An Interview with Richard Thomas

I’ve know Richard Thomas for as long as I have been performing. Indeed, he was almost certainly one of the performers at the very first gig I went to as an audience member. He very quickly drew me in to his world of imagery and humour, strange juxtapositions and asides, in a manner which I found most compelling.

We both did the same literature course with the Open University, and it was through this that I discovered we both admired the poetry of Frank O’Hara and the music of British Sea Power. Because of this, I have always followed his career with interest.
His first published book, The Strangest Thankyou, came out almost two years ago now. It contained some wonderful poems including the delightful ‘Flamingo’ as well as more serious pieces, and others written after trips to Rome. I read the book twice over the course of two days, and then my mother borrowed it too. I was jealous that the cover was orange, because Frank O’Hara’s book Lunch Poems also has an orange cover!
One of the things I really admire in Richard is that he is so very different to almost any other performer both in his style of reciting, and in his subject matter. To watch or read Richard is to visit a strange new world, only to realize at the last moment that it’s a world you’ve always known. 

I’ve known you for almost six years now. You were one of the first poet performers I remember seeing. How did you get in to writing poetry?

I had written lyrics here and there for various bands I had been in. The more I wrote, the more I realised I enjoyed playing with language, so I started to keep a notebook and would just write very stream of conciousness type stuff in it. Eventually, and mainly through the Open University course you mentioned, I learnt how to shape those ramblings in to actual poems, and it went from there.

How important is the performance aspect of your poems?

For me, when I write poetry, performance is the last thing on my mind, bar perhaps a couple of poems I have written. I think this is probably because I got in to poetry originally from a page-poet’s perspective, and I wasn’t aware of any performance opportunities in my area at the time. When I moved to Totnes, that changed: I did my first open mic and got hooked on the buzz it gave me. It still very much felt important to me, though, to keep writing primarily for the page, as seeing my poems in print was the dream. So I continue to do that, and then when I am performing, I will pick out the poems that translate on to the stage best. Half of my poems I have never read live. I quite like the idea of doing a live set of poems I would never usually perform, to see what happens, but I am yet to muster up the confidence.

Your book The Strangest Thankyou was one of the reading highlights of my year when it came out. How would you describe the new book?

Thanks, Robert. I remember you telling me your mum enjoyed it, too. Three of my friend’s mums have read it. And I think just one of those three friends has read it themselves (yourself). It’s good to know your audience. Perhaps that is why my new book is a collection – a pamphlet – of poems about babies. A subconscious effort to satisfy my target market. But seriously, it’s a little more than about babies, though it is that. Zygote Poems is about a young man’s journey in to the unfamiliar realms of fatherhood with the effects of anxiety. It uses phonetic language to both convey that effect, and at the same time mimic ‘baby talk’. There are some other fun techniques employed, but I guess I shouldn’t give too much away. Selling poetry books is hard enough. I think, though, this new pamphlet is my most focussed poetry so far.

Can you describe the writing process for it?

I wanted these poems to be as candid as possible, and given the subject, they were all personal. So to start with, it was a case of writing down every significant thing I could think of as I looked back over my journey up to that point. As I originally wrote it for my degree dissertation, I had to write a certain number of pages. So I worked out what kind of balance I wanted in terms of the content – what moods I wanted to give – and I drew up a table, dropping each significant event in to a particular mood box until I had filled the table with an equal amount of each. And then I went about working my way through the table, writing each poem that needed to be written. It got very mathematical, but it was a pretty interesting way to go about writing a collection of poems, and felt right for the to get the result I wanted. The hardest part was to write as candidly as possible. My mind often told me to censor stuff, so it took some redrafting to get all the poems as honest as possible, without them becoming unreadable.

 How would you describe the content of your poems? Are there recurring themes?

The new pamphlet is all specifically themed, but I guess my poems do generally repeat certain themes, often without me realising. This is probably to do with the fact that I usually write whatever is on my mind at the moment of holding the pen. The Strangest Thankyou was a lot of love, lust, loneliness and confusion – even the surreal impersonal poems abour Flamingos, dancing butchers and dogs eating figs conveyed a sense of trying to understand the world and its obscurity. I think that had to do with the mindset of being in my early twenties, and I guess certain subjects tend to occupy the mind more than others at different ages. I like that idea: that my poetry up to this point could be read as being written by someone in their twenties, purely by the themes most covered, and that my thirties, forties, etc, will bring about their own re-occuring themes. I think this also helps me deal with the idea of ageing – being intrigued as to what poems the world might draw from me as time goes on – I look forward to poems more than I do birthdays. That wasn’t meant to sound as melancholic as it did…

Is humor important to you?

