Poet Puzzlers – Thomas McColl

This week’s edition of Poet Puzzlers is brought to you from Lockdown via London where our puzzled poet resides (although we are under strict instruction not to let our evil overlords and the grand high pumpkin know this, so keep it under your tin foil hats). Anyhoo, enough nonsense, let us query a thing or two with Thomas McColl…

  • When do you know if an idea for a poem is going to turn into something worthwhile?

I guess it’s pretty much as soon as I’ve written the first line, for that’ll usually contain the spark – the striking image/metaphor – that the rest of the poem will be built around. Getting that first line down, and being excited about it, is really all the impetus I need to turn that initial idea into something worthwhile – or, at least, something worthwhile to me: As to whether the finished poem will be worthwhile to anyone else is another thing altogether!

  • What did you want to be when you were at school?

I was brought up in a strict Roman Catholic household and went to a Roman Catholic school – and, up till the age of ten, I wanted to be a priest. My mum loved to bring me out in front of relatives and say ‘Tell everyone what you want to be when you grow up, Tommy’, and when I’d proudly say ‘I want to be a priest’, the relations would all, as one, say ‘How wonderful!’ and what a good boy I was.

Then, with the onset of puberty, I started getting into sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – or, at any rate, started watching Top of the Pops – and began to lose interest in being a priest. The headmaster at my primary school, who very much approved of my priestly ambitions, broached the subject once again, in my final year, when he came up to me to briefly chat in the school playground, only for me to tell him I’d changed my mind and now wanted to be in a band and, giving me a perplexed look, he said ‘Oh, that’s disappointing’, then walked off and never spoke to me again. 

As it turned out, though, I didn’t join a band. Inspired by all the lyric sheets I read and endlessly studied on the inner sleeves of vinyl albums I bought, I instead turned to poetry.

  • What was/were the last good book/s you read?

Recently, I’ve been dipping in and out of books which have all been poetry or short story collections (so, of course, you have the freedom, to a large extent, to start where-ever you like with them), and one reason I haven’t been able to read them from cover-to-cover is that I’ve been using all the spare time I have in this last month or two to promote my new collection, Grenade Genie, which came out mid-April. I’ve been trying, in the midst of the Coronavirus crisis, to give the book the best start it can possibly get under the circumstances, and because I’ve been so busy with that, I haven’t even written any new stuff, but I never like to not be reading anything, so here are a few examples of poetry/short story collections which I recently bought, and which contain excellent work: The Other Guernica – Poems Inspired by Spanish Art by Derek Sellen, The Ministry of Guidance and other stories by Golnoosh Nour, and Adding Wax Patterns to Wednesday by Sarah L Dixon.                                                

Also, the four poets who each wrote a blurb for Grenade Genie – Matt Duggan, Barry Fentiman Hall, Merryn Williams and Rodney Wood – all have fairly recent collections out themselves, and are, of course, all authors I very much recommend, and I’m very much honoured to have received such endorsements for my book.

  • Do you have a favourite mode of transport? And could you tell us what it is? (and maybe why?)

I live in London where there’s no point in owning a car, and I can never make sense of the bus routes in such a huge city, so I always, when I can, travel by London Underground. For one thing, I find it easier to write on the tube than on any other mode of transport – as the views through the windows on buses or Overground trains are always too distracting (and it’s amazing how much I’m able to get done on my tube journeys to and from work) – so yes, the Underground gets my vote every time.

At any rate, modes of transport – favourite or otherwise – are well represented in my new collection, Grenade Genie. The first poem in the book, No Longer Quite So Sure, features me, on the top deck of a bus, asleep, my head against the glass, being rudely awoken by tree branches scraping against the window (which, in my dream, become Freddie Krueger’s bladed hands); Then, a poem, called Jackpot, features me on a tube train entering Oxford Circus station, ‘allowing myself to be part of the human jackpot / that’s released each time a train pulls in’; Then, another poem, called Nightclubbing in Brum, 1988, features me, as a teenager, celebrating the fact that, in the late 1980s, ‘I’m able, still, to smoke a fag / while swigging a can of beer / on the top deck of a bus’; Then, finally, a poem, called Statement by the Pedestrian Liberation Organisation, features a pedestrian rights activist who, after railing, in turn, against van drivers, cyclists, bus drivers and cabbies, promises to make every ‘vicious vehicle on the road reverse’ with a cry of ‘two legs good, two wheels bad, four wheels worse!’.

  • What is it that gets you excited when you read new work?

I love it when I’m taken by surprise by an interesting, original metaphor that enables me to see something in a completely new light. A good poem enables the reader to see the world afresh and is one reason why a 40-line poem can sometimes say as much as a 400-page novel.  

  • Why are wasps such insufferable pains in the ass?

Because they really are the most beautiful insects, so they think they can get away with it – just like beautiful humans often think they can get away with being arseholes too – but then they get too cocky and, because they think they can do what they like without consequence (and, as a result, almost always become addicted to drugs – humans: cocaine / wasps: jam), invariably come to a sticky end.

  • What would be your preferred way to dispose of a body?

Well, as everyone knows, the River Thames leads directly on to the River Styx, so I’d place the body on a garlanded boat and have it float down the Thames with a big sign requesting people throw spare change down on to it from all the bridges it passes under (for, as everyone knows too, even the coins that miss the boat will end up being taken by the supernatural currents of the Thames to where Charon, the ferryman, resides – and, handsomely paid, he will then ensure that the body is safely ferried all the way down the River Styx to the Underworld, just beyond Essex).

  • Do you have a favourite building? (and what/where is it and why?)

I work in Parliament, in the Palace of Westminster itself, and I do love the building. When I first started working there, I had to go in at 6.30am on Saturday mornings to organise deliveries to various Clerks of the House, and, one time, as we all got the documents ready for distribution, the older workers there told me all these stories about ghosts seen in Parliament, and of course they were just winding me up as they knew that I was about to have to go down various creaky corridors in the dark, with no-one around, delivering various documents, and when I came to actually do it, instead of walking along my route, as I’d normally do, I this time actually ran, I was that terrified. In any event, no ghosts appeared, but it’s funny how, even if you don’t believe in them, you can still be kind of convinced.

  • Do you have a book, event, project, invention, harpoon, anything you’d like to tell us about?

Thank you, yes. As already mentioned, I have a new collection of poetry out with Fly on the Wall Press, called Grenade Genie. Subtitled 25 Brief Studies of the Cursed, Coerced, Combative and Corrupted, the book’s split into those four sections, and features poems on subjects as diverse as decaying nuclear bunkers under tower blocks, two-headed doctors, confronting gorgons in Topshop, the role of cassette technology in the Iranian Revolution, the refugee crisis, commas that kill, and grenade-encased genius. It’s priced £8.99, plus postage, and is available from the publisher or direct (signed) from me. Cheers!

Thomas McColl lives in London. He’s had poems published in magazines such as Envoi, Iota, Prole, Atrium and Ink, Sweat and Tears, and in anthologies by Eyewear, Hearing Eye and Shoestring Press. His first collection of poetry, Being With Me Will Help You Learn, was published in 2016 by Listen Softly London Press, and his second, Grenade Genie, is out now with Fly on the Wall Press.

You can find Thomas’ new book at the publisher’s website here:
https://www.flyonthewallpoetry.co.uk/product-page/grenade-genie-by-thomas-mccoll
And check out his website at the following link:
https://thomasmccoll.wordpress.com/

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