player for weeks. And I followed the directions on the back of the sleeve ‘Play at Maximum Volume’. It annoyed the hell out of my conservative father and after numerous arguments he moved the record player into my bedroom, told me that setting #4 on the volume was loud enough Then went out and bought himself a Philips Stereo hi fi! He always had an ulterior motive for everything.
Meanwhile, I discovered that David Bowie had a back catalogue of four other albums. I was hooked and as money allowed I ordered each of them from our local record store in town. The music was mind blowing (particularly on The Man Who Sold the World album) but it was the strength of Bowie’s lyrics and poetry which held me transfixed.
The lyrics of ‘Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed’ from his self-titled 1969 album and ‘Width of a Circle’ from The Man who Sold the World in 1970 both scanned as surreal and stream of consciousness writing. Bowie had always been well read and, in a 2003 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, he talked about the influences of Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation writers.
His exploration of the work of others also hit me sharply with his 1972 album Hunky Dory when I was left wanting to know more about ‘White Light’ by the VU and who was Frankie, who was Andy Warhol and who were the Bewlay Brothers and Crowley and his uniform, etc. But most of all was ‘Song for Bob Dylan’ and why did Bowie keep referring to him as Robert Zimmerman?
Without boring with all the details, Bowie turned me on to Lou Reed, Mott the Hoople and Bob Dylan. His lyrics posed so many questions and when I started listening to him Bob Dylan answered them and posed many more and in turn he turned me on to Joan Baez, Patti Smith, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, CSNY, the Band and Bruce Springsteen and, in later years, via the Dylan Project to Fairport Convention. After watching Bob in concert more than 30 times since 1978 I am one of these sad older people who is besotted by him and everything about him.
The huge influence of Woody Guthrie has always been there in his voice and song writing and a lot of the cover songs he has performed live. Many believe his ‘Never Ending Tour’, which began way back in 1987, was partly driven by Kerouac’s On the Road.
Earlier in his career, a central part of the influence on Dylan was Mexico City Blues by Kerouac, written in 1959. Kerouac said of his work that it was a spontaneous composition in which memories, fantasies and dreams are all combined through free association. He was, he said, wanting to be seen as a jazz poet.
Dylan paid fulsome tribute to this in his 1985 song ‘Something is Burning’:
'I can feel it in the wind in the wind in the wind and it’s upside down
I can feel it in the dust as I get off the bus on the outskirts of town
I’ve had the Mexico City blues since the last hairpin curve
I don’t wanna see you bleed
I know what you need
But it ain’t what you deserve’
In the same year, Dylan commented: ‘I came out of the wilderness and just naturally fell in with the Beat scene, the bohemian, Be Bop crowd, it was all pretty much connected. It was Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, Ferlinghetti … I got in at the tail end of that and it was magic … it had just as big an impact on me as Elvis Presley.’
Dylan also spoke of Kerouac’s ‘breathless, dynamic bop phrases’, and it is said, in many commentaries, found in Kerouac a person like himself – a person who came to New York as an outsider full of ideas.
As for Allen Ginsberg, their friendship began in 1963 and continued until Ginsberg died in 1997 – in which year Bob dedicated a performance of ‘Desolation Row’ to his friend, saying it was Ginsberg’s favourite Dylan song.
Iconic moments in that friendship were undoubtedly Ginsberg’s cameo role in filming of ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ in 1965 and their photographed/filmed visit to Jack Kerouac’s grave a decade later during the Rolling Thunder Review where Ginsberg read Mexico City Blues to Dylan.
I have always regarded Patti Smith as a poet and writer first and foremost and a singer/musician second. I still chuckle at the label ‘Rimbaud’s s kid sister’, which was appended to her in the mid-1970s.
Her often surreal and stream of consciousness poetry is evident on early songs such as ‘Redondo Beach’ and ‘Horses’ and again on her renaissance albums in the 1990s with songs such ‘Beneath the Southern Cross’ and ‘Fireflies’ on the traumatic album Gone Again.
But it is in her more recent prose writing that the influences of both Rimbaud, Bukowski and the Beat poets is evident. I absolutely adore M Train, where her writing floats between factual reporting of events and the surreal and mystical… small wonder she described the book as ‘the road map to my life’.
And it is there I shall finish before I disappear too far up myself.
Thank you, Nic, for sharing those memories and passions, anecdotes and reflections. We wish you. all the luck with your exciting Cast Iron venture in the future.
Note: You can find out more about Nic Outterside’s Cast Iron Poetry here: https://www.instagram.com/cast_iron_poetry/?hl=en Individual editions are available through standard online sources.