Here’s my performance from SST11 with Mouthy Poets at Nottingham Playhouse. Words and performance by me (obviously :P), filmed by Ioney Smallhorne and Ben Harriott, edited by Ioney Smallhorne.
Back in September I interviewed Mouthy Poet alumnus and fellow Derbian Jim Hall after the release of his debut pamphlet, Upon Arrival, Drop Your Cool. Not one to rest on his laurels, Jim has been working furiously on his first full length collection, Boy, since then. After reading and rereading my copy on the buses to and from Glastonbury festival, I gave into my curiosity and grilled Jim about music, self publishing and what it means to be a boy.
So. The difficult second book. How was it?
Thankfully, exactly that. Difficult.
I write to loosen the collar of my silence’s shirt. To project my endless film reels of feeling somewhere less private-screening than the inside of my bones. Somewhere more mouth than heart. This is gruelling work.
All of it is, I swear, worthy.
The poems in this book have been writhing inside me, gasping for language-air, for years. Not unlike the boys who roam through its pages, waving dramatically in the reader’s direction. Begging to be noticed, understood, loved.
It was charged with the urgency to reach out to any boy made to feel that they were too ‘beautiful’ for this world. To explore gender as a conversation more than as a convention. To write you do not require permission to be who you are, over and over again.
Also: a personal journey into the struggle & the joy that fills my own chest, poured out into poem bottles, hurled to the Is-Anyone-Out-There? ocean.
I Googled the statistics on male suicide & cancelled any plans that didn’t involve feeling safe & loved & okay with who I was. I watched Grayson Perry on Channel 4 comfort a mother whose son had taken his own life & took a week to stop crying, on the inside, at least. I wanted to both hug & hit the men hitting on the whole of carriage D on the train to Sheffield. I found my twenty-three-year-old self, knocking a Carlsberg over the Adele shirt of a girl whose name I had swallowed too soon, instead of knocking on my Dad’s music room door to ask if he could hold me until the loneliness no longer did. I stood by the bar as my friends spilled onto dance floor, wanting to tell them everything before another Jimmy Eat World song could do it for me.
The book is an invite to a house party where I shove masculinity into a blender & offer glasses to everyone I love.
I feel like the timeline of being a poet which I learned in academia goes like this: ‘Poet slogs for years, gets a few poems accepted by magazines. Poet is then in a position to be taken seriously, poet slogs a bit more and then puts out a collection. Repeat.’ But loads of the amazing writers I have met over the last couple of years are just not doing that; you yourself only released your first pamphlet last autumn. Do you think writers are becoming more confident in terms of judging their own work or is something else happening here?
I write as another black male is shot dead in Louisiana. While my country sags beneath the weight of a government wearing what next around its crumpled body like a poorly ironed suit. In a world where I do not know if my partner feels safe simply stepping into a taxi after work.
As 2016 swings another fist into the stomach of our lives, some of us crawl into the bravest pair of arms, avoid Sky News for a week. Some of us dive into a song, protest, Facebook wall. Whatever we choose, we have to respond.
I would like to think the writers you speak of write as a necessary reaction to the above. Because the work, like a bandage, is urgently required on this bleeding nation. Because they ‘must’ more than they ‘could’. Another line forged from thought to throat, another voice kicks to the surface of itself. Another poem pressed into palm, another refusal of that voice to drown.
There is no right way to do anything in poetry. I have yet to even submit a poem for a journal/literary magazine. This is not a good thing. It just hasn’t held me back in putting out something I believe in. The world right now demands us to keep challenging who we are, the same way it needs our poet-selves to step up, too.
Likewise. Just as I must now ask myself tougher questions on becoming a better lover, son, friend, I pause before hurling my everything into the mosh-pit of a blank Word document to consider I have my everything with me.
Productivity as a writer, for me, is less about how you shake hands with everyone in the room, more about how you continue to welcome your most honest self into it.
The collection is named after the ‘boy’ who features in/speaks all of the poems. Is there just one boy here, or do the poems shift between different boys?
The voices of so many different boys tumble in and out of these poems.
