Thomas McColl - book coverIn my eighteenth interview for In the Booklight, I talk to Thomas McColl about his poetry and short fiction collection Being With Me Will Help You Learn (Listen Softly London Press)…

‘Being With Me Will Help You Learn’ has to be one of the most intriguing and also potentially provocative titles that I’ve seen in a while. The dedication feels like it gives hints as to the title’s origins. But could you say more about how the title came about and who ‘me’ and ‘you’ might be considered to be in terms of these poems?

Thank you, and I’m pleased you mentioned the dedication, for as soon as anyone reads it – To the person who gave me the title of this collection (even though, after you said it, you made me learn the hard way) – it should become clear that the book title, though still potentially provocative, is not to do with over-confidence or arrogance on my part but what someone in the past once said to me, a person who ended up taking advantage of my youth and gullibility, but who, I have to say, I learned from nonetheless.

Not that I’m actually dedicating the book to that person: It’s just a device I’ve used to explain that the title isn’t quite what it seems at first sight (The dedication directly underneath – and, as ever, to F.C. – is the real and true dedication, to my partner, Firoza).

In any event, I like the idea of having a confident, almost in-yer-face kind of title for what I feel is a confident collection (especially as I’m not necessarily a particularly confident person myself), and then, before the first page has even been reached, subvert its meaning.

The thing is, poetry is an art form that’s most confident when it’s dealing with the very opposite of confidence – vulnerability, failure and despair. And in being so powerful, it can give us hope, but can also expose and even manipulate. It’s a very powerful – even incendiary – medium, especially as it works on very much an emotional level.

The collection is energetic and alive with riffing on sounds, words and phrases. Which comes first for you – ideas or sounds? And how do they generally interact with each other when you’re writing?

I think ideas first, but sounds come a very close second. ‘Riffing on sounds, words and phrases’: That’s a great way of putting it – thank you – and I hoped that was how it would come across, and that people, as a result, would enjoy reading all the poems as much as I enjoyed creating them.

I love the sound of words, and discovering new words, and creating new and unusual combinations of words. I love being taken by surprise while writing, and it’s always my aim to write original unique poems which I’m sure could not have possibly been written by anyone else (which explains the quirkiness, I guess).

As to how that comes about, and how the ideas and sounds interact with each other as I’m writing a piece, I’m often not sure – even at the point when I’ve only just finished the final draft. It seems to me that in order to write poetry – or, at least, to get that first rough draft – you have to switch off to switch on. Often it feels like I’m possessed – and engaged in some kind of automatic writing – as the initial idea or phrase or riff comes into my head and there’s that initial spurt as I get the basic poem down on paper. Then, back in the room, I can see I’ve received a mysterious gift – a jumbled-up Rubik’s cube of a poem – and though I’ve no idea how it came to be, now that it’s there in front of me I’m compelled to solve the puzzle.

But I do love that, having a puzzle to solve. Editing, for me, is the best part of the writing process, after the initial child-like rush I get at realising I’ve once again been given something new to play with.

The poems are full of gripping narratives and intriguing characters. Where do you find inspiration? And what is the mix for you of situations and people borrowed from real life and imaginative creation?

Thank you. I get inspiration from all kinds of sources, often inadvertently, but sometimes by deliberately seeking it out. For instance, I might go into Foyles on Charing Cross Road and flick through photography books in the hope of coming across an arresting image which will spark something off. And in terms of my own experience/real life, I think there’s always an element of that in anything I write – though as to what percentage that is, it’s hard to say.

An example of a poem inspired by a real life event is The Silent Call. When I lived in North London as a student back in the early 90s, me and my flatmates kept on getting these silent calls that each time would only last for a few seconds, but we knew it was always the same person calling for, on each occasion, a budgerigar could clearly be heard in the background. In the poem, a woman living alone keeps getting these calls, and very soon begins to feel no better off than the budgerigar inside the rattling cage, with useless flapping wings, trapped and terrified, unable to escape the caller’s gaze.

Then, on the other hand, the poem The Banshees by the Railway Tracks is based on my own experience only in the sense that it’s inspired by all the ghost stories relatives would tell me in Ireland, and though it features supernatural creatures, the poem itself is all about life (and death) on a rough council estate, and is one example of me illuminating ordinary life by dropping something extraordinarily weird and unusual into the mix.

Thomas McColl: photo by Firoza Choudhury

Thomas McColl: photo by Firoza Choudhury

For me, these poems are full of humour, but humour that comes in a variety of guises – surreal touches, cynicism/humour with bite, learned/literary allusions re-contextualised…What is the most natural type of humour to you and how do you match subject matter and humour style when you’re writing?

I guess humour with bite is what I’m aiming for – employing humour in order to help make a serious point. When writing, I want to say something about the society we live in, and say it in an original way. As a result, a quirky kind of humour usually comes into play but I never set out to do that, and the humour is always secondary, in support of the main aim: to write a good poem that says something interesting and pertinent about real life, albeit often in a bizarre, surreal and unconventional way.

The first poet to influence my writing was Stevie Smith, who I got into as a teenager, and who gave the impression of being whimsical and light when her poetry was often, in fact, very deep and moving. Her poetry looks deceptively easy to write – maybe that’s why novice writers are often attracted to her work – but it isn’t, and what I always loved too about Stevie Smith was her eccentricity and how she was her own person – very much a one-off.

Do you have a favourite poem in ‘Being With Me Will Help You Learn’, and, if so, which poem and why?

The Chalk Fairy – a poem about homelessness – mainly because so many people have mentioned it as being a poem they’ve loved and been moved by, and I never expected that. It’s one of the shortest poems in the book, but was originally twice as long until Dom (Dominic Stevenson, the book’s publisher and editor) suggested I cut it down from four verses to two. He loved the poem but felt it was much more effective pared-down – and it was a good call, judging by the reaction it’s got. It’s even beginning to have a life beyond the book, having been chosen for inclusion in the forthcoming Shoestring Press anthology, Poems for Jeremy Corbyn, due out in September.

What question haven’t I asked that would really help me learn about this collection?

I’m very impressed with the way you covered pretty much all the bases, but there was one question you asked Neil Laurenson – Do you write first and foremost for the page, for performance or always for both? – which I thought I’d answer:

I definitely write for the page, but now that the book’s out, I’m performing more than ever before, though I don’t think that’s making me change the way I write, in that I’m still primarily concerned with how the words will look on a page. Having said that, many of the poems in Being With Me Will Help You Learn – like The Full Stop Rebellion, S, Tom’s Presentation, Takeaway Poetry Joint and Cardboard Crime – are quite performance friendly in addition to working well on the page, and that definitely comes in handy when it comes to trying to promote the book.

Thomas McColl - book coverWhere can readers get hold of a copy of ‘Being With Me Will Help You Learn’?

Direct from Listen Softly London Press [also, more information on the collection here), or at one of my readings (I always have copies on me).

Thank you, Tom, for these interesting and insightful answers about ‘Being With Me Will Help You Learn’.

To read more In the Booklight interviews with authors, please click on this link.