The poets of Wychwood– Jeremy Toombs
With a voice that would make an Asda customer announcement captivating, Jeremy Toombs can entrance you with his hypnotic beats. Saturday night in the Seaside tent saw him reading a call to collective-debt piece, which, if spread, could result in a Fight Club style crippling of credit card companies. Be aware Credit Suisse, be aware. Jeremy talks us through his Ginsberg-inspired editing process, an accidental poem that was churned out from the half light of a dream, and how to get free drinks on a Thursday night.
You can catch his open-mic nights on a Thursday in the Bristol Arts Centre’s basement.
When you start a piece designed to be accompanied by music do you start with the music or the writing?
I’ve done it both ways. Sometimes the words come first and sometimes you hear the music and you think this piece would go nice with that. You just gotta be open to whichever ways gonna work. There’s an ambivalent answer to that.
I realise every piece is different, but how long does it take you to construct a piece and what are the first stages?
For the most part…[pauses, thinks, brings out brown leather notebook with pages so thick they look like cotton]. I can kinda show you. This is a poem and I just wrote it. There’s no editing, it’s just done when I write it. I’m into Taoism a lot. I guess I got that originally from the beats, and, Ginsberg said, ah what is it, ‘first thought best thoughts always’ and when I read that it just made sense. That’s how the Zen Poets wrote haikus– It’s how Basho wrote his haikus. There’s Japanese and Chinese schools of painting where it’s done in just a few simple strokes. You don’t actually think about it, you just do it. And that’s how I try and do my writing and if I think about something too much I’ll just quit it. If I get to the point where I’m not writing anymore I’ll just put a couple of lines through it and it’s done. I mean, maybe the idea will come out somewhere later, but as for the poems that I read out, a large percentage of them are just done as they were written.
So I’m guessing you don’t go through many drafts?
No, it’s just the page. That’s how Kerouac did most of his beats, Kerouac and Ginsberg. And those are the guys I really studied first. And you could go back to Wordsworth– they say that he would take hikes around the Lake District and would compose them in his head as he was going around.
Do you ever have to get up in the night to write something down?
Yeah, that’s happened before. And it’s usually like, ah can I remember this in the morning, is it good enough to get me out of bed. And the times you do it you’re really glad you did. I always keep a notebook and pen by the side of my bed. Actually, one night I woke up and just wrote this poem down and it’s about a dream I had, and then I went back to sleep. It’s completely different to anything I do when I’m awake. Did I write that? Where did it come from?
That’s gotta be every poet’s dream [no joke intended]. You’ve performed quite a lot in the U.S and the U.K, do you notice any difference in the audience?
Well, I haven’t actually lived there since I left University in 2001. I went to Alaska for the summer and Korea in the fall, and for the next ten years I kept travelling and going back to Korea. That’s where I really started performing. There was an open-mic there that some poets and singers had started up. It was in a noisy bar and nobody was saying we were doing performance poetry, we were just reading our poems, but you needed to get the attention of the people at the bar.
Do you have any advice for a poet looking to get into performance poetry?
Just keep doing it. I would tell the same thing to anybody that wants to do anything on the stage, whether it’s playing music or doing comedy, you just have to do it as much as possible. Yeah, just do it. And read lots of poetry, listen to lots of poetry.
What would you say the image of poetry is for the average person in the U.K?
I’ve lived in Bristol now for about a year and a half and most of the people I know I’ve met at open-mics. I know Bristol was the place to go to meet the people I wanted to hang out with. Pound for pound it’s gotta be one of the best places for poetry in the world. Most of my friends are performers, so poetry is very favourable in those circles. You get some older poets who write in a more traditional style, and you have younger performance poets who haven’t really studied, they’ve just seen it and they can perform from that. From all sectors of society there’re people writing poetry and are able to go out to perform it. I think it’s looked on pretty favourably.
That’s good to hear. Were you interested in poetry before you started your degree?
Yeah I’d written some stuff before that. I had a whole notebook of what I’d call song lyrics, but I wasn’t a musician so they were just words. I hadn’t really run across writing poetry yet. Although remember when I was ten or eleven the first time I heard a poem and it made an impact on me. It was Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman. My fifth grade reading teacher read that to us and I was entranced by it. When I got to university and I was at the point where I had to declare what I wanted to do, and I realised I could do Creative Writing and Literature as a degree, I just couldn’t believe it. All I have to do was to read books and write. So, I did have an interest before then but when I started studying it really took off.
Do you think the degree gave you what you needed for a career?
It depends on how you define a career. If you mean a career as to how to make a living doing it, the degree didn’t really address that at all. And I wasn’t looking for that. And still not necessarily looking to do that. I mean, it’ll be nice, but I’m not the kind of person who’s a promoter. I just want to write poems and read them whenever I get a chance. I work in schools. I’m a teaching assistant now. When I have a group of kids I’ll bring in poetry, so I just try and make it part of my life, wherever I’m at. Once I’m a teacher then maybe that develops and I’ll come across some way of just doing poetry in schools. If something like that came up I would take it, but I wouldn’t necessarily actively seek it out.
Could you tell me a little bit more about the open-mic that you run?
Yeah, it’s an open mic for anything, not just poetry. It’s un-miced and in the basement of The Arts House in Bristol, and there’s a good group of poets that come. There’s singer/songwriters, comedians. There’s been a lot of friendships that have formed there, not just for me. And there’s been some good collaborations that have come out of that as well. People that just wrote poetry have started singing, and the singers have started writing poetry. It’s been a really good place for people to come together and broaden their artistic horizons, so I’m quite proud of that. There was no plan for that to happen, it just happened. I wanted to provide a space for people to read their poems, and so I could get free drinks. It’s the only night I can afford to drink. I guess when you host a night it takes on some of your character.
One final question. Going back to your degree, how did you find your first poetry workshop?
I really liked it. At the time the stuff I was writing..well none of that stuff gets read now. My professor was really good. She could sense what level people were at and give them the encouragement to keep going. For the first workshop I hadn’t really read much poetry, and the more we read and the more forms we studied, the better we got. For the ones that kept coming back to the workshops, you could see the improvement. The best workshop was the ones where we learned all forms. It gives you lots of tools to work with, wether you choose to use them or not, you have them at your disposal: writing in meter or ballads or sonnets. That would have started in the first workshop and continued all the way through. I’ve always been thankful to my professor, Ann Neelon. She never discouraged anybody, and she did it subtly, in just the right way.