(FEATURE) Greg Thomas: Ten Things
Poet, musician and critic Greg Thomas shares ten things that nourish his writing, set the vibe and form the lifeblood of his work.
1. Graham Coxon
I remember seeing a picture of him when I was about eleven and suddenly realising there was a form of masculinity that might work for me. Thanks Graham. At the delightful boys’ grammar school in Essex that I went to my nickname in year seven was ‘gay indie,’ or ‘Blur’ because it was said that I was trying to look like everyone from Blur. That, to be fair, was true. A bit later it was Roddy Woomble.
2. American post-hardcore music from the 1990s and early 2000s.
Fugazi, Drive Like Jehu, At The Drive-In, …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, Shellac, Unwound, etcetera. I played guitar in bands with my brother Joe from about the age of 14 and this was the music I wanted to sound like (though I discovered some of it later): angular, jagged, loud without being macho. I wanted to hear men screaming, sure, but without trying to sound like zombies or dinosaurs. I now get similar kicks from late Beefheart (Doc at the Radar Station in particular).
3. Beckett, the Company / Ill Seen Ill Said / Worstward Ho trilogy
I was (literally) a solipsist during my late teens and early twenties, and couldn’t really connect with language as a tool for making sense of reality. This trilogy, which I read as an undergraduate at Sussex, articulates what you would call depersonalisation and derealisation if you were pathologising it, and I love pathologising stuff. It also has a visual and sonic rhythm to it that is beautiful, self-sufficient, provides a kind of oblique affirmation. Later, Paul Celan’s poetry came to mean something similar to me.
4. The Brighton music scene ca. 2006
My friends Ben Knight and Hannah Ellul introduced me to noise and improv music when I was at uni in Brighton (in particular Dylan Nyoukis’s label Chocolate Monk, and his and Karen Constance’s band Blood Stereo). There was a poetry scene amongst the undergrads at Sussex and it was cool but I couldn’t write like that (lots of JH Prynne, lots of words). Being around Ben and Hannah and the bands they gigged and toured with was my route to realising that making ‘art’ (more scare quotes needed here) was something I could actually do myself, not just something that other people did and I wrote about. We ended up playing in a band together called Helhesten.
5. The course I took on The Body in Literature during my masters
I read lots of phenomenology, in particular Maurice Merleau-Ponty, D.W. Winnicott. I guess like lots of introverted young men, I was a kind of dualist in the way I was engaging with the world, imaging my mind as floating free of my body. Very lonely, gnashing of teeth, etcetera. The realisation that you engage with the world with the whole of you, that your body thinks and your brain touches things, your eyes palpate and your hands are like mouths, etcetera. I guess it was like an over-intellectualised form of mindfulness. Winnicott’s ideas of cathexis and transitional objects still hugely important to me.
6. Sound poetry
Around the same time I discovered there was a kind of poetry, made by folks such as Bob Cobbing, that overlapped with a live music/improv context. It also didn’t use words. Wonderful! It didn’t seem like a hugely versatile medium but the basic tenets of it made me think I could do poetry without having to write stuff down. Poetry as material stuff rather than conceptual stuff. Later, Peter Manson’s ‘Sourdough Mutation’ showed me the route back from sound poetry to language in ways that continue to astound me. Maggie O’ Sullivan’s work occupies a similar space…
7. Aram Saroyan, Complete Minimal Poems, Ian Hamilton Finlay, 60s poem-booklets and object poems.
I did a PhD on concrete poetry in Edinburgh and gradually discovered that I was a minimalist. I’m bundling these poets together because they’re probably equally significant. In particular, what I learned from Finlay is that it’s not inherently problematic to make poems that are small, simple, and express a kind of emotional warmth (I find ‘edginess’ quite a facile quality in poetry). The reader or viewer can feel they understand your work, feel a gentleness and love from it, without that signifying some sort of complicity with a damaged world. I’m not saying that’s where I’m at now – often I see minimalism as a way of framing complexity – but it freed me up, got me writing. The feints and tricks I learned from Finlay’s work, but also from Saroyan’s, are still probably the basis of what much of what I’m doing (in particular, the page not as an invitation to forward movement but as a visual frame). I think (hope) I’ve developed some new ideas within that space.
8. Poem-objects by Julie Johnstone, Astra Papachristodoulou, and others
It’s great that there’s such a lively scene of object and material poetry just now. When I first started making work like this, some time around 2009 (putting Letraset on rocks and stuff) it felt really naïve and overly invested in material and tactile presence or something (it was a hangover from being schooled in Derrida I guess). I don’t know whether it’s that the critical scene around innovative poetry shifted – new materialism, object-oriented ontology an that – or that people have realised how unhelpful it is for the planet to imagine that it’s not really there. But now there is all kinds of poetry being made that has a strong physical, sculptural, tactile presence. I particularly love Astra’s and Julie’s work and am honoured to collaborate with both of them. Again, both of these poets are invested in a certain kind of openness (to being understood) that I like.
9. Food People
I play with my friends Matthew Hamblin and Lila Matsumoto in this band. I see it as the counterpoint to the poems I make. The sonic backdrop to the visual-linguistic or something: it’s good to create stuff that is more mobile, spontaneous, free-flowing and unbounded. Because my poems are all defined by the space around them. When I launched my SPAM pamphlet in London at the end of last year I played a drony Food People track as a backdrop. It was just because I was too nervous to present (and also my poems aren’t designed to be read out) but it made me realise how creatively and emotionally connected the two things are for me. People seemed to like it.
10. Global ecological breakdown
I couldn’t work out what I was supposed to make poetry about for a long time. I have never been very good at unswerving political commitment and I tended to fall back on objects and scenes encountered in the natural world, as that allowed me to avoid passing comment. But, apart from the fact that it made for a certain kind of insipidness, writing poems about the earth, the sun, the sea, the sky, as a way of holding your silence on everything else isn’t possible anymore, because there aren’t immutable things in nature anymore. It’s being changed by us in ways that will continue to intrude on our meditation. I think when I realised that, in a strange way, it made me realise that I could write minimal, post-concrete, visual, whatever, poems, that occupied a new frame or field. Something to add.
Greg's book from im and not this was published by SPAM Press in December 2021. You can pick up a copy here.
Text: Greg Thomas