Maintenant #6 – Tom Jenks
in ENGLAND these enumerations– Tom Jenks interviewed by SJ Fowler
Urbane, controlled and rigorously constructed, the concrete and visual poetry produced by Tom Jenks has earned him a reputation as of the Britain’s most innovative experimental poets. Never indulgent, never indecently abstract, Jenk’s work is sure and profound. His poetry inhabits a space of expression which exposes the limitations of elements of traditional lyric or free verse, the framing of words to reveal glimpses, traces of lives, events, conversations and where other mediums can make the experience of the intangible daily discourse seem false or conceited, Jenk’s poetry is powerful, insightful and somehow, by it’s careful demolition of poetic barriers, overwhelming accurate. He is a skilled practitioner of his medium and an exciting presence in British poetry. For 3:AM he speaks to SJ Fowler.
3:AM: Did you begin by writing more formally constructed poetry or were you draw into the specifics of your style of expression and concrete / visual poetry from an outside medium?
Tom Jenks: Like lots of people, I started writing as a teenager but it wasn’t until my twenties that I got ‘serious’ about it. My early writing was fairly generic: primarily concerned with personal experience and not at all what you could call experimental or innovative. I eventually ran out of steam with this, feeling that I had more or less written about everything of interest about me and that I was just trying to push the same three or four buttons repeatedly for no real reason. It seemed to me then that I either had to stop writing or find a new way of doing things. I didn’t want to stop writing, so I found a new approach, although it was in no way as conscious or organized as that may sound.
A friend gave me a copy of Children of Albion, a poetry anthology from the 1960s. A lot of stuff in there seems dated now, but in amongst it there is some interesting work. Key for me in this anthology was a poet called Stuart Mills, who died a couple of years ago. He only had two pieces in there – once called ‘In the Low Countries’ and another called ‘Sending Out a Prophet’ but they had an enormous impact on me. They were very short, surreal and abstract in content and minimal in tone. They opened up a new tract of territory for me. I sought out everything I could by him, which wasn’t very much. I got his address and wrote to him and he sent me some fantastic chapbooks. I found some more in the Manchester Metropolitan University library archive. From this, I got interested in imagism and Japanese and Chinese poetry – anything that was doing more with less. This became my aesthetic for a while. Occam’s razor about sums it up: entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitate – “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”. At my most extreme, I was almost completely concerned with mood, colour and texture. My first published poems date from this time and although my approach is almost diametrically opposed to that now, they are still pieces I can stand by. Almost all of them were written in less than an hour using what was essentially a lightly edited stream of consciousness method. I wrote entirely by hand at this time, using a computer simply to type up the finished texts.
I think of this as the first phase of my writing. This phase came to an end when I started my MA in Creative Writing in Manchester. I decided to do a Master’s after lengthy deliberation because I thought it would take my writing to another level, which it eventually did, although not at all in the way that I had anticipated. Whether it was the pressure of workshops or just that the ethos and atmosphere of the course didn’t suit me, I gradually found it more and more difficult to write. The only stuff I produced was imitative and really just to get through the course. When I finished the course, I stopped writing altogether.
Eventually, I started again, but found I couldn’t carry on in the same way as before. The old methods just didn’t work. Around this time, I’d started a literary magazine and it quickly struck me how almost everybody was ploughing the same few acres. I became more and more interested in doing things in a different way. I started to experiment with form and with space, using the page as a canvas rather than simply a frame. I began to incorporate images and found text and moved beyond using the computer as a typewriter, exploring the potential information technology offers for the production of texts. I wouldn’t say that I had done any more than scratch the surface in this regard so far, but it is something I remain committed to.
My work changed radically in terms of content, too. Before my guiding principles had been compression and abstraction, with the poem as a small thing of beauty. Writing had been about sectioning off a small area of the world and cultivating it. Now I didn’t (and don’t) want to section anything off. I became interested in producing poetry that was engaged with and about the whole world and all its manifestations – mass media, signage, dialogue, diverse voices and, very importantly for me, humour. As I moved further and further away from the mainstream I encountered writers new to me that I simply hadn’t known existed. Key to this was my friend and later publisher and co-organiser James Davies. Writers often talk about a switch-on moment and for me that was a reading James gave in early 2007 in Manchester which showed me that poetry didn’t have to be “poetry”. It could exist without quotation marks. James was important in other ways too, particularly in including me in his Matchbox series alongside some people I am very proud to be associated with: Bill Griffiths, Tim Atkins and Matt Welton to name but a few.
