Phil Poole and John Rety
by Leah Fritz
Phil Poole and John Rety, both people of significance to contemporary poetry, died within days of each other - on the 1st and 3rd of February, respectively.
John Rety was a founder of the Torriano Meeting House and managed the events there with his partner, Susan Johns, for 23 years. He and Susan also ran Hearing Eye press which published pamphlets and books by both well-known and ought-to-be-well-known poets. John was particularly proud of the anthologies, In the Company of Poets and Well Versed, which he edited, but he took great pride in all the publications of Hearing Eye, whether or not they sold. Among Hearing Eye's publications are pamphlets of John's own work in both poetry and prose, sadly unheralded as the original and substantial works they are.
Politically John was an anarcho-pacifist. His daughter, the artist Emily Johns, following in his footsteps, is co-editor of Peace News. His political beliefs were his own, though. By definition, a true anarchist makes up his or her own mind about everything. An atheist, John abided religiously by his own strong sense of right and wrong.
Born in 1930 in Hungary, John's childhood and adolescence were dominated by the murderous antisemitism of the Nazi holocaust. Separated from his Jewish parents at an early age, he learned to survive by his wits. Although he sometimes took issue with the government's policies, John passionately loved the United Kingdom, in which he found freedom, his adored small family, friendship and the world of poetry.
He also became a grandmaster in chess!
Last year, Phil Poole edited Torriano Nights, a festschrift for John Rety, which was published by Acumen and Phil's own Woodpecker Press. In it I wrote, 'John Rety and I have a lot in common: We both have roots in Eastern Europe, we are about the same age and we spent the sixties and seventies of the (sigh!) last century opposing the Vietnam War, albeit in different countries. So it's no wonder that I sometimes feel we are related by blood, and who knows - perhaps we are.' That's how close I have felt to him and Susan and Emily during the almost two decades I've known them.
Phil Poole and I, on the other hand, were on the periphery of each other's lives until recently.
Born in Birmingham in 1944, Phil moved to London in the 1960s and married Urja Burkhardt, a German artist, in 1988. They maintained residences in both Munich and London. A master woodcarver, Phil restored the woodwork surrounding the clocks designed by Pugin in the Houses of Parliament. He also produced some delightful, often amusing, sculptures, parts of which moved in surprising ways. One of these sculptures is on permanent display at the Torriano Meeting House, where Phil, as a poet, was an habituée. There he often read works-in-progress and occasionally performed as the invited poet.
Gradually Phil became more closely tied to the Torriano Meeting House. When Camden Council discontinued its grant in 2005, he wrote a spirited defence for the Camden New Journal. In his quiet, unassuming way, Phil organised a committee to save the Meeting House despite the council's intransigence, and the poets who frequented it came through in many ways to raise the rent money demanded.
A few months ago, Phil performed at the Meeting House and read some new poems inspired by the tests and treatments anent the cancer he had been diagnosed with. As one who had also gone through some of those the rites, I was especially intrigued by his humorous take on the awful processes.
The content of those poems caught my attention, but his skill as a poet held me. I sent him an e-mail to tell him how fine I thought his work was, and he promptly began e-mailing me more and more poems on various subjects: love, travel, history, politics and, of course, woodworking. I became convinced that a book should come out of this and suggested that he or Urja contact John Rety about publishing one through Hearing Eye. Phil was perhaps too self-effacing about them to do so, and Urja said she didn't know John very well - so I got in touch with him, and he and Susan agreed immediately. By that time we knew that Phil didn't have long to live, and so the race was on to get one out as quickly as possible.
Phil died the day after the decision was made, but Urja at least had time to tell him about it. I sent Susan the poems I had collected and she began editing the book. She and John asked me to write an introduction. John, Susan and I discussed my draft on the phone, and talked about how to organise the text of the book.
The next day John Rety died suddenly of a heart attack.
Emily Johns came to London to take her mother back with her to Hastings where she could mourn and convalesce from the terrible shock. Susan and John had been together constantly for most of their adult lives.
The typescript of Phil's poems had already been given to Martin Parker to print, and Susan asked me to put them in some sort of order. Somewhere within her Susan found the courage to go on with this project. She approved of everything before it went to press.
The book, Phil Poole's Poetry: A Collection, will be presented at his funeral on Friday, the 19th of February, at 3.30 pm, at Golder's Green Crematorium. From 5pm there will be a reception and poetry event at the Torriano Meeting House, 99 Torriano Avenue, Kentish Town.
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