I talked to Pam Thompson about her first collection ‘The Japan Quiz’ (Redbeck Press) and brand new collection ‘Strange Fashion‘ (Pindrop Press).
PART ONE: THE POET
Paul: Where are you from and what was it like growing up?
Pam: I’m from a small town called Bedworth. It’s near Coventry in Warwickshire. It was a mining area then and trucks of coal were shuttled up and down railway-line opposite my house. I was an only child and quite independent; an avid reader and always wanting to be a little bit different, was probably a bit of a pain. I passed my 11 plus and went to a grammar school and was then reckoned to be a ‘snob’ by some of my friends. Nothing could have been further from the truth. I never felt clever enough for school and was glad to leave.
Paul: Where are you based now and how did you end up there?
Pam: I’m based in Leicester in the East Midlands. I went to university here (the first person in my family to go) and stayed.
Paul: I was only in Leicester once, though I believe my father’s mother grew up there. It was on German reunification day (3 October 1990), on an A-level German trip, so I just saw a little of the University of Leicester. I remember my teacher dressed up as the German flag: black skirt, red blouse, orange neck scarf. If I go back, what should I visit?
Pam: Well, Leicester has benefited from all the tourism associated with the discovery of the skeleton of King Richard III in a local car-park. You should visit the King Richard Centre and the Cathedral where he is interred. The New Walk Museum has impressive Expressionist and Picasso pottery collections. Then there’s the Space Centre, and the Belgrave area, the ‘Golden Mile’, for Indian food. Of course you should come to one of our poetry nights: Shindig, at The Western pub, and the night I’m involved in, Word!, which moved to the Richard Attenborough Centre in May. And there’s Bradgate Park. I sound as if I work for the tourist-board!
Paul: When did you start reading poetry? Who did you first read?
Pam: Properly, when I was about 13 or 14. I was into the Liverpool Poets (Adrian Henri, Roger McGough and Brian Patten), Dylan Thomas, Leonard Cohen, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, later T.S. Eliot when I studied him for A-level, then, importantly, Carol Ann Duffy and Simon Armitage.
Paul: What about writing poetry?
Pam: I started writing poetry around the same time. Some of my poems were bad pastiches of other people’s, but don’t all poets do that at some point? I was ‘good at English’ and frequently contributed poems to a school magazine.
Paul: Did certain poets inform your early approach to writing?
Pam: Possibly all of the ones I’ve mentioned above. I ‘over-wrote’ and emoted in a sub-Plathian way. Dylan Thomas and T.S. Eliot, in particular, alerted me to the possibilities of language and form –particularly Eliot: the fragmentation and images. In my twenties, I imitated Carol Ann Duffy. I loved how bold she was with her subject-matter; her adoption of other voices and her way with sounds and images.
Paul: Do you like the workshop environment? Do you need constraints and prompts to help you write?
Pam: I do like the workshop environment, on the whole, but will add the caveat that, more and more, I am less interested in workshops that merely try to ‘fix’ poems. I’m more interested in having discussions about what a poet is trying to do with any individual poem – too much emphasis on tweaking here or there often detracts from the whole. Like you, I enjoy constraints and prompts; something unexpected often arises but I don’t necessarily need them to write. I love experimenting with form. I try to have a rationale for why I’m trying something rather than just playing language games. Having said that, I think language games are fine!
Paul: Have particular tutors been important?
Pam: Oh, Paul, where do I start? I have been so lucky in having some great tutors. I have to mention Peter and Ann Sansom as being very influential for similar reasons to what David Tait said when you interviewed him. They encourage the use of straightforward language and always provide a range of poems as models/prompts; Tamar Yoseloff, particularly with regard to ekphrastic poetry, Anne-Marie Fyfe, Sharon Olds (one workshop but it was terrific), Luke Kennard, Caroline Bird. Online, Catherine Smith, Tom Chivers, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Claire Trévien, Suzannah Evans, Nuar Alsadir, Kim Moore, David Clarke. I must have forgotten some. I reckon that Peter Sansom and Tamar Yoseloff have been most influential and supportive—they seem to ‘get’ my work. I have to mention also my PhD supervisors, Simon Perril and Kathleen Bell, both good poets. Simon, as Reader in Contemporary Poetics at DMU, introduced me to a whole range of poetries that I would never have discovered myself e.g. Denise Riley, Maggie O’ Sullivan, Erin Mouré, John James, Wendy Mulford.