Definitely. I think humour is important to any art form to some extent, whether you’re Charlie Chaplin or Marina Abramovic. And even Beethoven was a prankster. There’s that story about him, as a kid, putting a whoopee cushion on Mozart’s piano stool, isn’t there. There’s no whoopee cushions in my poetry, but I like to think there is humour. Not in all my poems, but where it lacks, I try to make up for it with a sense of absurdity. I think humour can help a generally serious poem breathe, and lift it from the page. It helps the poem transcend from writer to reader.

You’re obviously a big fan of the beat poets. You even had a beard at one time. And it was a nice beard, too. How influential is Ginsberg both in your writing, and also modern poetry?

I have had two significant beards in my life so far. I think you saw the first. The second was a much better effort. That is a benefit of ageing. That beard was going places until I chopped it off. I have yet to properly grieve the loss of it. Who handed me that pair of scissors? Ginsberg had a great beard, and was a great poet, and I think I owe a lot to him for both of those things. Kerouac, Corso, di Prima and the others have been a great influence too. I discovered them at about twenty two, and really felt my poetry take a change of pace when I did. I remember the first time I read those lot – it felt like I had never read poetry before. I felt a different level of excitement for poetry, and it was around that time that I started to write ‘proper’ poems and do readings. Ginsberg was a huge influence on poetry, both then and now. I really believe him and his friends were game-changers, and had a significant effect in moulding the shape of poetry to come. Even for those who dislike him or the other beat poets – a negative influence is an influence nonetheless. But I think Ginsberg in particular proved that you could really say and do whatever you want with poetry, and it needn’t conform to certain ideals or standards. Amongst young poets today, I think this has particular resonance, knowing that there aren’t boundaries, and that poetry can say anything you want it to say.

Who are your favorite poets, both dead and alive?

Well, those that I have mentioned are favourites, for sure. I am still yet to read anything that gets me on the same level as Gregory Corso. I also love Sylvia Plath, Shelley, the Surrealist Poets, Leonard Cohen, and as you mentioned, Frank O’Hara. I have recently been getting in to Arthur Rimbaud and Ronald Duncan. The latter of which I found by grabbing a load of free poetry books from a box outside a lecturer’s office, and when I started reading, couldn’t understand why I had never come across him before, as his love poems remind me a lot of my own. Especially when he lived fairly local to us, too – North Devon I think.

What are your plans for the next year or so?

I am currently doing my MA in Creative Writing, so that, along with being a father to a toddler, is definitely keeping me busy. I have Zygote Poems coming out in June via Cultured Llama, so I hope to be promoting that as much as I can. I’m also working on various other writing projects: a short film, a children’s story and another poetry collection. Sometimes I wish I could just focus on one thing at a time, because I am sure life would be a lot easier that way, but my head refuses to work in that fashion it seems.

What advice would you give to anyone who’s always wanted to write poetry?

Read every type of poetry you can get your hands on and get started. The bigger the palette, the bigger the picture. Forget about trying to make it good, or what you think your neighbour, or the local baker, might like to read, and just write. Quality will come the more you write, and it’s important to be honest in your writing. The best and most genuine stuff will come when you are just trying to please yourself.
  

 The Strangest Thankyou is available for £8.00 from: http://www.culturedllama.co.uk/books/strangest-thankyou

Zygote Poems will be published by Cultured Llama in June 2015.

http://www.richardchristopherthomas.wordpress.com

Why I really, really rather like Bristol.

I really like Bristol.

