Wednesday 20 May 2020

Interview with Thomas McColl

Thomas McColl lives in London, and currently works at the House of Commons, having previously worked in bookselling. He's had poems published in magazines such as Envoi, Iota, Prole, Atrium, Rising and Ink, Sweat and Tears, and in anthologies by Eyewear, Hearing Eye and Shoestring Press. His first collection of poetry, Being With Me Will Help You Learn, was published in 2016 by Listen Softly London Press, and his second collection, Grenade Genie, is out now with Fly on the Wall Press. His website is

Interviewed by Matt Nunn

MN: How have you arrived at this point? Is this your first collection?  What is your writing history, have you been around for a while, or have you suddenly caught the poetry bug and unleashed yourself upon the public?

TM: I seem to have arrived at this point via a circuitous route, having taken a few wrong turns along the way – but, one way or another, I guess it could be said I’ve been around a while. At any rate, I’m now 49 and living in London, and my first publication was when I was 17 and still living in Birmingham – a poem in the West Midlands Arts magazine, People to People, for which I was paid the princely sum (at the time) of £10 – and things went downhill from there for quite a few years. I kept writing – short stories as well as poems – but couldn’t get any placed in magazines. 

Then I began to concentrate solely on poetry and, by the mid to late 90s, was starting to get poems published in reputable magazines such as Rising, The Big Spoon, The Affectionate Punch and Purple Patch, and in 2000 I published a 20-page pamphlet called The Beast in the Bag with Poetry Monthly Press, which received favourable reviews in magazines like Iota, Fire and The Frogmore Papers

After that, there was another long period of drought – partly caused by me switching to writing novels and short stories and, though the novels never got placed, the short stories, over the past 10 years, have been published in many print and online magazines, such as Liars’ League, Bare Fiction and Smoke: A London Peculiar. I’ve also been more consistent with performing live – getting myself out there, in terms of reading both short stories and poetry, and getting featured at festivals such as Newham Word Festival, Wolverhampton Arts Festival, Winchester Fest and the Faversham Fringe – and I’ve now had two collections of poetry published, one in 2016 by Listen Softly London Press, called Being With Me Will Help You Learn, and now, in 2020, my second, called Grenade Genie, with Fly on the Wall Press. 

Being With Me Will Help You Learn was quite eclectic, a kind of greatest hits of my best poems from the past 20 years, whereas Grenade Genie is definitely a much more deliberate, focussed collection – which, I guess, leads quite nicely on to the next question …

MN: Whilst there is no narrative arc linking the poems together into a narrative whole, there is nonetheless a unifying feel to the collection; all the poems seem to belong together and in their own way collate into a whole. Did you plan the book as one collection from the start, or did you write the poems individually and found you eventually had a collection with a theme?

TM: I did write the poems individually, but I guess I was starting to write more and more poems which were definitely more political and trying to make sense of the world we’re in, and I soon discovered along the way that a fair number of the poems I’d been writing could form the basis of a broadly themed, cohesive collection. 

At any rate, over the past couple of years, there’d been this fairly firmed-up manuscript called Grenade Genie (even if the poems, and the order they were in, kept changing – and, at one point, the name of the collection changed as well). However, it was only pretty much just before I submitted to Fly on the Wall, that I came up with the subtitle, '25 Brief Studies of the Cursed, Coerced, Combative and Corrupted,' and split the manuscript into those corresponding four sections.

MN: There’s also very much a sense in the collection that it is about someone battling against the odds through a darkened city. Is that deliberate? And is it all written in the voice of a single person? If, so, who, or is it you, or at least a version of you? Or is it a collection of disparate voices, all trying to make sense of their times and surroundings?

TM: There is definitely some of me in all the poems, in terms of experience or viewpoint, or both. The one poem that’s completely autobiographical is ‘Nightclubbing in Brum, 1988,’ whereas the other poems contain some of me in them but ultimately represent different voices, in varying situations. 

At the same time, I think it is true that all these disparate voices do represent someone: the voice of, as you say, ‘someone battling against the odds through a darkened city.’ One of the main themes, or main points made in Grenade Genie is that, ultimately, everyone and everything is expendable – but while this knowledge can generate either a sense of hopelessness or the nothing-to-lose strength to rail against it, one strength of poetry is that even if only the former gets expressed, the latter is automatically achieved. 

Basically, what I’m trying to say with this collection is that sometimes you just have to go for it and do something – make a stand – even if the situation really is hopeless. For instance, in the title poem, someone possessing genius but requiring the spark has little choice but to pull the pin on a live grenade in order to release the genie inside that will grant him his wish. The explosion kills him, and all his atoms (which form into lesser versions of himself) then get the credit instead of him. But, at the same time, by pulling the pin, he wipes out the establishment that’s blocking all progress. 

MN: Nightclubbing in Brum, 1988. Why did we bother, when nights were as abysmal as how you describe them in the poem? (I was there too, and they were!)

TM: You're right to say 'Why did we bother?' I mean, there really was 'F--k all else to do,' but even so ... 