Paul: What about residential courses? I think we first met at Lumb Bank seven or eight years ago?
Pam: We did! On a Poetry Business course. I go on them, yes. I started back in 1993 with a Arvon Course at Lumb Bank with Michael Longley and Carol Rumens, followed by one at Totleigh with Simon Armitage and Glyn Maxwell, and in 2001, another at Totleigh with Carol Ann Duffy and Gillian Clarke. Then, there was a Smiths Knoll weekend, and the Poetry Business course where we met, and another with them at Moniack Mohr. I have been to several at poet Christopher North’s place in Spain, Almàserra Vella, and one in France at L’Age Baston with Anne-Marie Fyfe and Cahal Dallat. And, more recently, last year, a fab Arvon course at Lumb Bank with Luke Kennard and Caroline Bird. I think you can say that I enjoy residential courses!
Paul: Which poets do you regularly go back to?
Pam: Roy Fisher (who we’ll mention later); Barbara Guest, James Schuyler, Frank O’ Hara, John Ashbery, WS Graham, George Mackay-Brown, Peter Sansom, Ann Sansom, Cliff Yates, Louis MacNeice, Tomas Tranströmer, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Bishop. These come to mind immediately. There are many more.
Paul: Have you ever written prose?
Pam: Yes, short stories that have never seen the light have day. I admire fiction writers enormously but I don’t have the confidence to pursue this genre. I write reviews and features; and critical prose. I am writing more prose poems and would like to have a go at flash-fiction.
Paul: What is it about the poem that most enthralls and intrigues you?
Pam: What you can do with language in a compressed space; the mental juggling with language and form that all poems need; the way that poems can be like ‘magic boxes’ and yield different things to different readers; the way that ‘meaning’ doesn’t have to be transparent, and to reveal itself in a linear fashion, that if it does do this, the best poems will still have something interesting going on technically.
Paul: You published a first pamphlet Spin (Waldean Press, 1999) almost twenty years ago, followed up by your sequence Parting the Ghost of Salt (Redbeck Press, 2000). Could you tell me a little about the poems that went into these early publications?
Pam: Waldean Press, then run by Phil Kirby, produced some lovely looking pamphlets by East Midlands poets. The poems in Spin included some of those I had begun to send to magazines and competitions. Parting the Ghosts of Salt was produced as a pamphlet after being one of the winners of a competition run by Redbeck Press and judged by Ian McMillan. It comprises the Japanese ‘letter’ poems, which later reappear in The Japan Quiz.
Paul: And then you won the Poetry Book and Pamphlet competition in 2005, and subsequently published Show Date and Time (Smith/Doorstop) in 2006 (a few poems at Write Out Loud). What was that like? What impact did this have?
Pam: It was wonderful, especially so as Simon Armitage was the judge that year. I’m sure you can appreciate the thrill having won the competition yourself. Peter Sansom’s sharp editing made it a much better pamphlet. It gave me more confidence and credibility, I think, and who doesn’t want to be published by smith|doorstop!
Paul: And then you had a fourth pamphlet (Hologram, Sunk Island Publishing, 2009). What were the poems about?
Pam: Michael Blackburn, poet and editor of Sunk Island Publishing, noticed (and liked) some of the poems on my blog, Heckle. When I started blogging it was as the result of a NaPoWriMo initiative, and, for my attempts, I would always post a poem and an image. Michael, generously, offered to publish a selection of these. It was the same year I began my PhD and was becoming fascinated with the subject of holography, with ways of seeing. I ‘customised’ special editions of the pamphlet with a 3D lenticular image of David Bowie which my colleague and adviser at De Montfort University had taken for the cover of Bowie’s album, Hours. My poem of the same name draws on this image.
PART TWO: THE BOOK
Paul: Your first collection, The Japan Quiz (Redbeck Press, 2008) was published a decade ago now (a few poems at Peony Moon). How did the book come about?
