Dreaming With His Eyes Open
By Richard Marshall.
Jeremy Reed: All my days are taken up with writing — fiction and non-fiction. I write seven hours a day, dreaming with my eyes open as Breton put it.
3:AM: How easy is it for you to find an audience at the moment? It can’t be easy.
JR: No, I agree. The imagination always has a very difficult time. I do work on the outside but then, that is the right place to create. I like to burn a torch on the highest stare and it doesn’t matter what state that stare is in. It’s a constant of the sensibility of Rimbaud and Artaud and all those writers — one of total commitment. Life and the work are one rather than being separated into ‘I have a job’ and ‘I also write.’ If you live like me then all your time is spent in creativity and, yes, that reflects on the writers I admire.
3:AM: It’s a very rich oeuvre you’ve created already. You’ve written more than many people have created out of several lifetimes at a very high standard. Has coming from Jersey got anything to do with this fecundity? Is it a source of your rebellion, something that helped you understand the need for that unity of life and work?
JR: It worked two ways. It gave me the time to dream in solitude and a chance to rebel against a small repressed insular community. I went inwards, that’s where I started to create wonders inwardly, and then carried them out with me. I started writing seriously when I was about seven, and still write now as I did then. I use children’s exercise books and felt tips. I never write by computer, always by hand. It was an act of rebellion and an act of discovery. Like JG Ballard and Genet and all those people who came to influence me.
3:AM: What was it about those writers in particular that drew you to them? Was it their image or their images that fascinated you?
JR: It was the images they were actually producing on the page, what Ballard calls the visionary presence. It’s always the state I’ve lived in and that I’ve shared with him. For me writing had to have imagery. That’s the transforming unit for me. I only read writing that has imagery. I can’t relate to poetry or prose without imagery. It is like precious stones. They come alive and are coloured and they take you into the imagined world so they are my currency.
3:AM: There’s a painterly eye in what you write…
JR: I think my writing is so visual, it’s like shooting a film. When I write a poem or novel or anything, I see everything autonomously, visually, inwardly; that’s how I work. I feel much closer to photography than painting because photography encapsulates image, isolates the image. I have a very intensely individual world but it’s shared by other people of course.
3:AM: You use images to transfix time in an anti-career?
JR: That’s right. I base my life round the writing that I do, so my philosophy and my life are gathered together. I guess my sense of affiliation with the outsider, the dispossessed, with the romantic hero, with those who risk everything. I have this time for writing — that is what you correctly call my anti-career I suppose. I feel that every book I have created has been a wonder that has come out of exactly the opposite camp of those who look on writing as a career.
3:AM: Do the wonders ever disappear? Do you ever feel that you’ve lost that power of creativity which is the source of everything for you?
JR: I’ve never had a moment’s blockage in my life. Never. In fact, for me, there’s always been too much. I have fifteen lifetimes’ worth of work I would like to do. I have hundreds of books that I would like to write. Of course, mortality will never allow that. I always think that writer’s blocks are an excuse for laziness. If you plug in, it’s always there. You can’t ever unplug yourself from imagination. So my problem’s always been having too much rather than too little. Of course, I wonder whether I couldn’t have said certain things better and I try not to repeat myself although certain obsessions quite naturally arise.
3:AM: Were you part of the Sixties?
JR: I was brought up in the Sixties. In fact, I’ve just completed a three hundred page poem on Sixties music called Orange Sunshine. What attracted me to the Sixties — looking at them retrospectively — were the musicians who made it great who had total commitment to what they were doing, which today doesn’t exist. Today you just program things, you don’t have to play anything. It was a very different world. When going out there, someone like Mick Jagger who was totally reviled at the time for being androgynous. Yes, that appeals to me, that kind of total risk. The Sixties appeal to me because it was about creating a new kind of politics, a new kind of sexuality, a kind of idealism about a visionary universe, about an imaginative universe that could take place, which perhaps didn’t, but imaginatively it did. You can see it in a lot of the last novels of that period and in the psychedelic music of that period there’s an attempt to get onto a vertical dimension and go somewhere else.
3:AM: Were you getting this in Jersey or is it something that you’ve come to since then?
JR: I was very, very young in school in Jersey then. I was attracted just by watching those bands on television which I thought were so transformative. I liked the flamboyance of the Stones, of Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, all those people.
