Forever After, Between the Pages of Poetry Collections
A Series of Interviews with poets on how their collections came together & what followed after.
When my debut poetry pamphlet was published by The Hedgehog Poetry Press in September 2020 there were two things I started to reflect on; the journey it had taken me to get to the point of having a group of poems working together as a collection with a publisher and an audience and then, the second thing, which I hadn’t really considered, what to do next!
Over the course of this series we’ll dive behind the pages of our guest’s collections to see how they came about and what happened after. Funny how all fairy tales end with the kiss at the altar, when we all know the real adventure commences after the walk back down the aisle.
Today’s guest is…Thomas McColl
And so, to forever after, let us begin…
Thank you for joining me today, here’s the first question…
1 Tell us a little bit about your last collection; inspirations, directions, wishes and vows.
My last collection, which came out early last year, is Grenade Genie, published by Fly on the Wall Press. Sub-titled 25 brief studies of the Cursed, Coerced, Combative and Corrupted, the book is filled with poems as dramatic as the four C-word headings they’re grouped under – poems with titles such as Shopping With Perseus, Literal Library, Statement by the Pedestrian Liberation Organisation, The Surgery I go to has a Two-headed Doctor and The Greatest Poem (which possibly is my greatest poem, albeit a poem that’s actually about the worst ever poem, and one written by me to boot).
In any event, the poems are more serious than they necessarily sound, and one of the themes, or main points made, in the book is that, ultimately, everyone and everything is expendable, but while that 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.
At any rate, there was a much more deliberate direction taken when compiling this book than there had been with my previous collection, Being With Me Will Help You Learn. That collection, published by Listen Softly London Press in 2016, was a kind of eclectic greatest hits of all my poetry writing over the years since the 90s, and while my poetry has always been, to some degree, engaged with the world around us, the poems in Grenade Genie are definitely much more focussed on issues, both social and political, and I feel fortunate that I found, and was taken on by, the right publisher, Fly on the Wall Press, which, as well as being very much a socially conscious press in terms of the work it publishes, has done a great job in getting my collection into shape, all the way from the accepted manuscript stage to the book then coming out a few months later, in April 2020.
2 How did it feel when you saw your collection in print for the very first time and, perhaps more importantly, how did it feel when you sold your very first book?
It felt great when I saw the collection in print for the very first time, but it was simply relief I felt when I sold the first book, and relief was what I continued to feel as the book continued to sell – for even though I’m extremely proud of the finished item and the poems within, and I believe the book is very much worth people’s money, I never take anything for granted when it comes to achieving sales, and definitely not when attempting to promote my work during lockdown.
3 How did you promote your current collection and what did you learn about yourself and your collection in the days that followed, afterwards, that you hadn’t known before?
Grenade Genie was released right in the midst of the first lockdown, last April. In the months leading up to publication, I’d set about organising various live events and festivals in London and further afield, and with a fair few slots confirmed – included a 60-minute feature slot at the Leamington Poetry Festival in July – I was ready to go on what was effectively my first ever proper tour to promote the book, with featured readings as far afield as Coventry, Birmingham, Rochester and Saltburn – but then, at the end of March, the first lockdown began, and slowly but surely all the dates I’d organised ended up getting cancelled.
Right from the off, however, I was in a position to get straight into the swing of the ‘new normal’, for on the day after the book was published, Winchester Fest (who’d put me on their bill and had decided to go online) facilitated the launch of my book via Zoom with a 60-minute feature – and, with events only able now to go ahead if they went online, opportunities arose which otherwise wouldn’t have happened. For instance, I ended up being a featured poet in the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival, which was based in Virginia and which I’d normally have had to travel to in order to participate in but now could be a part of from the comfort of my bedroom in London. And new opportunities arose regarding radio as well: Shows which, previously, I’d have had to travel to in order to talk in the studio, I was able to, now, be a part of without leaving London, and in this way I ended up being on Rick Sander’s Brum Radio Poets show on Brum Radio and on Hannah Kate’s On the Bookshelf show on Manchester FM, and I managed too to get poems from the book featured on BBC Radio Kent and BBC Radio West Midlands. So, over this past year, it seems to have been a case of ‘what one hand taketh away the other giveth’.
Anyway, one thing I learned from this experience is to simply keep on going, even when everything seems to be going wrong or going against you, and all your best-laid plans have gone to waste – for, despite all the setbacks which have undoubtedly occurred since lockdown began (with all live work cancelled and avenues for publicity curtailed, and a general apathy taking over everything), I’m still very glad the book came out when it did, as it’d been four years since my previous collection had been released, and I really wanted to keep some momentum going, and no matter what obstacles you find in your way, you have to simply try and keep on course, no matter what (even if all you can see ahead are even more rocks than you’ve already managed to navigate through), and we’ll just have to see if the good ship Momentum – with a poet at the helm who’s more Captain Pugwash than Captain Cook – is actually going to make it through these troubled waters intact.
4 What happened after the honeymoon? Writing is rarely about one connection, one love affair, one marriage. Did you feel pressure to start another collection immediately or had you earned time to settle into your new life as an author and have a well-deserved break?
I don’t think I’m at the stage yet to have earned the time to rest on any laurels, and in any way savour and take stock of all that I’ve achieved, as there’s always the danger, if I stop to think too much, of feeling that my modest yet impressive enough achievements are as much as I’ll ever be able to crack, and I don’t want to get to thinking like that, as I think it’s very easy to – especially when you take time to actually look at the situation you’re faced with and, as a result, then see how starkly the odds are stacked against you. So, while I’m able to remain in the state of mind that thinks – in spite of all the signs suggesting otherwise – that I’ve actually got something more to give and enough to reach some higher heights, I’ll continue trying to keep what impetus there might be going, and even as the last collection was coming out, there was already another poetry collection in development, and other forms of writing too, which leads us very nicely on to the next question.