Pam: David Tipton of Redbeck Press got in touch with me to say that there had been a demand for Parting the Ghosts of Salt. To this day I don’t know why that was. As the pamphlet was nearly out-of-print (I think it probably had quite a small print-run) he said he would be willing to publishing it as part of a whole collection. It was almost certainly the last, or one of the last, collections that Redbeck published. I agreed to this and put the book together rather hurriedly – too hurriedly, in retrospect.
Paul: Could you tell me a little about your editor and press?
Pam: Redbeck Press was a very established, well-regarded press based in Bradford. David Tipton, the editor, published a lot of books and ran a pamphlet competition. David was very kindly and helpful but only corresponded by letter. He did not use email and his press did not have an online presence. This seems very strange these days. Consequently, The Japan Quiz is hard to find. I am its only distributor and only have a few copies left.
Paul: What was your approach to structuring the collection after a healthy set of pamphlet publications? Was it a challenge to decide what to include and what not?
Pam: As I say, it was put together hurriedly; virtually in a single day. David didn’t change anything. I had to include the whole of Ghosts, and other sections were structured around previous pamphlets or newer groups of poems. It was a challenge to make those decisions but it was necessary to put it together quickly so I didn’t have that much time to deliberate. Having said all that, I think it hung together okay in the end. Carole Bromley wrote a lovely review of it for The North. She had small quibbles about how the collection was divided saying that she felt that there were connections between poems which a different order would have brought out. I agree with that. With more time and other eyes on the collection that might have happened.
Paul: Japanese myth runs through your sequence ‘Parting the Ghosts of Salt’ and also opens the first section of your full collection. Where does your interest in Japan, its history and religion, come from?
Pam: I have a longstanding interest in Japan, its mythologies and culture but the sequence was prompted by an article I read in Marie-Claire about sumo-wrestlers and their women. I was fascinated by their lives, the rituals, the power dynamic sexual activities between those huge men and slight women! I was mostly interested in the relationships between the women themselves, hence the dialogue between the mother and daughter in the poems.
Paul: Your sequence ‘Parting the Ghosts of Salt’ comprises a series of letters. Are these completely imagined or did you draw on found documents?
Pam: They are completely made up! In retrospect, drawing on found documents would have been a great idea. It became more and more apparent that the poems were also ‘ghosted’ autobiography reflecting people in my lives, and my circumstances at the time. My own daughter was very young when the poems were written, as is Kasane’s.
Paul: What is it you like about the letter as a poetic form? What opportunities does it provide? Is there other epistolary literature you admire?
Pam: I think it is a liberating form. If you write letters, it curbs a tendency to be overly poetic which I am conscious of being in my letter poems. It allows the development of characters and different voices and because each letter will probably have a response it is a satisfying structural device. In fact, I might try it again. No specific epistolary literature comes immediately to mind but I am definitely interested in the genre.
Paul: You use quotes from medieval and modern Japanese poetry. Could you talk about one or two favourite quotes, and perhaps poets/poems?
Pam: Many of these quotations are both beautiful and heartbreaking, like this one by Basho, which fronts the concluding poem about the retirement of the sumo wrestler, through his wife’s eyes:
Coming home at last
At the end of the year
I wept to find
My old umbilical cord.
I was also taken with the random witty (and bitchy) social observations from The Pillow Book of Sei Shongan, like in this extract where she is referring to escorts to the palace, and which comes before the poem ‘Paper Houses, Burning Water’:
Some of them were not properly powdered; here and there their skin showed through unpleasantly like the dark patches of earth where the snow has begun to melt.
She herself was a high-standing women at the Heian court of Empress Teishi. A ‘pillow book’ was a private journal or diary, sometimes slipped under a lover’s pillow.
Paul: You have a poem ‘Geisha of the Singing Sea’. What fascinates you about the geisha?
Pam: The combination of strength and submissiveness; the ritual involved in a geisha’s work; a geisha’s canniness in often getting a good life for herself. The geisha’s beauty and artistic talent; the psychology behind the role.
Paul: Tamiko and Kasane exchange letters. Both are married to sumo wrestlers. How did you get into their heads?
Pam: I have mentioned above that the mother/daughter relationship was/is a strong one for me and that dynamic was very strong when I was writing these poems. The sumos represent an oppositional male energy that the women have to manoeuvre around. There is a lot of tenderness in the poems but the male foibles and pretensions are also shown up for what they are. I found it a pleasure to inhabit these characters and to imagine the different ways that they could relate instances of their lives to each other. There are evident displays of love and protection between mothers and daughters, and the imparting of wisdoms.
