Enter the poet, trailing chaos

The Guardian, October 30 1979

Tambimuttu arrived in Rhode Island last month, still wearing the battered sheepskin slippers he has worn every day for the last ten years, with the only corrected proofs of his new magazine and the complete works of Bob Dylan in two canvas bags. Then he lost the lot at the station.

In his four-week stay in New York, he went on to lose three pairs of glasses and his old friend Timothy Leary, who wanted to see him. Leary was working as a stand-up philosopher in a Hollywood night club but was arrested for possession of cannabis before Tambi could get to him.

Nevertheless he returned to his extraordinarily untidy flat in Kensington with an offer from Bob Dylan to write a new song for the magazine and new songs from Leonard Cohen. Now, after ten years of false starts, Poetry London/Apple Magazine is finally to be released tomorrow.

Ever since he first arrived in London from Ceylon in 1939, the dishevelled figure of this tiny poet has circled the publishing world. Always, there has been chaos. “I never could look after myself. Edith Sitwell used to send me huge carts of coal so that I wouldn’t freeze in the winter.”

At 64, he is still using the formula which made the original Poetry London one of the best-remembered literary magazines of the forties: a combination of the work of well-established poets with innovations from unknowns. As well as a front cover and a centre spread by Graham Sutherland, a flimsy record by Allen Ginsberg, the first publication of Iris Murdoch’s poems and new work from Ted Hughes, Lawrence Durrell and Brian Patten, Tambi’s scouts have found new talents for Poetry London/Apple’s launch.

There is typewriter art from Bob Cobbing, a concrete poem in colour by Ian Hamilton Finlay, a series of paintings from the young Chinese artist, Chou Shiuh Lin, and work from the punk poet John Cooper-Clarke.

In the forties, he used to start the day with Augustus John in the American Bar in Sloane Square, move on to The Wheatsheaf in Rathbone Place and trot on round the pubs and cafes of Soho, panhandling manuscripts, occasionally losing them in taxis, drinking bitter and spreading the joy.

When his poverty threatened his health, TS Eliot fixed him up with a job with BBC External Services broadcasting to India with George Orwell. Poetry London thrived until 1949 when a new partner forced him out at an annual meeting amid considerable acrimony.

Two years later, Tambi was in Greenwich Village, publishing his first short story in the New Yorker and producing Poetry London/New York. When his visa ran out, an old friend got him a new one by attaching him to the Indian delegation at the United Nations.

He met Timothy Leary and became vice president of the League for Spiritual Discovery, LSD, at Millbrook. “Timothy asked me to conduct the morning and evening sessions of meditation. Everything you can possibly imagine sensually and intellectually was happening, and I had to give them a philosophy, the yoga of the Tantra.

“All the rich people were in the bungalow; the Grateful Dead in the barn; the Hells Angels riding into the woods with their enormously tall girls on their bikes; some extraordinary builders of teepees building a third world; waterfalls, lakes.”

The forces of chaos brought Tambi back to Europe in 1968 and kept him there. In London, George Harrison offered to back a revival of Poetry London as Apple Magazine. The Beatles broke up, the scheme collapsed, and Tambi started publishing books as The Lyrebird Press.

But that didn’t work either. “I published 13 books of poetry or poetic prose. I just went bankrupt. I should be a multi-millionaire now with all the people I have signed up since 1942, like Lorca and Nabokov and Durrell. I am what I am. I can’t be different.”

After Lyrebird collapsed in 1974, Tambi spent four years mulling it over. “I was depressed. I slept a lot.” Then Robin Waterfield, the Oxford bookseller, offered to publish a new magazine if Tambi would edit it. Tambi agreed, and Waterfield linked him to a family printing business in Preston, Lancashire, Mather Bros.

“Poetry has retreated to the university chairs, where professors think it is a prestige thing to bring out a flimsy book of poems once a year. It’s cuckoo. If poets are gonig to make a living out of it, they should write more poems that the people love and buy. Like in Russia and India.”

Tambi’s 17-year-old daughter, Shakuntala, has learned from him. He has included a poem which she wrote about him when she was 15, in the first issue of Poetry London/Apple. Here are the last four lines:

“He pauses, as everyone waits expectantly

For his words of wisdom

Slowly, and with expression, he finally speaks –

‘Damn! We’re out of blood beer.'”