An Interview with Richard Thomas

I’ve know Richard Thomas for as long as I have been performing. Indeed, he was almost certainly one of the performers at the very first gig I went to as an audience member. He very quickly drew me in to his world of imagery and humour, strange juxtapositions and asides, in a manner which I found most compelling.

We both did the same literature course with the Open University, and it was through this that I discovered we both admired the poetry of Frank O’Hara and the music of British Sea Power. Because of this, I have always followed his career with interest.
His first published book, The Strangest Thankyou, came out almost two years ago now. It contained some wonderful poems including the delightful ‘Flamingo’ as well as more serious pieces, and others written after trips to Rome. I read the book twice over the course of two days, and then my mother borrowed it too. I was jealous that the cover was orange, because Frank O’Hara’s book Lunch Poems also has an orange cover!
One of the things I really admire in Richard is that he is so very different to almost any other performer both in his style of reciting, and in his subject matter. To watch or read Richard is to visit a strange new world, only to realize at the last moment that it’s a world you’ve always known. 

I’ve known you for almost six years now. You were one of the first poet performers I remember seeing. How did you get in to writing poetry?

I had written lyrics here and there for various bands I had been in. The more I wrote, the more I realised I enjoyed playing with language, so I started to keep a notebook and would just write very stream of conciousness type stuff in it. Eventually, and mainly through the Open University course you mentioned, I learnt how to shape those ramblings in to actual poems, and it went from there.

How important is the performance aspect of your poems?

For me, when I write poetry, performance is the last thing on my mind, bar perhaps a couple of poems I have written. I think this is probably because I got in to poetry originally from a page-poet’s perspective, and I wasn’t aware of any performance opportunities in my area at the time. When I moved to Totnes, that changed: I did my first open mic and got hooked on the buzz it gave me. It still very much felt important to me, though, to keep writing primarily for the page, as seeing my poems in print was the dream. So I continue to do that, and then when I am performing, I will pick out the poems that translate on to the stage best. Half of my poems I have never read live. I quite like the idea of doing a live set of poems I would never usually perform, to see what happens, but I am yet to muster up the confidence.

Your book The Strangest Thankyou was one of the reading highlights of my year when it came out. How would you describe the new book?

Thanks, Robert. I remember you telling me your mum enjoyed it, too. Three of my friend’s mums have read it. And I think just one of those three friends has read it themselves (yourself). It’s good to know your audience. Perhaps that is why my new book is a collection – a pamphlet – of poems about babies. A subconscious effort to satisfy my target market. But seriously, it’s a little more than about babies, though it is that. Zygote Poems is about a young man’s journey in to the unfamiliar realms of fatherhood with the effects of anxiety. It uses phonetic language to both convey that effect, and at the same time mimic ‘baby talk’. There are some other fun techniques employed, but I guess I shouldn’t give too much away. Selling poetry books is hard enough. I think, though, this new pamphlet is my most focussed poetry so far.

Can you describe the writing process for it?

I wanted these poems to be as candid as possible, and given the subject, they were all personal. So to start with, it was a case of writing down every significant thing I could think of as I looked back over my journey up to that point. As I originally wrote it for my degree dissertation, I had to write a certain number of pages. So I worked out what kind of balance I wanted in terms of the content – what moods I wanted to give – and I drew up a table, dropping each significant event in to a particular mood box until I had filled the table with an equal amount of each. And then I went about working my way through the table, writing each poem that needed to be written. It got very mathematical, but it was a pretty interesting way to go about writing a collection of poems, and felt right for the to get the result I wanted. The hardest part was to write as candidly as possible. My mind often told me to censor stuff, so it took some redrafting to get all the poems as honest as possible, without them becoming unreadable.

 How would you describe the content of your poems? Are there recurring themes?