Paul: Which would you rather be: a geisha or a sumo wrestler?
Pam: Neither! I would like to be a rebellious Sei Shonagan type that goes around observing and writing down what she sees and hears.
Paul: There has recently been some heated exchange among poets on the use of haiku by non-Japanese poets. Do you have any opinion on this matter?
Pam: I think any poetic form is up for grabs by anyone. How do we move on, develop, if not? I like to think of it has homage rather than cultural misappropriation. I recently found a review of Parting the Ghosts of Salt that I had forgotten about, written by John Duffy for The North. Duffy begins the review: “We have seen many poets come to grief in the limpid waters of Japanese verse, so my heart sand when I began to read Parting the Ghosts of Salt with three haiku on the first page, under the collective title of “What the I-Ching Told Them’, but I read through to page 24 without stopping and with a sense of thrill and apprehension …’ He concludes by saying that “The collection is an act of love and one to return to.” That sums it up. It was very heartening to read and remember this review when the poems now seem so much in the past.
Paul: It is suggested on the back cover of your book that you explore relationships and places, and re-create them through memory and voice. To what extent is writing poems an act of creation/re-creation/recreation?
Pam: It is one hundred per cent all of those things. By creating, poets re-create worlds and experiences. The reader experiences them and re-creates them again. It is enjoyable writing poetry but it is work. It is not just the personal expression of emotion although this may come into it. I hate it when people refer to my poetry writing as a hobby just because it isn’t a main source of income. I still feel precious when I say I am a poet but I don’t know why.
Paul: Sue Butler (Sphinx) said that, beyond Japan, your world is ‘often sad, slightly surreal modern Britain’. What do you think of this quote?
Pam: I thought she was spot-on there. My poems reflect a ‘skewed’ reality that might, at times, be called surreal. I rarely aim for total literalism. That doesn’t interest me. I like ‘meaning’, such that it ever is, to be suggestive and multi-faceted. I am aware that we are all very vulnerable when moving through the world, and that world can be scary and unsafe.
Paul: Britain’s social and political landscape seems particularly scary and surreal at present. Has it been inspiring your writing? What have you noticed?
Pam: It has indeed. Maybe because I am ageing, I am increasingly aware of what we are losing, what is passing from the world, and that includes people. It is a time of massive consumption, obscene social divisions and of ‘the spectacle’. My poems are taking on a more elegiac/dystopic edge, perhaps; more consciousness of climate-change and the fragility of humans. Mental illness permeates some of the poems in the new collection – sadly, I am drawing on my son’s experiences of it here.
Paul: You have poems such as ‘Valentine’ and ‘The Boatman’s Love Song’. Do you consider yourself a romantic?
Pam: Yes I do, Paul, although not the rose-tinted glasses sort! Those two poems were quite significant: ‘Valentine’ was taken by Kate Kellaway from The Observer when they still published poems, and poems from relative unknowns at that. She rushed it out in time for Valentine’s Day. Carol Ann Duffy kindly bought my collection when I met her at a reading In Loughborough. She later published ‘The Boatman’s Love Song’ in her poetry column (long since gone) for the Daily Mirror.
Paul: Wendy Cope in Mslexia said of your work, the ‘tone of voice and the rhythm are just right’. That’s quite a compliment from Britain’s perhaps best-selling poet. Do you have a favourite Cope poem?
Pam: She was saying that about a poem she had selected for the magazine. I don’t have a particular favourite Cope poem although I enjoyed her collection Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis when I taught it many years ago.
Paul: The section of your book that brings in poems from Show Date and Time begins with a quote from Roy Fisher. Could you tell us why you chose this quote back then?
Pam: It was just so right and, in typical Fisher fashion, so aptly put. I was very much enjoying his poetry at the time. Don’t we all ‘play for time / all of it’? I like to pinpoint dates, times, seasons in my poems wherever I can. It is a way of trying to pin down time. I think all poetry attempts to do that.
Paul: Roy Fisher died earlier last year. Could you tell me what influence he has been on your writing? Did you meet him?
