Thank you everyone, it’s that time again. Today we have an interview with the talented and awesome Thomas McColl.
Welcome Tom (pandemonium from the studio audience) Take a seat, Tom. LOVE those platform shoes but you came a bit of a cropper down those stairs!
– Yes, I may not get to the discotheque after all!
(The Host brutally sweeps everything off her desk with her arm. The guest poet turns pale)
Yes, Tom, be afraid, be very afraid. It’s down to brass tacks now..(audience gasp)
So, tell us a bit about yourself
I’m a poet and short story writer who’s so far released two poetry collections – ‘Being With Me Will Help You Learn’ (2016), and ‘Grenade Genie’ (published in April this year) – and I live in Stratford, East London, with my partner, Firoza and cat, Silky.
I’m 49 and although born in Hammersmith, we moved to Birmingham when I was 2. By the age of 20, I became a student and returned to my birthplace to attend The University of North London where I studied History. After graduating with a 2:I, I was a City banker, then bookseller then ended up working at the House of Commons. I started off at the Parliamentary Bookshop, then moving to the Vote Office in the Palace itself.
When did you discover your affinity with poetry?
It was while I was living in Birmingham, my first publication was at the age of 17, in 1988, in the West Midlands Arts magazine, People to People with a poem entitled ‘Upon Leaving the Clean Bathroom Life’, and for that piece, I was paid the princely sum of £10.
Although things went downhill from there, my course was set. I’d always enjoyed writing, and from a very young age, loved the idea of writing a best-selling novel. I discovered my affinity with poetry when I realised I didn’t have the energy/staying power/confidence to actually write one. At least with poetry, I could learn how to write, edit and start getting published and build up a track record. Thirty years later, I’m still attempting to do that!
So am I, my sweet! I know that journey well!
Which contemporary poets do you admire?
There are various poets on the scene who I admire (including your good self, Heather) blush! and none of us (unbelievably) are famous. Sometimes I’ll look at contemporary poets who are, and I’ll wonder why, as when I read their poems, I always think they’re not that good. But what can we do? While the world as ever, ignores true genius in favour of charlatans, poets of our calibre will never be appreciated in the way that we deserve to be (standing ovation from the audience).
Well said, Tom.
Your second collection Grenade Genie has been well-received, deserverdly so, tell us how you conceived its powerful 4 chapters – Cursed, Coerced, Combative and Corrupted.
Thank you, Heather, and yes, it has to be said, it has been well-received – including on your very own Poetry Basket Revewis page (which I was thrilled about and is very much appreciated) – and as you say, the book’s divided into 4 sections/chapters, per the book’s very alliterative subtitle: ’25 Brief Studies of the Cursed, Coerced, Combative and Corrupted’.
And the reason I’ve been able to divide ‘Grenade Genie’ up like that is that there’s a very definite theme running through the whole of the book – this idea that, ultimately, everyone and everything is expendable, but while this knowledge can generate either a sense of hopelessness or the nothing-to-lose strength to rail against it, one strength of poetry is that even if only the former gets expressed, the latter is automatically achieved, and that’s the thing: sometimes you just go for it and do something, make a stand, even if the situation really is hopeless – and the book’s grim-sounding sub-title is very definitely borne out of that.
In the last few years, I’d been starting to write poems which were much more political and trying to make sense of the world we’re in, and I soon discovered that a fair number of these poems could form a collection, one that I envisaged being assembled into sections under one broad theme, though it was only pretty much just before I submitted to Fly on the Wall Press that I actually came up with what turned out to be a very alliterative subtitle, and if nothing else, it’s definitely dramatic!
Well, it worked Tom, it built it up into a very powerful collection. My actual favourite is The Greatest Poem. What’s yours?
I think that probably is the best poem in the book – it’s certainly the most ambitious – and it’s been the best received, both by readers and reviewers. I even ended up getting on to the BBC Radio Kent (on the Leo Ulph show) as a result of sending an audio recording of that poem in. The poem refers to the Nayland Rock Shelter in Margate where, in 1921, T. S. Eliot wrote much of The Wasteland, the greatest poem of the 20th Century. In the poem, I state my intention to visit the shelter in 2021, on the 100th anniversary of that great event, in the hope that I’ll end up writing the greatest poem of the 21st Century. Then I started worrying that the inverse may hapen and I’ll end up writing the worst poem of the 21st Century!