JR: Not so much, but again I admired the commitment and the fact that it was new whereas today there’s no social context so it doesn’t do anything politically and it doesn’t change the world in any way whereas then it did. You could change the world by writing a song like ‘Purple Haze’ which I couldn’t imagine any band doing today because there’s so much political correctness now it’s very different.
3:AM: Perhaps the place where it still happens in contemporary American black music?
JR: Yes, that’s right. They can radically alter a social ethos, but in this country I don’t think we can.
3:AM: What about punk and its influence?
JR: I like a lot of punk, but I saw it as the end of rock. Punk was one of those great and exciting epochs. Before then, of course, I liked the Velvet Underground, the subversive element of it, the way they could compress a novel into three or four minutes which links to what I was saying about imagery. I’m not talking about political change in terms of Blair. I’m a complete anti-Blair because what I’m looking for is an imaginative universe. But I think that something like the Velvet Underground, if you take a song like ‘Sister Ray’ you write a novel in four or five minutes which is fantastic because you’ve got to be a good lyricist to do that and Lou Reed was.
3:AM: Conversely, I’m always astonished and impressed by the length of some of your work. Heartbreak Hotel is a huge poem sequence. Poets might be able to knock out three or four poems about Elvis, but this is a huge investment in time and space.
JR: Yes, that took me about six months to write. It came to me that I wanted to write a novel about Presley as a sort of Messianic figure or icon, but I then thought that there were too many novels about Elvis, so those poems started to come. I kind of felt that Elvis gave me that book because I hadn’t planned to write it. And then it took over for a couple of months, just a big blaze.
3:AM: Musicians play a big part in your imagination, someone like Marc Almond.
JR: Yes, he’s my favourite singer of all time. I love torch singers and that’s what he is. I always loved his songs since I first heard him twenty years ago. I think I have the biggest Marc Almond collection in the world. I suppose he manifests for me someone actually living out the songs on stage. It’s a total commitment. There’s no sense of Marc Almond being a different person when he goes off. You either like it or you don’t. He’s not an interchangeable person with the audience. My criticism today is that today’s performers and audience are the same people, they’re almost interchangeable, they all look alike, they all wear their baseball hats. No one mistakes Marc Almond with his audience. He comes out of a very special ethos. He comes out of his own myth-making. And I think that’s very important if you are on stage. It’s a presence you don’t get too often today. That’s one of the reasons why I adore Almond. He’s living in a very different world from the guy sitting in the second row. And he’s still doing it, unlike Bowie. Bowie’s become politicised, hasn’t he? He’s become just a businessman. He even has his own bank and has dinner with Tony Blair. That has to be the ultimate end doesn’t it?
3:AM: I suppose the torch song picks up a strong link through your own work. It picks up a sense of transexuality, which for some is a term of abuse.
JR: The appeal is in the way it dissolves gender. Take Almond again, he’s singing songs which only a woman would sing and he’s the only male doing that. No one else will come on and sing a woman’s story, or many of the songs he does, because they would change the gender of the song but he doesn’t. So I suppose torch-singing, like Sinead’s work as well, attempts to dissolve gender so that the real coloured imagination can be seen there independent of sexual orientation. It’s just there as a torch.
3:AM: Are these the images that you are trying to pick up on in your work?
JR: Yes. In my poetry readings I’ve also projected that image as well. I’m someone who dresses up for them, and I present my readings very differently from most British poets, in radically different ways. That aspect appeals to me. It appeals to glamour, I think in those ways. Glamour for me is not a negative term, but it deifies and gives intensification for the period that it is magnified on stage. I suppose that’s where my readings are so different form my contemporaries who come on and I find so boring. Drab and with twenty-minute explanations of how they wrote the poems whereas I just read and that’s it. I give no explanations. Why should you apologise for a poem? If it can’t stand up, don’t read it.
3:AM: This explains why your writing is so exciting…
JR: It’s got an erotic charge of course. Of course it does, because the imagination can’t be separated from the erotic. It’s a part of it. It’s part of the whole psychosexual charge of this sort of work. It’s sourced by what? Yes, the archetypes of imagination and sexuality and whatever else. It demands a certain defiance as well.
3:AM: And bravery.
JR: Bravery, yes. It’s not an easy place to go without taking some criticism, but in the sort of world I inhabit criticism is non-operative. I’m too creative to bother.
3:AM: Say a little about your new books.