Pam: A massive influence, Paul. I began to read him as a result of the Poetry Business Writing School (the first one). I then went to his reading and chatted to him at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival in 2005, and soon after asked for permission to use his poem for my book. I think I had done actually, so it was in shameful retrospect I actually asked. Anyway, he was only too pleased. I sent him the pamphlet and he said how much he found my work conducive to his own preferences. We began a sporadic email correspondence and were friends. I met him on two more occasions. He was from the West Midlands, like me. I loved his poem ‘City’; knew Birmingham, his city, pretty well, and I also loved his experimentation and the humour that was so evident throughout his work.
Paul: Bloodaxe’s The Long and the Short of It: Poems 1955-2010 was published in 2012. There was also Slakki: New and Neglected Poems in 2016. Do you have particular favourites among his poems and collections? For a reader not familiar with his work, where would you recommend beginning?
Pam: The Long and the Short of it is a good starting-point. I’ve mentioned ‘City’. ‘For Realism’ comprises a kind of poetics where Fisher attempts to capture ‘reality’ in an objective way whereby the ‘self’ is kept out of the way. I have poems based on Fisher’s ‘Interiors with Various Figures’. Fisher told me that he wanted these poems to be like installations you could walk around. I totally get that. The hilarious ‘Paraphrases’ which begins, ‘ Dear Mr Fisher, I am writing a thesis on your work …’. I like the volume Standard Midland very much. Many of these poems are concerned with landscapes, particularly that of Derbyshire where he lived for the latter part of his life (note: there are five poems available online at Poetry Foundation).
Paul: You often situate your poems in gritty urban settings: pubs, pavements, petrol stations. What is it about these spaces/places that speaks to you?
Pam: I know them. I am intrinsically a city-dweller. I’m interested in the spaces themselves and the edgelands between city and country. This idea has become popular now; liminality. Roy Fisher delved these spaces. Think of the paintings of George Shaw; of Coventry ‘edgelands’. There is something surreal and sinister about them. They are unpeopled. Those paintings attract me and the spirit of them I inhabit my poems to an extent. I’m particularly interested in how night, and various lighting transforms the city; reflective surfaces, of rain on black roads, for instance. Rooms glimpsed through lit windows and the goings-on inside them. I am a voyeur, yes.
Paul: You use contemporary culture as currency in your poems: rap music, Red Bull, designer perfume and mobile phones, spliffs and fast food. This creates a distinct contrast with the settings and props of the Japanese poems. How aware of this opposition were you when putting the book together?
Pam: I was aware of it. This was a consequence of including poems from different pamphlets. Although, the contemporary world is there in the Japanese poems. That contradiction in Japanese society fascinates me: the high tech coupled with the archaic and ritualistic. Contemporary rituals: taking drugs, drinking, sexual practices, clothes, phone obsession, selfies, obsessive spending, cooking (!). What is the current cooking/baking obsession about??
Paul: I really admire the sequence poem ‘Hoodie Season’ as a portrait of adolescents. You seem to have sympathy with the boys in the hoodies. Can you tell me a little more about the poem?
Pam: It was written in response to the, then, demonization of boys wearing hoodies. My son, a hoodie-wearer, was sixteen at the time, and I wanted to incorporate what I saw as his combined vulnerability and assumed toughness with the media’s hysteria about young men wearing hoodies. That poem drew a lot of attention.
Paul: In the last part of the book ‘Black Petals’ there are clouds, storms, sun and shadows: from ‘Noir Crossing’ (‘there’s a guy in a cab whose face / has been eaten by shadows) to ‘Testing His Shadow’ (‘Some days he wore it inside-out / like a tail or map of sorts’). Who are the protagonists of these poems?
Pam: Around this time I was interrogating ideas that circulated around ‘the holographic’; this involved interactions with film and with ideas of perception and perspective. “Black Petals’, in two parts, is set around Halloween. The first part involves discussing another poet’s poem in a bar. The poem is about ‘flight’, among other things. The second part features a poetry workshop that I ran which took place on Halloween itself. The world does seem to show its underside on that night: ‘black petals’, their appearance, feel and texture, become a symbol of such a transformation. ‘Noir Crossing’ won first prize in a local Crime Poetry competition: the narrator is omniscient and I plunder a heap of Noir tropes. I had been reading about the history of the shadow in art in A Short History of the Shadow by Victor I. Stoichita. The protagonist in ‘Testing His Shadow’ is no one person in particular. I was intrigued by the idea of being able to manipulate your own shadow; also the idea, that the shadow might try to control you.