3:AM: There appears to be an indelible line of pathos in your work to the experience of inhabiting an Englishness, that is the sparks of accidental cultural insight, the broad emotional positions reflected en masse, the flattening of expression. Is your work bound to that element of Englishness?
TJ: Englishness in a troublesome concept. I am English and have never lived anywhere else but England. But I was born and raised in the north-east, which in some ways isn’t really England at all. Certainly, growing up there in the 1980s when pits, shipyards and factories were closing practically every week, you didn’t feel that you were in any way regarded as important as a region. I can’t claim that the great industrial decline touched me much personally (my parents were both teachers) but it was in the air. So I suppose what being English means has always been nebulous for me.
With regard to intention, I would say there is none, at least not on a conscious level. As I alluded to in a previous answer, I am not particularly interested in filtration or shaping: I am interested in the world in its totality. So whatever voice comes through is fine by me. I would say I have not pursued an English voice deliberately but equally I have not made any effort not to be English.
3:AM: That English, lived in vernacular is hard to encapsulate in art forms, it appears parodic in cinema, twee in formal poetry, media constructed in canvass art. Your reappropriations seem to be highly successful in showing glimpses of life through language for an English experience of life. Do you perceive this?
TJ: Vernacular language is something I am interested in, as I am in all mutations and variants of received English. The notion of English as a fixed, codified language is relatively recent concept historically. In the Middle Ages, for instance, English was varied wildly from place to place. I want to reclaim some of that fluidity.
3:AM: But are you not pursuing a distant agenda akin to satire?
TJ: Again this is not something I deliberately do, but I can see it in my work retrospectively. I suppose any satirical elements in my work arise naturally from my political views, which I would describe as left wing and anti-capitalist without any particular affiliation. I admire and enjoy overtly political work in others (Sean Bonney, for example, or Robert Sheppard) but I can’t imagine ever producing work like that myself. I have two small children and I am very aware of the potentially debilitating effect of mass culture. But I am not immune to mass culture myself. I certainly don’t have that thorough going disdain for and hostility towards it that someone like Debord has. I suppose I am operating from within it. I don’t fear it and I don’t feel it has me in a death grip. I don’t see myself as glorifying it in a Pop Art way, but nor do I see myself as its scourge.
3:AM: I’m interested in your work in the North-west, the history of Parameter magazine, which gained quite a reputation for breaking new poets before it ceased publication, and of course, the projects you have ongoing.
TJ: Parameter was my magazine, which I set up in 2005 and published twice yearly until the end of 2009. It’s difficult now to know exactly what my motivations were. A large part of it was certainly to provide a platform for new work, but it was also, I think, a way of remaining involved with writing in a time when I myself was going through a bit of a fallow period. The first few issues weren’t produced with anything else in mind that just doing something and getting it out. Looking back now, they seem unfocused. But then again my own views were pretty unfocused at that time so perhaps the magazine was just reflecting that. Towards the end, I was perpetually trying to wrench the wheel around and set a new course but I always felt that was a doomed enterprise. There was too much history and the content wasn’t pure enough. Having said that, there was some fantastic work in there: Robert Sheppard, Ron Padgett and Lucy Harvest Clarke. I published prose for the first seven issues, too, and there were some strong stories in there, including a couple of authors who have since gone on to much bigger things: Chris Killen and Maria Roberts. The long term benefit of the magazine to me has been on a philosophical level in that it helped me realise what I was for and against – a sort of purifying fire. Plus, I learnt a lot about publishing doing it and more importantly had a lot of fun, particularly when a group of us used to select work together: me, Sarah, my wife, James Davies, Alex Middleton and Rob O’Driscoll. Special mention must also go to Michael Murray, who single-handedly cultivated a huge body of reviews and essays, the vast majority of which he wrote himself. They stand up there amongst the magazine’s finest work.
