Tom Chivers was born in 1983. A writer, editor and promoter, he is Director of live literature organisation Penned in the Margins, Co-Director of London Word Festival and Associate Editor of international journal Tears in the Fence. In 2008 he was the first ever Poet in Residence at The Bishopsgate Institute, London. In September 2009 BBC Radio 4 broadcast his documentary about the poet Barry MacSweeney.
His first collection, How To Build A City, was published by Salt in 2009. A sequence of poems, The Terrors, has appeared as a limited edition chapbook from Nine Arches Press, described by Iain Sinclair as ‘dark London history, dredged and interrogated’.
Tom, what did you enjoy about studying Medieval English Literature at Oxford?
Grappling with medieval literature at university was an extraordinary privilege, but a slog too. I had to learn Old English (Anglo-Saxon) from scratch and even some of the Middle English dialects are pretty demanding. Beowulf, Pearl, Gawain and the Green Knight, Piers Plowman, most of Chaucer and countless other texts have really nourished my love of language, of eccentricity, humour and the exotic. My final year dissertation was entitled ‘Literary Practice in Late Medieval London’ and certainly extended the depth of my knowledge of and interest in London history. My thesis proposed that the socio-political conditions of the city at that time (1350-1500) created a peculiarly heightened sense of textual anxiety. I think we’re going through something similar now, with the internet, blogging, e-books and the rest.
Salt recently published your Crashaw Prize-winning collection, How To Build A City. How did you decide upon the title?
How To Build A City is the title of the longest piece in the book, a prose narrative I sometimes refer to as a kind of failed travelogue to the East End. Initially it appeared as an A3 poster pull-out in the underground literary magazine The Edgeless Shape – if I remember correctly, one of the editors, Caleb Klaces, came up with the title during a conversation at his kitchen table!
The volume is divided into two parts. How did you order the poems?
With difficulty. I knew I wanted the title piece in the middle, the sequence of fragments ‘Thom, C & I’ at the end, and some short poems at the beginning. The rest just fell into place during the editing process. The first part of the book focuses on the city; the second part is more of a miscellany, with poems set in Israel, Nepal and the Peak District.
Tell me about your relationship with London and, in particular, the East End?
I was born and raised in South London but have lived in the East End for the past five years. I identify with the city very strongly. I suppose it’s a kind of pride, but not a static, smug sense of belonging but a flawed, fluid impulse to describe the urban environment. Or rather, to evoke and work-out my subjective relationship with that environment. I don’t believe in a poetry that speaks truths or captures a knowable ‘reality’. I am suspicious of those who do. I admire the Futurists, the way they engaged with the speed and ruthless modernity of urbanism. I don’t care much for their decline into low-level Fascism, however.
When I first moved to the East End I felt as if I had betrayed my roots south of the river. I know that sounds pompous, but hey … It’s a very strange area. It’s a terminus zone for journeys of exile: French Huguenots, Russian Jews, Bengalis, Somalis. I live on a historic street market, reputedly where cockney rhyming slang was invented. That might sound romantic and sometimes it is, but usually it’s just very loud. I don’t get much sleep.
Which local East End haunts would you recommend to a first-time visitor?
The whole area around Spitalfields is fascinating, although I would recommend avoiding the rather mawkish Jack the Ripper tours. The tiny alleys off Middlesex Street are worth hunting down, as well as the grand Georgian houses on Fournier, Princelet and Wilkes Streets. Further south, near the Tower of London, is one of the most beautiful and undiscovered buildings in the city: Wilton’s Music Hall. So much of the East End, particularly around the Docks, was destroyed during the Blitz, so it’s a blessing this crumbling gem is still here.
Can you briefly describe your chapbook, The Terrors?
The Terrors is a sequence of ‘imagined emails’ written to inmates at London’s notorious Newgate Prison between 1700 and 1740. Still with me? Good. The poems steal from various sources including The Newgate Calendar, a popular anthology of prison tales which combines celebrity, voyeurism and moral snobbery with shameless gore. I’ve incorporated some of the tone and language of the original, as well as oblique references to modern places of terror, such as Abu Ghraib and the Big Brother house.
As director of Penned in the Margins, you promote live literature in the city. Is the spoken word scene thriving in London?
Yes, thriving and surviving! The last five or six years has seen a genuine revival in interest in spoken word, and a lot of energy has been generated by independent promoters. The extent to which that revival will extend beyond transitory media attention and occasional culture industry buy-in is yet to be decided. But I am personally excited about what is being written, read and performed. I see my role as an instigator of activity and nurturer of talent. I’m in it for the long haul.
Penned in the Margins has also published anthologies, Generation Txt and City State: The New London Poetry, as well as full collections by David Caddy, Tamsin Kendrick, Ross Sutherland, Stephanie Leal and Sarah Hesketh. Does conflict exist between your work as an editor and your own writing? How compatible are the two?
That’s a probing question indeed. Speaking frankly, there are some ways in which my work as an editor/promoter has actually stymied my own creativity. But now I’ve had my first collection published, I feel more justified in carving out time to write. In general I’m concerned with drawing a distinct line between my professional work and my writing, but that line is often blurrier than I’d like. I’m lucky enough to work with writers who inspire and influence me – Iain Sinclair, Ross Sutherland, James Wilkes, et al. Being a poet also helps me edit other people’s work as I hope to bring sensitivity and attention to language to the process.
Would you name a few of your favourite poetry collections? Why are they important to you?
The Book of Demons by Barry MacSweeney for its passion, dark comedy and jagged edge. Seamus Heaney’s North for the visceral language and for risk. The wildly musical poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins have been an inspiration (as well as Alice Oswald, whose first two books channel that music brilliantly); I connect with the humour of Ashbery and the controlled energy of the New York poets, as well as the relentless innovation of Allen Fisher, Geraldine Monk, and others. Of more recent volumes, D.S. Marriott’s Hoodoo Voodoo takes some beating for its haunting evocation of the Afro-Diaspora experience. I think Chris McCabe is mining some important veins too.
Thank you for your time, Tom.
Read more about Tom and How To Build A City here.
Follow Tom’s blog, this is yogic.
Read more from Tom at the Londonist and Gists and Piths. Tomorrow, he’ll stop by Baroque in Hackney and on Friday he’ll visit Mercy Recommends.