5 Are you exploring other avenues of creativity aside from poetry? Are there other forms of writing or publishing or art that inspires you, that requires time now for exploration and dedication?
Yes – I’ve always written prose in tandem with poetry, and while it might be my downfall that I’ve never solely concentrated on one form or the other, one good thing is that there’s been much cross-pollination, with poems morphing into both flash fiction pieces and short stories, and vice versa. For instance, the first poem in the Combative section of my book, entitled Shopping With Perseus, started out as a piece of prose, a 721-word story that was first published in the urban feminist literary magazine, Geeked, then, edited down to 500 words, won first prize in the Third Annual Stories of SW1 Writing Competition, then, finally, edited a little bit further, ended up as a poem in the book.
I’ve written both a novel and novella, and while neither of these manuscripts have found publishers yet, extracts from them have been published as standalone stories in magazines such as The Ghastling, Sick Lit and Here Comes Everyone. Other short stories of mine have been published in magazines such as Bare Fiction, Smoke: A London Peculiar and Fictive Dream, and, collected into a manuscript, were longlisted in the Mslexia First Drafts Competition in 2017.
6 If you had to pick one piece of your own writing or photograph or artwork that most represents you, at this very moment, knowing we are forever evolving, updating, changing, turning, what would it be and why and would you like to share it with us?
It’s a poem from my book, Grenade Genie, called The Phoney War, that most represents me now. It’s a poem about childhood, and play, and when reality intrudes on play, and though the poem represents me as a child, it also represents me now, as a middle-aged adult, coming to understand much more the significance of how harmless fun in the past wasn’t always such harmless fun for others.
THE PHONEY WAR
Our imaginations at war –
with umbrellas for rifles,
our enemy invisible –
we defended the sofa,
had it pulled out from the wall.
Inside this narrow tunnel –
with seat cushions overhead –
With each attack,
we watched each other’s backs.
You saw the Germans
in your mind I could not see,
and I saw mine;
We shot them all too easily.
With the air-strikes, though,
we met our match.
Shells – like steel fists – struck,
and the seat cushions,
punched up into the air,
fell about us.
So, we rose and came out fighting –
shot down five fighters
and three bombers
with two umbrellas,
then finished off the conflict
in close hand-to-hand combat.
By the end,
there were a thousand German casualties
and, without even a scratch between them,
two tired Tommies,
smoking pencils, feeling tough.
And now the war was finished,
and with both of us famished,
we ran from the living room
into the kitchen,
calling for Gran to serve us up our tea,
and found her quietly sobbing at the stove.
7 What are you currently working on? Is there a new pamphlet, a collection, a novel? Where do you want to go next?
I do have enough new poems, just about, to form a new collection, though I’ve, so far, decided to split and submit this material to poetry publishers as two separate pamphlets, as yet without success, but there still remain submissions outstanding – so, who knows, there’s still hope.
If nothing, though, gets through, it may mean that I have to order the poems differently or present them as a collection instead, and, of course, what doesn’t find favour one year may well find favour the next, especially with new publishers continuing to emerge which may be more receptive to what I’m trying to achieve and say with my writing.
Anyway, I also have a horror novel, set in London, out on submission, and there’s a novelette, a collection of short stories, and even a rhyming picture book text, that are all doing the rounds at this moment in time – so watch this space, as they say!
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your thoughts, insights and mental workings with us. It’s been a pleasure to dive inside your head from the comfort of our own armchairs.
Before we depart, would you please take a moment to answer the following 9 quickfire questions…
What’s your favourite time of day?
The morning (as long as I’m not having to rush into work, and I’ve got time to do some writing).
What’s your current favourite song?
Slave to the Rhythm – Grace Jones.
What’s your current favourite taste?
My partner’s homemade dahl, with rice.
What’s your current favourite smell?
The smell that emanates from an extra-long match as I watch it burn after lighting the gas stove.
What’s your current favourite colour?
The colour of classic punk – Day-Glo pink.
What’s your current favourite distraction?
Lavishly illustrated books on the Second World War that were published in the 1970s and, in looking at them, take me back to being a child discovering books for the first time.
What’s your current favourite item of clothing?
My comfortable chinos.
What’s your current favourite poem or piece of writing you recently read?
I recently did an interview about the influence of the poet Stevie Smith upon my life and, in preparation, read some of her work again, and one that remains a favourite now, as it was back then when I first got into her in my teens, is a very short but very effective poem, called I Remember.
What’s one of the things you have discovered about yourself through writing?
That I’m patient when it comes to writing – or, at least, I am in the sense that I’m prepared (and able) to play the long-game, and I fully intend to see it through.
Thomas McColl is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ThomasMcColl2 and has been featured on radio, newspaper, multiple journals and is the author of two poetry collections Being With Me Will Help You Learn published by Listen Softly London Press in 2016 and Grenade Genie published by Fly on the Wall Press in 2020, both available to buy on his website…
Thomas was recently a guest on my poetry podcast Eat the Storms and you can here him reading poems from Grenade Genie on the 1st episode of Season 2, below is the Spotify link but the show is also on Apple, Podbean , Google Podcasts, PocketCasts and many more platforms…