‘Boy Tries To Rap His Way Inside His Dad’s Arms’ was influenced both by a group of Year 10 boys I worked with in 2014 & a specific scene from the movie Short Term 12. (A devastatingly human piece of art. Please watch with care.)
‘Boy Rewrites The Sex Scene’ is the barely-heard whisper of every boy unable to undress in front of the one they love without trembling.
‘Boy Dreams Of Becoming A Violin On The Night Bus’ is a jumbled, spilling narrative of what I have often noticed/felt as I am carried away from the city on a Saturday to a quieter, arguably safer place.
The closing lines in ‘Boy Walks Home At 4.42AM..’ maybe capture best what I felt when writing this book, as all of the different boys stumbled through its many streets.
That of an attempt to forgive/save/appreciate my own flawed, human self, hoping to make others feel less alone along the way:
‘Reaching as one through the rain to hold the boy’s hand.
Finding only our own.’
Why call the collection and its characters ‘boy’, instead of giving them names? I feel like boy is a kind of semi-autobiographical everyman.
I toyed with naming each of the boys in the collection, giving them their own space in which to crawl into. It felt like too vast a space for one single boy to exist in, however, so I left things more open.
Weak–boy. Gorgeous–boy. Loving–boy. Lonely–boy. Wild-boy. Appreciative-Boy. All of these ‘boys’ hurry in & out of the book, often within the lines of a single poem. I feel like all of those ‘boys’ exist inside me too, so to speak. It just felt more truthful to let each of them enter the fray & see how they interacted on the page.
I do like your way with metaphor, I think you should patent the Jim Hall MetaphorTM. ‘Dad showed up to…gather what I felt from my throat like love notes he would pin to the fridge for Mum…’ or basically the whole of the poem ‘Boy Auditions for the X Factor for Jokes Only For It to Become The Most Viewed Audition of The Series’. Is this something you’re conscious of doing to put your own stamp on a poem or story?
Jetaphor? Jim Metaphall? Jim-Metaphor-Hall? Take your pick & we’ll stamp that somewhere on the uncurling fist of my next collection.
I really struggle with form, with analysing a poem I am writing in a way that picks out the metaphor/technique/etc. I read fiercely & forcefully, in that I ask more questions of what I read in terms of how it works than perhaps I do of my own writing, initially at least.
I spend most of my energy simply getting everything out of my head in the first place, before then trying to make that everything roar/purr/speak clearly.
This involves painstaking excavation as much as joyous generation of lines, ideas & images. Speaking of images: All hail imagery! My dearest friend. My drink of choice. My framed photo in a house of many photos.
I think I work hardest on guiding you around the house of a poem, without trying to force my opinions down your throat as you explore it.
I recently saw an interview where (to paraphrase) Buddy Wakefield said he was more influenced by good music than by other poetry. The poems in ‘boy’ refer heavily to pop music, is Buddy’s statement something you can relate to or is it more a way of pinpointing your poems in a certain setting for you?
Buddy Wakefield & I had a moment last month. I walked into the Poetry & Words tent at Glastonbury the instant he dropped a line about missing obvious social clues. He stared at me forever, before winking in hyper slow-mo. There’s good music for you.
Moving on. I reference music way too often. 99.8% of what I write has been written with something causing a ruckus inside my earphones. Having said that, if music was the first thing I found in which I also found myself, is it not natural to involve it within another thing in which I continue to find myself, over & over again?
I have accepted that no poem ever has, perhaps never will, make me feel how (for a right-now of the many, many examples) 3 minutes & 28 seconds through to 4 minutes & 1 second of ‘Phantoms’ by Burning Down Alaska makes me feel.
Music stills the buried language suddenly fluttering everywhere inside of me until it softens into something I cup in my hands, even if only in private.
Poetry feels more like the unsaid touching the small of my back, than wrapping its arms around my whole body.
I just try to welcome as much music, as much feeling, into my poems as the poems can squeeze in, before figuring out how to make space for my own voice as it shows up, drunk on itself, itching to dance with everything in the room.
Boy is out now from Big White Shed.