Paul: How was the book received?
Pam: Well, the reviews it received were great. I know a lot of people liked the book.
‘…It didn’t surprise me to find that a number of the poems had won major prizes. Thompson’s is a strong confident voice and she is able to handle both deeply personal material and subjects which handle empathy and the dramatic monologue with equal skill. I also enjoyed the variety of form, and, in particular, this poet’s flair for using whitespace and her often bold line-endings…’ (Carole Bromley The North)
’Pam Thompson’s collection (The Japan Quiz) is bold and quirky consisting of five main sections that work to form intense, fascinating narratives. Many of the poems are arranged as longer sequences, a technique at which Thompson excels. The reader becomes deeply invested in the unfolding stories and desires of the characters contained within these. I enjoyed the collection immensely … There’s a great range to this work, and a sense of the celebration of language …’ (Abi Curtis)
Paul: What was your approach to writing poetry afterwards, and in recent years?
Pam: I have been even more experimental in my use of form, and in finding different approaches, but I’m sure that a lot of the traits evident in The Japan Quiz have carried over into more recent work.
PART THREE: POETRY LIFE
Paul: You were until recently a full-time lecturer at De Montfort University. Could you tell me a little about your former professional life?
Pam: Yes. I have been a teacher of sorts for a long time: in schools, further education, and latterly, a university. I taught English for years, and on an Access course. I moved on to teaching Education courses at Undergraduate and Masters levels, and led and taught on a Post-Graduate Certificate for new lecturers. This was also at Masters level. I enjoy teaching, and of course there should be accountability, but marketisation has sucked the joy out of universities, in my opinion.
Paul: Did you enjoy training future teachers? What did the process teach you?
Pam: Yes, on the whole, I did. It was double-edged though: the lecturers were my peers and yet they had to be ‘developed’. Some took to this entirely; others resisted, which is what you might expect. Workloads of university staff are horrendous. It taught me to listen, be sensitive to individual contexts, to be flexible in approach and to retain a sense of humour. It taught me that how important creative approaches are across the disciplines.
Paul: Was working in education a help or a hindrance for your writing? Did it inform it or was it a distraction?
Pam: Well, it gave me subject matter: teaching and students appear in several of my poems. When I began a PhD in Creative Writing in 2009, it was somewhat at odds with the research interests of my department but my spiritual home was always in creative writing anyway. So it both informed it, and was a distraction from it. Working full-time is energy-sapping, as you know, but it is sometimes no bad thing to have to write around the edges. I am now working on a freelance basis as a writing tutor and am doing some part-time work for the Workers Education Association (WEA).
Paul: You have also taught creative writing in schools and the community? What did this bring?
Pam: I taught it as part of a Leicester University Certificate in Creative Writing. This brought me nostalgia for the old notion of evening-classes, where people came along after work because they really wanted to learn. I have led other workshops in museums, art-galleries, museum-stores, a records-office, an environmental resource centre and also poetry walks through Leicestershire villages which were fun. I like working with people who have a passion for poetry, in any context.
Paul: You run Word!, the regular spoken word/open mic night in Leicester. How did you get into this? What’s the format?
Pam: I’m one of the organisers of Word!, the longest running, spoken word, open mic night in the Midlands. In 2007, Word! lost its funding from the organisation Apples and Snakes. It needed a fresh start with ideas for new funding streams. Lydia Towsey, who works as Arts in Mental Health Coordinator for Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust, is the Chair of Word! In 2007, Lydia and I were part of a larger committee who began to rebuild it. Lydia is ace at getting funding though it has always been a struggle. We have relied on support and goodwill of artists who have been prepared to perform for a fee less than their usual one. Lydia and I are the only ones who remain on the organising committee from the ‘old’ days, along with Tim Bombdog and Richard Byrt. We are all volunteers. Word has recently taken place at The Y Theatre in Leicester but we are due to relaunch a new singing and dancing version of the night in May, at the Richard Attenborough Centre, part of Leicester University.
