Interview: Jeremy Robson

I publish other people but poetry is my own painful, private battle


Jeremy Robson has published headline-grabbing celebrities-turned-authors, from Muhammad Ali to Joan Collins and Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Elie Wiesel.

He remembers driving Ali around the UK on a promotional book tour from Oxford to Brixton, describing the Muslim-convert as a man on the look-out for religious debate.

He snagged publishing rights to Collins's book on ageing gracefully, after impressing the 81-year-old icon with his attention to detail after pointing out key errors in an early draft of her book.

"Every publisher worth his salt is going to be very involved with the people he publishes," says Robson, who initially turned to journalism after becoming disillusioned with life in the law during his articles. "Publishing can be fun, it's the characters you meet."

But for the founder of The Robson Press, one figure stands out. Aged 25 in 1964, he went to Israel to meet David Ben-Gurion. The publishing house he then worked for had commissioned Jews In Their Land from the country's first prime minister, who had just stepped down from the role.

Robson, who comes from "a Zionistic family", says: "I spent several months rewriting the words of this history, because it had been very badly translated.

''My wife and I spent our honeymoon with Ben-Gurion in Israel, asking him to approve the text. Carole was born in Alexandria. The first thing Ben-Gurion said to her, being rather taken by her exotic looks, was: 'Where do you come from? Ah, the land of Moses' – and he started talking to her.

"After an hour, I said: 'What about the text?' He said: 'Well, your English is better than mine, let's go and have lunch'. And that was that. I was very lucky because he had a draconian wife who was notoriously rude to people.

"Before me, three editors had been thrown out by her. She had broken her leg and was in hospital; so I came back a hero."

Since then, in the face of competition from Amazon and authors turning to self-publishing, Robson has managed to stay afloat - publishing books by Michael Winner, Steven Berkoff and Esther Rantzen and biographies of Jane Fonda, Joseph Heller and Dennis Hopper. But Robson, who has been a poet since the age of 18, has still found time to pen his own work. His latest collection of 60 poems - Blues in the Park - has just been published (and favourably reviewed in last week's JC).

Robson returned from the Gibraltar Literary Festival last month, where he read from Blues in the Park - with Maureen Lipman, nine of whose books Robson has published. The British actress has also read his "Vigil" poem on the Shoah at Holocaust awareness events - "I feel very touched," he says.

He has built up a reputation in the field and was a prominent poetry-reading figure in the 1960s and 1970s, where he went on a British Council poetry-reading tour of Israel with Dannie Abse, Ted Hughes, D.J. Enright and Peter Porter - which he recalls as "extraordinary - very memorable".

"When I first started, poetry reading was very po-faced, serious with very little humour and quite formal," he says. "The events we did were very different. We had jazz music, which created a fantastic atmosphere in which to read one's poems.

"When you're in your early 20s, you think everything is possible. Now I think about it. I think, 'how did I have the nerve to do it?' But here I am.

"I don't think poetry readings are an end in themselves. I think poetry has to be read on the page.

"I write for myself; I'm certainly not thinking about anyone else. I might be on a bus, I might be on a train. I'm always with a pen and paper.

"The writing of a poem is a battle with the words on a page. It can go on for weeks; the words have to be exactly right and I'm just thinking about getting it as perfect as I can.

"It's not like writing a play when you're writing for an audience. It's a private and painful experience. I feel that quite strongly."

So, if it's so painful, why do it? "You do it because you have to do it. If you're a poet, you have to do it," says Robson, who names T.S Eliot, Dylan Thomas and Abse as figures he greatly admired.

Despite having the resources to do so, Welsh-born Robson, who grew up in north-west London and attended Haberdashers' Aske's school, maintains that he would almost certainly never publish his own work:

"It's difficult to have a book of poems published. I'm a publisher and I don't publish poetry.

"I would never publish my own books even though I've had the power to do that. I think there's no achievement in it."

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