My new project, zimZalla is in many ways the application of what I learnt doing Parameter and the expression of the thinking I was referring to. This time, I have begun with a very clear idea about the type of work I want to publish. I suppose ‘experimental’ is as good a word as any. What I have left open, though, is the formats this work will be presented in. I have no fixed plans for this. The first ‘object’ was a free PDF by Tina Darragh. The second is a print publication with work by three poets. The third will be a CD of sound poetry by Matt Dalby, who, if you haven’t seen and/or heard him, is one of the most innovative and, to use a slightly 1960s phrase, mind blowing performers around. I really like the idea of being undefined and agile – no schedule, no fixed format – and being able to respond and be open to offers and sheer contingency.
Aside from publishing, the other project I am involved in is The Other Room, a reading series I run with James Davies and Scott Thurston. We are approaching our second anniversary at the time of writing this. Our aim with The Other Room is to bring the best of innovative writing to the north-west of England. I am very proud of the catalogue of readers that we have. On a personal level, being involved with The Other Room has been a magical, energising experience, all the more so for it not being in any way willed on my part. The credit for setting it up must go to Alex Davies and Steve Willey, who ran the Openned reading series in London until circumstances forced it into abeyance recently. I was lucky enough to be asked to get involved at the outset. I view The Other Room as very important, not just for what it is in itself but also for its impact on other people. I could name a few who have quite simply been transformed by its simple existence, like lost droids finally finding the mother ship.
3:AM: What are your thoughts on poetry and its relationship to multiple media, that is whether you think poetry is in dialogue now with art practice outside of more established poetic forms, in any vital way?
TJ: I can’t speak for poetry in general, but for my own work yes, very definitely, other media are important. For me, poetry is of the now, with all that the now entails. I am interested in the possibilities of art, programming, sound – everything. I have long since stopped worrying about whether I am writing ‘poetry’. I am very much informed by art. Keith Tyson, who won the Turner prize a while back, was very important to me for a while in the way that he utilises text. That made me think about approaching the same fusion in a different way, i.e. as a producer of text interested in images rather than the other way around. I want to be feral, not bloodstock. I want it all in there.
3:AM: Do art institutions recognise poetry and it’s capabilities, it’s variance, it’s potential as a medium that differs from just the word on page? Is there a realistic chance of growth of appreciation for hybrid poetic art forms?
TJ: Regarding whether art institutions recognise poetry, it is difficult for me to say as I have no involvement in any such institution. What I would say, though, is that I don’t see it. Caroline Bergvall sparked an interesting debate recently when she talked about artists dabbling in poetry, but not really making any effort to incorporate it into their overall aesthetic. I would go along with that. But then, there might be someone out there doing remarkable things who doesn’t yet register on Google.
3:AM: Do you partake in readings? Do you have a performance methodology as it relates to your work specifically?
TJ: Let me answer this in a Wyndham Lewis way by saying what I hate about poetry readings: bonhomie; anecdotes; detailed explanation of each poem before it is read; advance notice of particular technical tricks; poems about life’s little ironies; faux bohemianism. So these are the things I seek to avoid. My own attitude could be summed up as “never apologise, never explain”. My introductions are minimal, mostly non-existent. I don’t offer any context as I don’t feel it is relevant. I don’t try to establish myself as a likeable person. To return to Wyndham Lewis, a poetry reading for me should be a Blast. Quite often when I read, someone (usually just one person) will come up to me and say that they have never seen anyone do a reading in that way before and it is those people I do it for. I’m quite happy to have a 1/10 engagement/bemusement ratio.
3:AM: Finally, you mentioned Stuart Mills, but I’m interested in those both contemporary and modern who have had a distinct influence on your poetry?
TJ: This list could go on forever, but I will try and keep it brief. I like more people than those I would say have influenced me, if influence means being interested in what someone has done and trying to apply it in some way. I am interested in J.H. Prynne and Geoffrey Hill, for example, but I don’t see them as informing my aesthetic in any way. In terms of my own work, I like people who get in there and mix it up. I love pretty much everything Tim Atkins has done. I love the way he blends all sorts of cultural reference points: Horace one minute, Jordan the next. I love Caroline Bergvall for her willingness to always expand the form. Frank Kuppner is great and important to me in that he is unashamedly funny. I am very much of the opinion that to write, you must read and I am always looking for new people to read. You have never seen it all and it is important not to think that you have. At that point, you might as well slip on a pair of elasticated trousers and go and buy a copy of the Daily Mail.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
SJ Fowler is a postgraduate student of philosophy at the University of London and a poet. He is also an employee of the British Museum.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, March 21st, 2010.