Word! is a supportive and inclusive night. It has pronounced mental health agenda, which you might expect considering Lydia’s work. There is a focus on intersections of gender, mental health, ethnicity and sexuality. Members of the committee act as comperes on a rotating basis. People sign up with the compere for the open-mic, and then we usually have two open mic halves with an interval in between with the guest poet at the end of the evening. More recently we have incorporated one or more local acts for short sets at various stages of the evening. There is also the infamous Word! raffle-all takings go towards Word!’s finances.
Paul: Who have you featured and most enjoyed? What do you like about the spoken word scene?
Pam: This is a difficult one, Paul, as there have been so many. It is pretty usual for guest poets to comment afterwards on the warmth and inclusivity of the night. We have been lucky in having Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze as our patron when she lived in Leicester. Jean has performed several times and is always amazing. Another frequent performer is the fabulous John Hegley who also supports what we do. In no particular order of brilliance, the following come to mind: Rosie Garland, Mark Pajak, Kayo Chingonyi, Tiffany Atkinson, Adam Horovitz,Vanessa Kisuule, Cheryl Smyth, Joelle Taylor, Peter Sansom, Ann Sansom, Clare Shaw, Kim Moore, Nick Field, Caroline Bird, Francesca Beard, Maitreyabhandu, Salena Godden, Malika Booker, and local artists such as Andrew Graves, Maria Taylor, Ambrose Musiywa, Will Horspool, Roy Marshall, the Bradgate Writers, Cynthia Rodriguez, Bernice Reynolds. I like the fact that the scene is so diverse and reaches many different audiences.
Paul: Spoken word and performance poetry seems to been gaining more ground and recognition by the traditional page poetry publishers, as we have seen recently with Kate Tempest and Hollie McNish. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Pam: I think it’s a good thing. I know a lot of people say that Kate Tempest’s work doesn’t stand up on the page but I don’t agree.
Paul: I really enjoyed hearing Keith Jarrett, Rachel Long and Raymond Antrobus perform at Poetry in Aldeburgh last year. I think you were also there. What did you think?
Pam: They blew me away, Paul. It was a highlight of the festival. Such energy, takent and passion. Here is an example of performance and page colliding brilliantly.
Paul: I understand you are also part of a poetry collective. Can you tell me more?
Pam: No, not any more. I was part of a collective called Inky Fish for a while. We were very lucky to get Arts Council Funding to support a reading tour of the Midlands. We read in groups of three or four and tried to experiment in our performances such as isolating lines from our individual poems and putting them together in a kind of aural collage. Other members were Mark Goodwin, Robert Hamberger, Katie Daniels, Chris Jones, the late (and woefully underrated) A.E. Baker, Catherine Byron, Helen Johnson and Michael Tolkien. Eventually we all went our separate ways although I am still in contact with most of them.
Paul: You have recently completed a PhD. What was the research focus and where did the journey take you?
Pam: The research focus was on the science of holography and how this might inform the development a collection of new ekphrastic poetry. It took me all over the place. Let’s say it was a very steep learning curve. There are no definitive models for creative PhDs. I had to come up with one which was conceptually appropriate. That took a long time. But it took me into realms of poetry I knew nothing, or very little about: modernist, post-modernist, experimental, open-form, whatever all these terms actually mean, and this all filtered into my own work.
Paul: What will you do with the critical component and poems that emerged from the PhD?
Pam: This is the million dollar question. I passed with minor corrections which involved mostly building up the Introduction with ‘fat’ footnotes. My poetry was commended but they thought the collection could have been shorter. I agree. I think I need to look at how I might split it up. The critical section is a form of ‘poetics’. I need to have a long hard look at it all again when I can bear it. One of the poems, ‘Postcards from Belfast’, appears in the new collection.
Paul: You are about to launch a new collection with Pindrop Press (the same publisher as Elizabeth Sennitt Clough who I recently interviewed). What’s it called and does it have a particular theme or focus?