No, that’s not a euphemism or Cockney rhyming slang.
Since I started performing poetry all over the place, I’ve had the chance to visit towns which I never would have done for any other reason. I’ve seen Wolverhampton, Swindon and Manchester. Guildford, Berlin and Barnstaple. And all in the name of poetry. 
But there’s one city which seems to have become a talisman, a good luck charm, and that’s Bristol. Good things have happened to be on many occasions in Bristol, poetically speaking. And I have never been there for any other reason than poetry.
When I first started performing around the Torquay and Exeter area, Bristol poets were held in awe by the local hosts and promoters, and we would regularly see people such as Nathan Filer and Byron Vincent, amazing us with their skill and commitment and their sheer brilliance. Consequently, it became a kind of goal to aim for, and Bristol itself stood as a beacon of poetic endeavor to which we should all aspire.
The first time I went to Bristol was for the Bristol Slam. Indeed, this was my first ever slam and there were many names there who would go on to be friends and colleagues in the poetry world. People like Vanessa Kisuule, Tim Vosper and Stephen Duncan. None of them knew me from Adam, and amazingly, I came second in the slam to Stephen. We went for a drink afterwards, the euphoria ensuring that it wouldn’t be able to get to sleep!
The next time I went to Bristol was to Acoustic Night at the Halo. It was a birthday present to myself a little journey away, and some of the Bristol slam people were there and they remembered me. Tim Ledwitch was as brilliant as ever. Amazingly, the host of the night liked me so much that he offered me a co-headline set for a couple of months later on! The euphoria ensured that I wasn’t able to get to sleep that night.
The next time I went to Bristol was to do the headline set at Acoustic, and it went very well indeed. The euphoria ensured that I wasn’t able to get to sleep that night.
By now I was zooming about all over the country and building up a reputation as a comedic poet, so the next time I came to Bristol was to support Vanessa Kisuule at Hammer and Tongue. I made a little holiday of it and stayed in a nice hotel, and I was just about to leave for the gig when I got an email to say that my first book had been accepted for publication! I remember dancing around the hotel room in my very camp manner indeed.
And then the gig itself went very well. The two Tims were there, and Graham Chilcott, and everyone was most complimentary about my set. The euphoria ensured that I wasn’t able to get to sleep that night.
Last night I was back in Bristol again, headlining at Milk. It was a fantastic night, filled with talent and friendship. All of my Bristol poetry friends were there, and my set was greeted marvelously. I didn’t get much sleep last night.
There is a constant criticism of Bristol poetry, that there really isn’t much variety, and that it is youth orientated, slam-style, three rhymes per line and too deeply serious for its own good. Last night at Milk there was plenty of variety and styles of performance, and it was great to see Samantha Boarer, who I really do admire in a deep and special way. She’s just about one of the funniest people I know.
So Bristol remains for me a city devoted to, and standing primarily for, spoken word and performance poetry. Indeed I cannot see it except through this lens. I’m sure I will be back there again very soon, and when I do, I shall take some sleeping tablets.
I also like it because someone has spray painted, in large letters, the word ‘Arse’ on a wall next to Bristol Temple Meads.

A funny thing happened on the way to the poetry recital.

One of the strangest things about being a performance poet is that I am, obviously, not a performance poet all the time. In fact, when you think about it, I’m probably only a performance poet at those moments when I’m on the stage or behind a mic, performing poetry. The rest of the time, I’m just an anonymous bloke.

Because I have an anonymous job and I live in an anonymous town, and the clothes I wear when I’m at work or at home or going round the town are nothing like the clothes I wear when I’m performing poetry. And while it’s true that most of my spare time is taken up with admin, emails, research, watching video clips of other performance poets, and of course, the actual writing and rehearsing of performance poems, I still have the mindset of being just an ordinary person, until the moment,of course, that I arrive at the gig.
Last week I had a gig in Exeter at the Apples and Snakes Spokes Amaze evening. It’s always a wonderful night of energy and poetic brilliance and I like it especially that I can just pop up on the train. So I got into costume and I got out my set list to do some last minute adjustments when, at the next station, a group of drunk lads got on.
They were hammered. Posh, hammered drunk lads in shirts, all called Tarquin and Maurice. And as the train carried on into the early evening I kind of sunk down in my seat a little bit, hoping that their loud joshing to each other would make me somehow anonymous. But I was wearing my poetry costume. The tweed jacket,the glasses, the spiky hair, and worse still, I had my briefcase and my large sparkly hat decorated with fairy lights. I wasn’t exactly inconspicuous.
Eventually one of them asked me where I was going and I had to tell him, hoping that they would leave me alone. But they were most interested indeed. Drunk, loud and interested. What kind of poetry? Comedy poetry? Do you like Michael McIntyre? Do you like The Pub Landlord? Make us laugh, then.
I knew that I could probably have said anything at this point and they would have laughed. They wanted me to get up and put the hat on, and then do some poetry. A part of me wanted to get off as soon as possible, but another part of me realized that this was a golden opportunity not only to perform in front of a brand new audience and bring poetry to a place where it had never been before, but also, I could use it as a practice for my forthcoming set.
So I got up and went through a couple of poems, right there at the front of the carriage. And they loved it. And the conductor loved it. And the other passengers, some of whom were watching, seemed to tolerate it. And when I finished, they all cheered and clapped. They took turns wearing the hat. Tarquin went and sat in the luggage rack and recited one of my poems from the notebook. It was a strange, yet ultimately fulfilling start to the evening.
As luck would have it, a lad got on at the next stop who looked just like Ed Sheeran, and to top it all off, he was a singer too. So they made him perform and I was able to concentrate again on my set for the gig.
Only afterwards did I think how weird the whole experience was. The lads weren’t louts, but they were certainly loud. They weren’t violent or silly, but they’re still not the sort of people I’d hang around with, even though they shall wanted to go for a drink with me.
I have, of course, been in touch with Apples and Snakes to see if they can throw some extra cash my way for bringing poetry to carriage two of the Paignton to Exmouth train. They have yet to respond.
Anyway, here’s a new poem.

