I first encountered Simon Howard’s work in 2010. As a subscriber to Harry Godwin’s Arthur Shilling Press amongst the second tranche of titles I was sent was Simon’s zooaxeimplode; a book that, at the time, I didn’t really know what to do with. 17 poems, each 17 lines long. The first 9 lines of the first poem were in regular font; the remaining 8 lines were in bold. The second poem saw this order reversed – and so the poems alternated. Simon’s book bore a resemblance to work I’d seen before – both in appearance and in seeming impenetrability of content yet still . . . I hadn’t really begun to develop the tools to unpick work of this kind. Rather than finding the book off-putting though there was something about its refusal to make concessions to the reader that just absolutely chimed with me.
It was via Harry’s blog celery lanes, I’m sure, that I first found Simon’s walkingintheceiling; a site Simon regularly updated with his poems as and when he wrote them. And there so many. And all so uniformly good. To such an extent was this true that I remember Harry retitled the link to walkingintheceiling on his blog something like ‘the great Simon Howard poetry explosion’. There seemed to be no information available on Simon anywhere though. Around this time the Openned site was the primary document of what was going on in UK innovative work – yet I don’t remember ever reading anything about Simon there. He seemed simultaneously a part of yet apart from things. And this, I guess, intrigued me – in much the same way as the mysteries of zooaxeimplode ensured it was a book I couldn’t easily forget.
My hold on the chronology of things is not great but at some point these two things happened: I bought a copy of Simon’s second book, Numbers, from KFS and, as well, I decided to start a poetry magazine. The consequences of those things were that I became convinced Simon was one of the great poetic talents of my time and that I knew the first issue of my magazine, whatever it would be called and whenever it would appear, must feature something from Simon.
Numbers, I think, is an almost perfect book. 100 stanzas; each grouped in sets of 5; each, bar the ones making up one set, 10 lines long. It’s as formally rigorous as zooaxeimplode but its width and breadth are on another level altogether –it’s an epic book. Also, it’s, as John Fallas says on the back, ‘a love poem and a political tract’. Also, hyperbolically or not, it’s the book which led me to tell Simon I thought of him as our JH Prynne.
The name I finally settled on for my magazine was Department. Serenity, the piece from Simon that appeared in the first issue has been written about here by David Grundy. I was very proud to include work from Simon and am very grateful to David for his words now.
So high was my esteem for Simon that somewhere between issues one and two of Department I asked if he’d consider joining me as editor. He agreed and amongst everything else that we did together Simon secured for Department press three fantastic full length manuscripts that we were incredibly proud to publish – work from David Grundy, Wayne Clements and David Berridge.
Although for a couple of years myself and Simon were in regular contact by email with, at some point, it occurring to us to swap phone numbers and from then on talking every now and again on the phone, sadly we never met in person. I never even saw a picture of him. Even so though he was an important presence in my life; I discussed various romantic break-ups of mine with him; I sent him University work for his feedback; and when my dad died last year Simon was there for me then as well. From Simon I was aware of his role caring for his mother; some episodes from his own personal life; and his concern regarding the havoc property developers had been wreaking for years on the village where he lived. We had had conversations about meeting; maybe him meeting me in London sometime when I was down there; maybe me stopping by where he lived. To this day I feel it’s a great shame and feel very sad that none of those plans were able to come to fruition.
Over the time I knew him I realised Email and Facebook allowed Simon to maintain an awful lot of friendships – friendships very important to both parties. And amongst these friends he would discuss not just poetry but his other passions of Left politics and music. One such of these correspondents was John Bloomberg-Rissman.
On the table beside me as I sit here typing this I have copies of Simon’s first two books and the recently published forgotten, from Mark Cobley’s Red Ceilings. The poetic journey for the reader of Simon’s work between each of those points has been, in turns, thrilling, inspiring and moving. I’m so pleased to have been a witness to it. And I’m so pleased to have been close to Simon. That that journey is over though is a real tragedy.