Since coming across our radar a few years back, London poet, editor and live literature promoter Tom Chivers has frequently given us good cause to perk up and pay attention – whether by co-founding the award-winning London Word Festival, bringing us a cracking (and frequently cutting-edge) line-up of live lit events through Penned in the Margins, serving up eloquent and insightful commentary on modern poetry and poets on The World Today and BBC Radio 4 or receiving the praise of no less than Iain Sinclair. The focus of his Crashaw Prize-winning debut collection, How to Build a City, published this summer, runs the gamut from a 1381 City trial to spam email. And London, very much London.
We caught up with Tom recently to chat about the book, the relationship of London to his poetry and his thoughts more generally on the emerging young poets and trends in London poetry today.
Tell us what’s new, Tom. What are you working on right now?
I’ve been keeping busy over the summer. Currently programming the next London Word Festival, putting the final touches to books by James Wilkes and George Ttoouli that I’m publishing in November, and planning a major touring project for autumn 2010.
On the creative front, I’ve been working on a sequence about writing, representation and power. Each poem is entitled ‘Poem as …’. For example: ‘Poem as bullet’, ‘Poem as splint’, ‘Poem as diminishing return’, ‘Poem as papier-mâché construction’. I’ve also been thinking about writing a long piece inspired by the medieval visionary poem Piers Plowman. A very loose translation. But I’m a bit too daunted by the idea to actually start writing!
Have you written any poetry today? And if so, does it feature a London place name?
Not today, no. But my most recent scribbling contains the lines: ‘Creatures of water. Celluloid. An old fridge. / Hackney canter. A spate of logos, all w/ mane.’ The poem steals words and phrases that were entered into Google to find my personal blog, this is yogic. I posted something up there last year about horses, and I’ve not been able to shake off the association since.
How to Build a City seems to follow in the psychogeographical tradition of Iain Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd and Will Self. Do you see yourself as an inheritor of that tradition? And is there something about your poetic trawl through the streets of London that differentiates it generationally from the work of those other writers?
Sinclair more than Ackroyd, but yes I’m definitely influenced by that whole, nebulous psychogeography thing. I used to be pretty good at geography at school, incidentally. I was mildly obsessed with ox-bow lakes and glacial erosion. What I do is, of course, quite distinct from (as well as inferior to!) Self/Ackroyd/Sinclair. They’re all, for instance, known for longer, more expansive forms: the novel, non-fiction, and what Sinclair calls ‘documentary fiction’. Whilst there’s certainly something of the latter in my work, I’m much more concerned with economy of expression, linguistic risk, and with a kind of urban lyric. Of course, many people forget that Sinclair is first and foremost a fine poet.
Tell us about the evolution of How to Build a City. Is it something you perceived as a coherent collection? Or did you structure it retrospectively upon realising that you’d written a group of poems that would read well in tandem?
As a first collection, How to Build a City draws together work from the last five or so years (and it could easily have been ten). As such, any order or coherence you might perceive is a happy accident. I did, however, plan for certain poems to rub nicely (or not) against each other. The book also follows a meandering course from urban observational to the personal.
London occasionally seems something of a muse in the collection, inspiring the poet to write. Strikingly, in ‘Hasty Excise’ the writing appears more of a purging process – a compulsion that allows the speaker to rid himself of or respond to all that sensory overload. Is London more antagonist than muse for your writing?
I think you’ve captured it. Overstimulation and antagonism are both key drivers in my writing. Let’s not kid ourselves the city is perfect. It’s certainly no muse. Speed, aggression and disregard provoke me to some sort of action. There is beauty in the city too, but I’m less interested in that, at least the obvious received forms of beauty. There are plenty of PRs in City Hall to draw our attention to sunsets over Tower Bridge etc.
Humour us with some speculation on the old chicken v. the egg/nature v. nurture debate: Would Tom Chivers have been a poet if he hadn’t grown up in London but was raised in the Scottish highlands surrounded by sheep instead?
