The art of writing #98 : Tom Jenks

How did you first come to poetry? What is it about the form that resonates?

I came to poetry via music and lyrics, realising the words were important to me, which I don’t think they are for everyone, at least not in the same way. I had some really good teachers at college who opened my eyes to poetry more generally and I began to explore further. This wasn’t in any schematic way: just picking up books at the library or second hand and following trails. Both those sources (libraries and second hand book shops) are now much diminished, at least in the UK. I still do the same. There’s no overarching plan to my reading, just one thing leading to another. Reading is vital for writing, in my opinion, although I know some people think the opposite.

In terms of poetry as a form, it’s what I always return to. I’ve done lots of other things, but I’ve never stopped writing poetry. For me, it’s language in its purest, non-functional, non-utilitarian form, the greatest pleasure. I love the capacity poetry has to be contingent and unresolved, to resist closure, to leave space.

How does a poem begin?

I feel poetry is happening all the time, on in the background like a radio turned down low. It’s just a matter of listening closely. For me, poetry is a state of mind, an approach, a process. I’m inspired a lot by everyday life, although I realise my poetry isn’t mostly what you’d call “realist”. I like the Jungian idea of synchronicity, of everything that is happening at a particular point in time having a shared quality. I tend to write quickly and a lot of what I do is essentially picking up what is around me and putting it together. I’m not really interested in authorial control. I like things to sort themselves out.

Do you see your writing as a single, extended project, or a series of threads that occasionally weave together to form something else?

As per above, I see writing as something that I do all the time and will always do. It’s really important to me psychologically to write. I find that if I don’t do it, I feel something is missing. I’m like a shark that can’t stop swimming or a panda in constant need of bamboo. I like putting my work out in the world and I like performing, but the actual doing is the thing. So, in answer to your question, I’m definitely in the “extended project” camp. Gesamtkunstwerk, as they say in Mönchengladbach.

How do you see your text and visual works in conversation, if at all?

They’re definitely linked, but I think they’re actually quite different. The visual pieces are an expression of my inner austere, tower block-loving modernist. I’m obsessively interested in shape, colour, space and fonts. When they come out well, they have an order and simplicity that I like and feels innately harmonious.

The written work is more organic and, in contrast with my visual pieces, sometimes deliberately “sloppy”, in using rambling sentences, ragged lines, repetition, non sequiturs, all the things you’re told not to do. I’m very influenced by comedy, particularly what they call “anti-comedy” of which I would say the most famous exponent is Andy Kaufman. That’s all about undermining structures even as you’re creating them, wrongfooting, questioning expectations, resisting linearity. Whilst I admire it in other people, I’m not really interested in “craft” in my own work. In performance, I incorporate all sorts of elements, using props, bits of costume, printouts etc. One of my favourite ones was where I talked about oven installation for 5 minutes. I’d say it made sense at the time, but it probably didn’t. My written work is a jumble of references from popular culture, history, other texts, music all put together in the same pot to see what soup they make.

Sometimes, I wish I could pick a lane and be one thing or the other, in the same way I wished I could have been a goth or a Marxist-Leninist when I was a teenager, having that unified, coherent outlook which makes sense of everything. But I have to accept I’m never going to be able to carry off that much black and I don’t look good with a beard.

Have you a daily schedule by which you work, or are you working to fit this in between other activities?

I work full time and have other commitments (family, my press, zimzalla, other things) and so my poetic practice is very much as and when. I don’t have a dedicated workspace or set hours. My methods, such as they are, are quite chaotic. I’m forever buying notebooks thinking I’ll keep them separate and have one for work and general admin and one for poetry, but they inevitably get muddled, so I have lots of notebooks containing notes from meetings, fragments of poetry and shopping lists. When I come to type things up on the laptop, I’ll be looking at those, or notes made on my phone, or stuff I’ve found on the internet, moving things around until I feel I have something finished. My preference is to work in the evenings and to have other things going on around me (music, TV, radio, whatever) so I’m slightly distracted. I’m not one of those writers who thrives on silence.

What are your favourite print or online literary journals?

Molly Bloom in the UK is always interesting, as is Blackbox Manifold. Strings, which has just started up and I was lucky enough to be in, looks like it’s going to develop into something really good. Mercurius is great, particularly the surreal-absurd strand curated by Vik Shirley. rob mclennan’s Touch the Donkey is another I like.

On the more visual side of things, A Swirl Zine, run by Robin Boothroyd, has a focus on concrete and minimalist work which I really like. Petra Schulze-Wollgast’s To Call series is in a similar space and always fascinating. derek beaulieu’s No Press and The Minute Review, again visual and conceptual, is really worth checking out.

Who are some of the writers you are reading lately that most excite you?

I’m really inspired by my contemporaries. I think there is so much interesting work going on. I’ve been reading a lot of my friend Catherine Vidler’s work recently, who sadly died last year. I’ve been working with a group of her friends to properly document her vast, genre-defying output and make sure it’s properly preserved. Doing that has really brought home what a fantastic, utterly unique artist she was.

I don’t want to list favourites, as I’ll miss someone important, so instead I’ll just mention what I’ve been reading in the last week or so. I’ve been dipping into and greatly enjoying The Penguin Book of the Prose Poem, edited by Jeremy Noel-Todd, which reminded me how great Chelsey Minnis is. I’ve also been reading a lot of Jeremy Over, a UK poet whose work I love. I find his playful approach to form and his enormous textual facility very inspiring.



Tom Jenks' most recent books are Rhubarb (Beir Bua Press) and Pack my Box with Five Dozen Liquor Jugs (Penteract Press), a pangrammatic novel with Catherine Vidler. The Philosopher is forthcoming with Sublunary Editions in 2024. He is also a text artist, producing visualisations of works of literature and edits zimzalla, a small press specialising in literary objects.

A selection of his poems appeared in the eleventh issue.