Pam: It is out now but I have yet to plan the launch or launches. It’s called Strange Fashion after one of the poems in there. It is eclectic in style and theme. This is what Sharon Black wrote about it for the Pindrop site:
‘Pam Thompson’s second collection bursts with strangers and with intimates, with colour and with cool dispassion; these poems travel the world and through history from the Belfast Troubles to slave smuggling in Illinois, from out-of-season Alicante to a croft in the Scottish Highlands, to parachuting from the St. Louis Gateway Arch. They take us into the worlds of artists via the imagined lives of assistant to Louis Daguerre or Georgia O’Keeffe, and sail confidently out into the fantastical: witness Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson hunting for antiques in Church Stretton or the journalist trying to winkle tidbits from Virginia Woolf in an elevator. Sit back and enjoy the ride.’
Paul: Did you receive a lot of guidance from your editor Sharon Black and/or feedback from poets and/or workshop groups?
Pam: I received a lot of excellent editorial input from Sharon and many of the poems had been subject to the scrutiny of other poets in one forum or other.
Paul: You must have had ten years’ of poems to choose from? How did you determine what to include?
Pam: I sent Sharon a wide selection. She chose her preferred poems in the end, and I didn’t disagree. Here’s a poem from the new collection:
Say how young you were,
tell the story, how you walked between
two purple towers, how no one held your hand,
how you climbed into the bumper car,
strapped yourself in, the smell of diesel
and fried onions, say how cold, that there was a queue –
you’d been in it – say how rackety, how empty,
how you whipped around dark corners,
how your bones jumped, how tightly you’d clung
to the rail, and all that screaming was coming from you,
even before the werewolf, the stinging cobwebs,
the mummy rising, before the first gorilla,
the beautiful zombie beckoning behind a window before
plummeting, say how you crashed through rubber doors,
found yourself outside, slowing down with people looking,
how in the end it wasn’t even scary, tell the story.
Don’t mention your wet face, how getting out you nearly fell,
how you never went back. Couldn’t stay away.
Paul: Do you see a big difference between the new book and The Japan Quiz? In what way does it take forward previous subject matter and concerns, and to what extent is it a new departure?
Pam: I think it is very different on the whole. There is more of a sense of autobiography or quasi-autobiography running through the new collection although certain poems may not be ‘true’ in the literal sense. It is more experimental formally. Contemporary urban existence continues its strong hold though, and poems come from a range of different ‘voices’, like before. There is probably even more of a heightened attention to the senses in the new collection.
Paul: How do you see you have evolved as a writer in recent years, in terms of your approach to writing, using form, developing your style/voice/aesthetic?
Pam: I have evolved tremendously in the past ten years. Elsewhere here I’ve commented on my more extensive experimentation with form, sometimes via the use of specific constraints. My aesthetic is a sensory one, mainly visual; the influence of the New York School, particularly James Schuyler and Barbara Guest, is more apparent in my work. I let ‘meaning’ sort itself out. I don’t write to be deliberately obscure but the poem as itself, an experience, is more important than what it actually ‘means’.
Paul: Which are your poetry go-tos – websites, journals, online resources?
Pam: I like Poetry magazine and the Poetry Foundation website, also Penn Sound for its range of recordings of poets. I used one of the ‘cut-up’ engines on Language is a Virus for experimenting with collage poems for my PhD. I always renew my subscriptions to The North as it is always excellent. I am biased because I write for it. I like Magma, Mslexia, The Interpreter’s House, PN Review. Poetry Film Live is a great site with lots of poetry films to watch.
Paul: What are you doing when not reading, writing or listening to poetry?
Pam: I’m an infrequent blogger though so I’m not doing that. I’m probably thinking about doing it. In fact, I’ve made my blog part of a web-site and am supposed to be developing that. I’d like to say that I’m doing art but no, I’m thinking about doing it. I make the occasional collage. Oh, I have got into making videopoems. I went on an excellent workshop with Claire Trévien which has given me some insight into the software available and some of the techniques. I am sorting stuff. That’s what I’m doing.
Paul: Where does the poem begin?
Pam: Out there.
Paul: Is there a question I should have asked?
Pam: What advice would I give my younger(teen) self about poetry/being a poet? And the answer: Don’t give up writing poetry if you go to university, which I did. Continue. Have confidence. Get your work out there. Apply for an Eric Gregory Award. I see such talent in younger poets today. Social networking has been a big help – although it has its downsides. Thank you Paul for such thoughtful questions.