JR: Well, I have a couple of new books out. I have one called Duck and Sally Inside, which is a book of poems, and this book about Genet called Born to Lose. Which I took from the title of that old song by Johnny Thunders. The Genet book is a stripped-down biography and it’s structured by aspects: sex, drugs, prison, whatever whatever whatever. I think it’s good. And my new book of poems is very dazzling in every sense. It’s very characteristic Jeremy Reed work — characteristics that I suppose will be with me until the day I die.
3:AM: You’ve done work with Stephen Barber too haven’t you?
JR: Who I admire enormously. We have many writers we like in common as reference points, like Genet and Artaud and all those writers. He’s one of the few people I can talk to in depth about those writers, because he’s as passionate about them as I am. I love his prose which is fantastic. He is an exceptional writer who can’t be classified, an outsider, uncharacterisable. Absolutely brilliant. Ballard, Stephen Barber, Edmund White are the prose stylists that I love the most. They all have that very charged language. When I began as a writer, Ballard was the writer who had a new language that I was looking for, the way he crystallised the modern world into images. It’s something that he has never lost. Ballard is not part of literature at any level, he’s got no concern about it at all. He’s a rogue gene which is what attracted me to him from the start. And work is all he is, what he writes is so integral to him. That’s all he does all day, write all day and live in Shepperton. Just constantly doing it. I can write anywhere, on buses, wherever because you’re just constantly doing it.
3:AM: You’ve been published by James at Creation Books. What are the outlets for someone like yourself?
JR: I’ve always operated with big and small publishers. There’s always somewhere to place your extraordinary vision. Burroughs once said that literature here in Britain is run by a club of ten people. If you went into one bar, they were all there. Which I think is why he wrote nothing whilst he stayed in London for five years. Disillusioned by it all. But I take a different attitude. Because it’s so difficult, all the more reason to do it. There’s nothing to help you.
3:AM: Are there places in the world that you think are Jeremy Reed places?
JR: I don’t know. I suspect Japan would like my stuff, but it’s never been translated so I can’t really say. In France I have some small following. Strangely though I never reflect on readership or what happens to the book once it’s written. It’s just a creative process all the time. I’m always moving on to the next thing.
3:AM: So where are you moving to now?
JR: I’m writing lots of new poems, new novels. I’ve just finished a novel called The Grid which Will Self has just read for me and given me a wonderful quote for. It’s a strange book that deals with Marlowe, but Marlowe who is alive now in terrorist London. Shakespeare’s a rent boy living in Eton Square with an arms dealer. And there’s a scene where Shakespeare and Marlowe have sex on a rooftop whilst a Boeing goes through the Stock Exchange. So it’s highly apocalyptic. It’d make a great film. That’s finished… I’m writing a new novel now called Johnny Remember Me.
3:AM: Do you get time to read as well?
JR: I do. I tend to read scientific books, neurological books, not a lot of poetry because not a lot of poetry interests me. I tend to read a lot of biographies of rock stars.
3:AM: Do you use images you find in these books?
JR: All the images come from me, but obviously when I was writing the Elvis book, for example, I read biographies and it helped me write. The best book I’ve read recently was last year, Andrew Loog Oldham’s 2Stoned. It’s a fantastic book, because he writes it in terms of images. I guess I like the Stones because of their image. They are the archetypal rebels. They are the beginning of the whole proto-punk movement. They spent a lot of their time in the early days shocking the public. I don’t listen to them much of the time now except bootlegs. I’ve never met any of the Rolling Stones. But I thought Loog Oldham’s book was interesting because of the quality of the writing more than what he was saying.
3:AM: Who do you like of new writers?
JR: I don’t know if they’re new. I read Will Self’s books, I read Iain Sinclair’s books, I’m an enormous fan of William Gibson. I particularly liked his last novel Pattern Recognition.
3:AM: You seem to link the visionary with the technological and the glamorous. There’s a pattern emerging.
JR: Yes, yes there is. They go together. I read quite a lot of science fiction. Gibson after Ballard is probably the writer whom I most admire. And Stephen Barber’s books I read, of course, with great delight. Geoff Dyer I read. Richard Hell, people like that. Poets I read: I read John Ashbury, Donne, James Schuyler. Largely American poets; the link is with the imagination and a much crazier ethos.
3:AM: Have you been to America?
JR: No. Largely because I am aviophobic. I’m not good on long flights. I don’t think Ballard went to America until about ten years ago. He told me in a letter that it hadn’t lived up to his imagination, so he hadn’t bothered going back. He’d imagined America so powerfully he didn’t need to visit it. He travels in his head.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, December 1st, 2005.