My personal favourite of the collection though, is ‘The Phoney War’ which is ostensibly a simple poem about two young brothers in the 1970s, in their living room, playing at being WWII Tommies fighting the Jerries. It took a long time, and many drafts, for me to get the ending right, but I seem to have managed it, as various reviews of the book have described the poem’s ending as ‘devastating’ and ‘heart-wrenching’, which was very much the effect I wanted to achieve. Especially as it’s based on a true event, so the ending isn’t just a device, it’s something real, something that was really felt by the person concerned.
Gosh, Tom, that ending was so moving. Those memories of the war were still very painful for some in the Seventies.
Now, you’re an experienced performer of poetry, what is the best live gig you have done so far?
My feature slot at Write Out Loud Woking last September was probably the best. I felt relaxed and confident, and everything flowed perfectly -the way I read the poems, what I said between the poems, and the reaction of the lovely friendly audience (which included you, Heather. Thank you so much for making me feel so welcome!). It feels so long ago now, especially with us having lockdown which has made everything feel from another age! I guess we’ll soon bounce back to normality, and it’ll be like lockdown never happened (he says unconvincingly).
I was honoured to be there, Tom. You were so sharp and witty and astute. A stunning night that was. I’m almost loathe to ask this, but what was your worst poetry gig?
Yes, I was bracing myself for that! My worst one was back in 1996, at a poetry night called The Hard Edge Club, which had run for much of the 80s in Soho and, after a lengthy hiatus, was being revived. Two of the organisers, Tim Wells and Joe Cairo, came along to the open-mic event Poetry Unplugged and, picking out the best performers, asked those people perform at their re-launch. I was there, but wasn’t singled out, but I still went along, and as it turned out, none of the people they’d picked had turned up. So there I was, the only poet – abiet someone who’d invited himself – and though I was painfully shy, with little charisma and my poems a little half-formed, Joe and Tim agreed, on account of me being the only person to turn up to the relaunch, to give me my first paid gig the following week for what would now be the relaunch of the relaunch.
Well, that first paid gig went okay, and I went along a few more times as an open-micer as audiences picked up, and Tim gave me a second paid spot. However, I decided this time, to try to be like the performance poets who dominated proceedings and memorise all my poems and think of lots of things to say in between them. On the night I just couldn’t do it – I froze on stage, forgot my lines, and started talking gibberish – I just didn’t have the temperament, or the necessary talent, at the time to cut in on what was fast turning out to be a raucous take-no-prisoners event, where some of the people who’d end up becoming well-known performance poets in years to come were starting to make their names (that year, even John Cooper Clarke appeared there, at the start of what was to be a successful comeback). But sometimes biting off more than you can chew – and in the process, making a prat of yourself – can lead to good things.
Already, by that point, Tim had published me in the latest issue of his new magazine Rising, and though I no longer went to The Hard Edge Club, whenever I sent Tim poems, he always wrote back with cheery friendly letters and published me four times in total, which really helped me to keep going through lean times in terms of the writing, and also means I can now say I was featured in what has become a legendary mag that had published early poems by spoken word legends such as Salena Godden, Nathan Penlington and Francesca Beard – but poems by the great Doctor John Cooper Clarke as well. So that definitely was a silver lining, and it’s always nice to end the worst on a happy note!
(A moment of awed silence, then loud applause) What an amazing story, Tom! That’s incredible! So bitter-sweet! Tom, I could talk to you all day but the discotheque is open now, so lets give this gifted poet a big round of applause! (Standing ovation, loud whistling etc) Now, Tom, I hope you’re coming along to boogie. Middle Of The Road do a jam session there sometimes, and K C and the Sunshine Band might look in!
Tom stands up, limping painfully in his high platform shoes.
Er – I think I’ll give it a miss tonight, Heather. Thanks anyway.
Wasn’t Thomas McColl a great guest?! Grenade Genie is available on http://www.flyonthewallpoetry.co.uk/product-page/grenade-genie-by-thomas-mccoll or that Amazon Cheers for watching, everybody. Stay tuned for the next post!