I’d like to think I would still experience creative necessity. Perhaps not through writing, but through music or visual art or whatever fits. I don’t see myself as an urban writer, but a poet of place – place in the broadest sense, including how we place ourselves in a landscape, in society, in our personal conduct and psyche. Anyway, it’s quite possible to write about the countryside with the modernity and ruthless energy that is associated with city literature. I’ve just finished reading Tim Atkins’s Folklore and he does just that.
‘Rush Hour’, your seven-part poem about the 7/7 bombings, takes a real artistic risk just by virtue of its subject matter. Was this a fairly immediate response to the bombings or one that didn’t develop until well later? Did you perceive it as a risk?
I see ‘Rush Hour’ as a fairly traditional poem stylistically, but you’re right that there is some degree of hazard involved in talking directly about 7/7. The piece is political, but at the risk of evoking a cliché, it’s very personal too. I live in Aldgate and at the time worked in Whitechapel, behind the Royal London Hospital. So it was all very close, and hyperreal. My road was the first not to be cordoned off north of the Aldgate bomb, and I remember seeing relatives of the victims carrying flowers through the police tape to St Botolph’s Church.
‘Rush Hour’ isn’t an immediate response, but came a few years later. I wrote two or three poems in the months following the bombs, but they didn’t make it through to the book. They were too clumsy, lacked the subtlety of distance. What I was able to do, I hope, through this piece is give some kind of tonal context for the bombings, to place that act within a deeper field of suppressed violence. It’s not a coherent statement though, and I would hate for it to be read as such. Meaning is always elusive: for the writer as well as the reader.
Do you Tweet, Tom?
What do you think of poetry campaigns like the Kings Place Twitter competition or other attempts to engage with readers through the latest media? Gimmicky? Or is there real potential for creative exploration and innovative art?
The internet is potentially such a huge force for change, for democratising culture. And of course I’m a supporter of exploring digital media as a creative tool. Some projects will work and some will not. I’ve seen plenty of gimmicks and I’m afraid lots of them are driven by Twitter at the moment. Also, it’s important to distinguish elaborate exercises in product marketing from real creativity, which tends to come from the bottom up. I’m a closet geek and have been coding websites for over ten years now. For all the wonder of Web 2.0, part of me misses the subversive hacker mentality of the 1990s.
You’ve been called part of Salt publishing’s ‘excitingly talented brat-pack’. What other young poetry brats in the London literary scene should we be keeping our eye on?
I edited and published an anthology, City State: New London Poets, in May so am bound to pick some of them. I’ve been really impressed with Siddhartha Bose who writes sprawling, rhythmical dialogues full of spot-on urban observations of the seedier variety. A poet not in the anthology, Emily Critchley, is working some exciting veins at the moment – sharp, risky poems that demand, and hold, your attention. Other names to look out for: Steve Willey, Laura Forman, Kirsten Irving, Barnaby Tidman…
From your outlook not only as a young London poet but also as a promoter of other young poets, do you think there’s an identifiable trend in the work coming out of Generation Txt?
I think this is an exciting time for poetry. The field is much more open and democratic than in previous decades. There’s greater energy, experimentation and humour. Irony is beginning to displace personal confession as the dominant mode (a danger in itself, but the shifting process is good). Performance poetry has had a largely positive effect in making writers aware of the performative effects of their work, as well as potential areas of bleed into other artforms and cultural contexts.
Have you ever been sick on the tube?
I’ve been close. When I was about 17 I was very ‘ill’ the morning after a house party and vomited in the street somewhere in deepest, darkest West London. When I got on the tube home, riding the escalator to the deep-level platform felt like Virgil’s descent into Hades.
How to Build a City is currently available from Salt Publishing. You can next catch Tom in action at the Penned in the Margins launch, featuring Ross Sutherland and Inua Ellams, of a new poetry series this Thursday, 10 September, at Aubin & Wills, at 6.45pm. Would-be gatecrashers can email email@example.com to book a spot.