LUMINOUS SUPER FUN TOKYO MASSIVE BODY SURPRISE


I’m becoming Tokyo.

I used to be a human being.

But now I’m becoming Tokyo.

My fingers are now motorway bridges. 

My face is the Roppongi district.

My teeth are now neon.

My chin is the metro system.

Instead of living in a house 

I now surround a bay.


I used to have an armpit.

Now I have an airport.

I used to have two armpits.

Now I have two airports.


People didn’t use

To be able to find me

In my cosy little house

But now they look at a map

Of Japan and they say,

There he is!


I went to a bar

And I asked for a beer

And the barman said,

I’m sorry, but you are a whole

City and there’s no room

For you in here

Unless the laws of physics were to be

Somehow contravened.

So I had a cola and sat outside.


You should see my Mount Fuji.

It’s huge.

The doctor has given me a cream

For it.


Arms length out like

Supple bullet train

Shinkansen just far enough

To tickle Kyoto

Ha ha ha rumble rumble

Is that an earthquake?

No, I just told you,

I tickled Kyoto

Super bouncy fun happy.


I look through a magnifying glass

At my own arm

See Ginza shopping district shoppers

Shopping in the shops with their shopping

When I sneeze they

Put up umbrellas

And they carry on shopping

Posing for selfies next

To my wristwatch.


Skyscraper head antennas

Winking like eyes blinking

Spikey-haired towers voluminous

Suspended roadway ninja hung clinging

Motorbike sounds karaoke rhythmic feet

From subway constant noise

No wonder my friends stay away from me

And the Tshirt I bought last week

Just doesn’t fit

Since I started my metropolitan

Metamorphosis

And this poem has got now

Far too many syllables

To be a haiku.

  

I flipping love you, David Cameron

I love you, David Cameron.

I love your pursed lips and your big

Shiny

Forehead.

I love that manic look you get

In your little beady eyes

Which when you combine with your

Pursed lips

Makes me think that this is a man

Who always gets what he wants.

You look like a supermarket area manager

Who’s just seen a really bad display

Of cabbages.

All white shift pristine pristine white shirt.


I love you, David Cameron.

I love the way you speak as if we’re all

A bit slow on the uptake and that

If you speak any quicker

We’d probably lost track because we’re a..

Not too bright.

We’ve voted you in again.

We’re not too bright.


I love you, David Cameron.

You’re so sneaky subtle sneaky sneaky

Twisting circumstance to fit your means

And you look ever so good in jeans

And you look after your friends as well.

I’m sure you’re going to look after them

Very well these next few years.


I flipping love you, David Cameron.

You seem to have such an instinctive understanding

Of all those unnecessary areas where funding should be cut

So that the average Daily Mail reader,

(Who probably doesn’t like you anyway,

Because to them you’re a bit of a lefty),

Can nod wisely over their breakfast and mutter,

There, that’s shown them lesbians.

And those performance arts types.

And those library patrons. There.

There.

Nobody of any worth has ever been born

In an NHS hospital.


I love you, David Cameron.

You master of rhetoric red line red line

Pumped up for a second term

Let’s get to work, let’s get Britain working,

Let’s all draw together as one nation and

Forge into the future

Because it’s all looking so bright, isn’t it,

Brighter even than one of your pristine shirts,

The brighter it looks the more it hurts,

Sneaking smugly sarcastic David Cameron

Bouncing up and down on the bed at Number Ten

Yelling, ‘I’ve done it again, I’ve done it again,

Oh my god, I’ve done it again!’


And when you finally lose your mojo,

We’ll always have BoJo.