The new pamphlet is all specifically themed, but I guess my poems do generally repeat certain themes, often without me realising. This is probably to do with the fact that I usually write whatever is on my mind at the moment of holding the pen. The Strangest Thankyou was a lot of love, lust, loneliness and confusion – even the surreal impersonal poems abour Flamingos, dancing butchers and dogs eating figs conveyed a sense of trying to understand the world and its obscurity. I think that had to do with the mindset of being in my early twenties, and I guess certain subjects tend to occupy the mind more than others at different ages. I like that idea: that my poetry up to this point could be read as being written by someone in their twenties, purely by the themes most covered, and that my thirties, forties, etc, will bring about their own re-occuring themes. I think this also helps me deal with the idea of ageing – being intrigued as to what poems the world might draw from me as time goes on – I look forward to poems more than I do birthdays. That wasn’t meant to sound as melancholic as it did…

Is humor important to you?

Definitely. I think humour is important to any art form to some extent, whether you’re Charlie Chaplin or Marina Abramovic. And even Beethoven was a prankster. There’s that story about him, as a kid, putting a whoopee cushion on Mozart’s piano stool, isn’t there. There’s no whoopee cushions in my poetry, but I like to think there is humour. Not in all my poems, but where it lacks, I try to make up for it with a sense of absurdity. I think humour can help a generally serious poem breathe, and lift it from the page. It helps the poem transcend from writer to reader.

You’re obviously a big fan of the beat poets. You even had a beard at one time. And it was a nice beard, too. How influential is Ginsberg both in your writing, and also modern poetry?

I have had two significant beards in my life so far. I think you saw the first. The second was a much better effort. That is a benefit of ageing. That beard was going places until I chopped it off. I have yet to properly grieve the loss of it. Who handed me that pair of scissors? Ginsberg had a great beard, and was a great poet, and I think I owe a lot to him for both of those things. Kerouac, Corso, di Prima and the others have been a great influence too. I discovered them at about twenty two, and really felt my poetry take a change of pace when I did. I remember the first time I read those lot – it felt like I had never read poetry before. I felt a different level of excitement for poetry, and it was around that time that I started to write ‘proper’ poems and do readings. Ginsberg was a huge influence on poetry, both then and now. I really believe him and his friends were game-changers, and had a significant effect in moulding the shape of poetry to come. Even for those who dislike him or the other beat poets – a negative influence is an influence nonetheless. But I think Ginsberg in particular proved that you could really say and do whatever you want with poetry, and it needn’t conform to certain ideals or standards. Amongst young poets today, I think this has particular resonance, knowing that there aren’t boundaries, and that poetry can say anything you want it to say.

Who are your favorite poets, both dead and alive?

Well, those that I have mentioned are favourites, for sure. I am still yet to read anything that gets me on the same level as Gregory Corso. I also love Sylvia Plath, Shelley, the Surrealist Poets, Leonard Cohen, and as you mentioned, Frank O’Hara. I have recently been getting in to Arthur Rimbaud and Ronald Duncan. The latter of which I found by grabbing a load of free poetry books from a box outside a lecturer’s office, and when I started reading, couldn’t understand why I had never come across him before, as his love poems remind me a lot of my own. Especially when he lived fairly local to us, too – North Devon I think.

What are your plans for the next year or so?

I am currently doing my MA in Creative Writing, so that, along with being a father to a toddler, is definitely keeping me busy. I have Zygote Poems coming out in June via Cultured Llama, so I hope to be promoting that as much as I can. I’m also working on various other writing projects: a short film, a children’s story and another poetry collection. Sometimes I wish I could just focus on one thing at a time, because I am sure life would be a lot easier that way, but my head refuses to work in that fashion it seems.

What advice would you give to anyone who’s always wanted to write poetry?

Read every type of poetry you can get your hands on and get started. The bigger the palette, the bigger the picture. Forget about trying to make it good, or what you think your neighbour, or the local baker, might like to read, and just write. Quality will come the more you write, and it’s important to be honest in your writing. The best and most genuine stuff will come when you are just trying to please yourself.

 The Strangest Thankyou is available for £8.00 from:

Zygote Poems will be published by Cultured Llama in June 2015.

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