An Interview with Tim Wells
-a virtual conversation with Claire Trévien–
Hello Tim, and thanks for ‘joining’ me for a quick chat about your projects, and in particular, your involvement in Penning Perfumes, a creative collaboration that pairs poets with perfumers. What made you decide to take part in the Penning Perfumes project? Were you interested in scents prior to the project?
It sounded like an interesting project, definitely something I wouldn’t typically be asked to do. As a burly, tattooed ex-skinhead I just had to be involved!
Prior to this I’d worn Brut, all the chaps did in the 70s. These days I usually wear Eton College cologne, to be honest it reminds me of the poet Hugo Williams. I’m not overly interested in scent, the scent of breakfast, lunch and dinner excluded. I am interested in how scent adds to the transformation of a person: from a humdrum someone to Mr Saturday Night. It seemed quite a Jason King thing to be a part of. Fancy.
You’ve written a poem inspired by an anonymous scent you were given, can you tell me a little bit about your first reaction to the scent?
It took me a while to ‘get’ the scent. Two years working with industrial chemicals and liquid fibreglass hasn’t exactly left me with a sensitive nose. The perfume was warm and I liked it. I wanted to write something about how clothes, a new attitude and scent help to form someone. In my poem it’s someone who’s going out on the pull with a new mindset after a romantic dumping, and certainly not the sort of someone who’d dump by text.
How was the process of writing this poem for you, I hate the term ‘comfort zone’, but do you feel that it took you away from your usual writing practice, or did you find a way to make it adapt to your style?
It did but that was one of the reasons I thought it would be interesting. I deliberately wrote a ‘male’ poem. I used quite a bit of nadsat, the slang from Clockwork Orange. In our heads, me and my mates are quite often droogs. I’d been wanting to use nadsat in a poem and it suited to show the difference in a new tougher attitude and someone throwing themself into Saturday night for whatever fun that might bring. I often use vernacular and a vocabulary from slang and M25 languages in my work, so it was good to expand on that and use something we don’t actually use for real, but do talk in for a laugh.
Did finding out what the perfume was change your interpretation of it?
No, I was interested in how scent is used to transform your own attitude and focused on that. I liked the mystery of not knowing what it was. I thought it a warm, quite woody fragrance and it turned out to have liquorice in it, so I wasn’t too far off. I liked the ambiguity of whether it was a male or female scent, or even if that mattered.
You’ve been running an underground zine called Rising for many years now. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
I started Rising some 19 years ago as I wasn’t reading enough poetry that I liked. I’m very much from a ‘build it yourself’ background. Initially I was going to do a one-off ‘zine but the copies we did flew out. My next issue is our 55th. I’m pleased that the ‘zine has the best bad reputation in poetry. We have a sense of humour, enjoy punchy poetry and also generally (without it being deliberate) half or more of our writers are women. I never thought that a big deal but it is quite noticeable against many of the po-faced poetry mags. Funny when half of the world is female. I love a passionate, Alexis Colby, Ingrid Pitt, Angela Mao type voice in a poem me. Being a prole myself I’m always happy to have working class people in the ‘zine. The culture of many poetry mags is alien to me, and to many of the poets I print. I’m out and out anti-academic, pro-learning and have a sense of humour. The way forward for the working class isn’t for us to become middle-class, sorry Oxbridge.
What prompted you to make the leap from writer to editor? Does the ‘other side’ give you a new perspective on your own writing?
The main editing job in Rising is seeing how dull the majority of poetry mags are and not being like them. I read a lot of poetry regularly and go to many readings, finding voices that are entertaining, engaging and meaningful is definitely the best bit. It hasn’t really affected my work other than as a reminder to be proud of being a prole and that poetry can be a punch or a kiss but it should always be felt.
I expect you’ve read Jon Stone’s excellent post on poetry tribalism. I know that what I was keen to do with Penning Perfumes was to recruit a varied group of poets, which poetic ‘tribes’ do you feel you belong to? You’ve been notoriously publishing what people like to call ‘page’ and ‘stage’ poets in your zine for many years, do you feel that these distinctions are finally starting to blur?
I was a teenage suedehead, so that’s the tribe I’m happiest with. Even better, these days it’s practically non-existent. Jon made some interesting points. I’ve frequently said the page/stage divide, if it existed, was one constructed by and for administrators and arts professionals. I don’t think intelligent and engaged writers worry about labels. They’ll dip in and out of styles and have fun with them as well as standing styles on their heads. That to me is more important. When writers themselves are putting on gigs, editing anthologies and ‘zines then those distinctions are irrelevant. Leave it to quackademics, admins and desk jockeys to construct labels that make themselves important and, more importantly, funded. Me, I’d much rather earn a few quid and some pints doing real poetry to real people in a decent boozer.
When did you first call yourself a poet and to whom?
I’m happy being called a poet, but it’s a bit like being the murderer at a dinner party. I’m not happy being called a ‘performance poet’. That’s a very loaded term used by toffs to reinforce that I have an accent and am not a ‘pwopah’ poet like what they are. I’m aware of the power of names, I see how they’re used, especially about myself. I’ve been doing live poetry since the late 70s. I started out gigging with reggae and punk bands. After being a poet in front of those audiences everything else is easy, anyway I’m not posh enough to be a comedian.
What projects are in the pipeline for you?
I’ll be gigging as ever, I’m also working on a new collection with Donut Press. I enjoy some of the weirder gigs I get; refereeing inter-gender wrestling for the comedian Simon Munnery, the ‘two dads on a sofa talking about records’ gigs I do with Phill Jupitus, poetry with the reggae sound Tighten Up Crew, so definitely more of those. I’m hoping to be gigging with Pam Ayres, she’s the last person left on my ‘people I’d like to gig with’ list, though hopefully there’ll be more people added to and ticked off. I’ve enjoyed the many gigs at the Betsey Trotwood, easily the top venue for poetry in London. I love gigging in pubs, there’s a lot of drek talked about people not relating to poetry, the problem isn’t people, it’s some of the poets. I’m working on an appreciation of Sei Shonagon for Liane Strauss’ Poets on Poets, I have a flat full of Penguin Classics in the old black jackets. My biggest project is enjoying poetry, wherever it comes from, having great friends and the right enemies. Claire, it’s your round x
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