However, it remains the case that what makes for a crap night out – or, indeed, what makes for any crap experience at all – can often make for a good poem, and while I think the poem ‘Nightclubbing in Brum, 1988’ will resonate with anyone of a certain age from Birmingham, I think people from anywhere, and of any generation, will recognise the frustrations expressed in the poem of being a teen and finding, at 18, that being an adult, and being able to do adult things, isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

As it happens, the nightclub that’s referenced, ‘Snobs,’ is still going strong, and when the Black Country-based online magazine, Arts Foundry, published my poem, and I tweeted about it, Snobs retweeted it to all their followers, which was cool.

MN: You name T.S. Eliot and 'The Wasteland' specifically in the poem 'The greatest poem of the 20th century,' and his presence certainly stalks the rest of the collection, but who else is in there, who are your other influences?

TM: Thank you, and while I didn’t have specific poets in mind as influences when I wrote this book, my first poetry influences were Stevie Smith and Roger McGough, and I think their influence is always in there, somewhere, in my writing.

At school, we studied the Penguin Education book, Worlds: Seven Modern Poets, and one of the poets was Adrian Mitchell who, out of the seven poets, I took to the most, as his poetry was straightforward, direct and easily understood, but at the same time sophisticated, rich with metaphor, satirical, funny and very profound – and it does feel as if he’s in there too, in my book, as he certainly had an effect on me. 
MN: And if 'The Wasteland' is the greatest poem of the 20th century, which is the second?

TM: ‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsberg.

MN: When they come to tot such things up in December 2099, do you think it will be decided that indeed you did write the worst poem of the 21st century?!

TM: Well, in 2001 there was a poem I had published in a very obscure magazine which I hope will never be found, for if it ever is found, it will certainly be in the running.

MN: Do you still work in a bank?

TM: No. I swapped banking for bookselling in 2001 which, though it meant a cut in my salary of two-thirds, was one of the best things I’ve ever done. 

As mentioned in my poem, ‘Nightclubbing in Brum, 1988’, I worked for Lloyds Bank in Birmingham (from 1988 to 1990). I then moved down to London to study History, got a 2:1, then drifted into banking again, as I’d worked part-time with Midland Bank throughout my studies, processing cheques, and, staying with them, by 2000 had risen up to be a Credit Control Relationship Manager for various German banks. However, my new girlfriend at this time, Firoza (who I’m still with), had become a bookseller at Books etc – and, knowing this was what I wanted to do instead, I joined Books etc as well, eventually becoming assistant manager at their Broadgate Circle branch. 

Anyway, I’d have stayed in bookselling, but once Amazon came along, Books etc’s days were numbered, so I had to go elsewhere and got a job at the Parliamentary Bookshop and, from there, ended up in the Palace of Westminster itself, working at the Vote Office. At the start of the current lockdown, I had to still go into work to assist with the remaining stages of the Coronavirus Bill’s passage through Parliament, but at the time of writing, I’m working from home.

MN: This is a book set very much in a city, or maybe more accurately 'The City.' You reference both London and Birmingham, and yet the feeling you get from reading the book is that actually the city you’re talking about is not either, but a state of mind. Is any city regardless just a state of mind anyway? And as a writer are you only ever merely re-interpreting this state of mind, rather than writing about the actual and physical?

TM: I think you’re right: the city – or at least any major city – is definitely a state of mind, and there’ll be so many similarities between London, Moscow, Tehran, Delhi, Beijing and Lagos, even if they all have very different cultures and systems, and in lots of ways, I do just want to represent that state of mind engendered by these places – that attitude and outlook. 

Having said that, I do enjoy referencing London, and I love London – even in my first week of living in the capital, I knew I’d never return to Birmingham – and because I’ve spent pretty much all my adult life in London, and was born there too, it’s London rather than Birmingham that’s always been referenced in any of my collections, and mainly in this one too – except for the one exception that is ‘Nightclubbing in Brum, 1988,’ which I enjoyed writing, so maybe I should write about Birmingham more, as the UK’s second city in the 1970s/80s provides a rich seam for any poet, if truth be told.

MN: You mention living in both Birmingham and London, the two biggest cities in the country. Are you a writer specifically of the urban and the city? Have you ever lived anywhere else, and if so did it affect your writing? Also, do you think if you ever lived in the countryside, would you be able to write in the same style, or would you write in a different fashion about different topics?

TM: Yes, my writing is very urban – and one reason for that is the fact I’ve only ever lived in London and Birmingham (I was actually born in London, in Hammersmith, but my parents moved up to Birmingham when I was two, and I moved back down when I was twenty) – so I think, by this point in my life, if I lived in the countryside, I’d still be a writer specifically of the urban and the city. Of course, I’m saying that without having actually done it, and everyone is affected and influenced by their surroundings, so I wouldn’t be surprised if living in the countryside did have some effect. Who knows, maybe I’d turn into some rural, rustic writer overnight – the new Ted Hughes.

MN: Where next with your writing?

TM: I intend to promote this book well into next year – and, in view of the current crisis, I think that’ll be absolutely necessary. Before the lockdown happened, I’d had my first ‘tour’ lined up, including a headline slot at Whisky & Words in Birmingham, a book signing at the Book Corner bookshop as part of the Saltburn Folk Festival, and a one-hour performance slot at the Leamington Poetry Festival! Those dates stretched from May through to August, so maybe some will still happen, as planned – but, in any event, I’m in for the long haul, as I always have been, and I believe in this book, and I’m very lucky to have a publisher who believes in it too, and I’m very glad to have had the opportunity to talk about it here on Everybody’s Reviewing. Thank you! 

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