The young ones…and Polished Gem (16): Tom Weir

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Well, here we are after a two week lay-off. I feel like I used to feel, coming back to a new term, buzzing and chuffed to bits to see you all again. Because I missed you, even though one week was spent in the company of a talented bunch of writers, and in being inspired by the course leaders: Kim Moore and Steve Ely. A week of being invited to throw my voice, or borrow the voices of others. A week of ventriloquism among the transgressive and downright wicked and evil. I’ve just re-read this; let me be clear: not the poets on the course. They were all lovely. But I’ll tell you all about dramatic monologues and the rest of it next week. This week I’m just recovered from a horrible cold which could have, but didn’t, stop me from reading with Wendy Pratt in the lovely library in the middle of York. And there, in the audience, was my guest for today, the talented Mr Tom Weir.

So why the photo of St Ives? Apart from the fact that it’s where the course was. It’s because it’s where we used to go on holiday 60 years ago. It should have made me feel a bit melancholic; it should have made me feel my age. Even the amusement arcade where I used to blow all my holiday spending money on the first day is still there.

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So is the sea-shell shop from which I was chased, in 1952, by the shopkeeper who thought I was trying to pinch something. I wasn’t, but I was terrified, and I ran anyway. And 60+ years on, I was struck by how steep were the streets, and how far from the beach we stayed, and how many miles we must have walked each day…without noticing. It should have made me feel my age. But it didn’t.

Neither did what happened yesterday. I’ve posted the story on Facebook, but I’ll recycle it here, any way.  Mooching about, too full of cold to be a welcome presence at the Poetry Business Writing Day, I was diverted by a hand-written card from the West Yorkshire Police informing me that last Sunday I had driven into Sainsbury’s petrol station, filled up with diesel, and driven happily off without paying, and since it seems that I’m not the criminal type, could I pop down to Dewsbury and pay. So I did. The lady on the till said: Ah. Yes. I remember you. I said to my friend here that you probably just forgot. I said, didn’t I, he were an older sort of chap, so he wasn’t going to be doing it on purpose.  So there you are. It’s official. I’m an older sort of chap, and therefore mainly harmless.

But I don’t feel like an older sort of chap, and I put that down, in part to the fact that I’m constantly being told that it’s time I grew up, that my 21 year old grandson worries about the intemperate nature of my left-leaning Facebook rants, and that I spend time in the company of young poets. I think they don’t think of themselves as young, ranging as they do from their early 30s into their 50s (and some of the incorrigibly young, like Hilary Elfick, are older than me), but their company is endlessly invigorating and joyous. I love their energy, their talent, their generosity. There’s something life-enhancing about the fact that Kim Moore and Steve Ely can be so engrossed in a discussion of poetry and its ins-and-outs that, while we shared the driving of my car down to St Ives, they managed to find their way on to the M1 from the M6 en route to Cornwall….and it didn’t bother them. So it didn’t bother me. Minor miracle, I call that. I like, too,the fact that they go running, and apparently need no sleep, eat absolutely anything they like, crash out when they need to, and laugh a lot. The young ones. It was a crap film, but it’s a great title. Couldn’t resist it.

Which brings me to my guest, Tom Weir, who I met at a reading by Kim Moore and Helen Mort at the excellent Chemic Tavern in Leeds ( by the way; one thing that’s striking about the Tavern is that they let the customers bring in fish suppers from the nearby chip shop; poetry readings among the smell of fish and chips! And compered by the excellent Mark Connors. Another of the young ones…and also a runner.) Tom did a couple of poems on the open mic. and I was bowled over by his delivery. Dry. Almost deadpan. Ironic. Funny. Even more bowled over when he told me he’d been at Kim’s launch of ‘The art of falling‘ in Leeds, and had liked my reading. We did a bookswap on the spot…his lovely collection ‘All that falling’  for my chapbook Larach. I got a bargain there that I still feel guilty about, and I’m still incredulous that he’d make the journey to York last Thursday to hear me read. It gives me the buzz I got from teaching. I makes me feel young.

So, today, I’m out to make sure that if you haven’t already done so, that you buy All that falling, and then persuade all your friends to buy it. Because it’s special. But I’m remiss, as ever. Time to give him a proper introduction.

Tom (born 1980) currently lives in Saltaire and works as a Primary School teacher.  Before becoming a Primary School teacher he taught English, which allowed him to live abroad in both Vietnam and Portugal. His poetry often pays homage to his experiences living abroad, as well as the times he’s spent in remote parts of the English countryside. He likes walking, visiting new places and AFC Wimbledon.

Of his debut pamphlet  Christopher James wrote:

Tom Weir is an exciting new voice; candid and assured, with enough in the way of light and shadow to fully intrigue. The cover of his pamphlet, The Outsider, published by the ever-excellent Templar Poetry, is a statement of intent with its arresting image of a barnacled man staring out to sea. It has the ghostliness of an Anthony Gormley. If the figure is looking to foreign lands, then it is well chosen. Weir’s poems range from corners of English fields to hotel rooms in Hanoi and the psycho dramas that play out are as dramatic and finely judged as the language chosen to tell them.

Tom has a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and his poems have appeared in various journals. He was one of the poets featured in the 2012 anthology: Lung Jazz; Young British Poets for Oxfam and has been shortlisted for the Melita Hume prize.  The Outsider, won the 2014 Templar IOTA shots competition and his first full collection, All That Falling, was published by Templar last year. So. Time to hear the poems. I was more than delighted that the four poems he sent me include my absolute favourite, and I’ll start with that.

Day Trippin’ for Thomas

‘I’d ride horses if they’d let me’— Will Oldham

We talked all morning about the horse
that, if we’re honest, none of us actually knew existed

but it seemed worth it just to get you into the car,
to stop shouting. We mentioned it so often

you began to repeat it from your child-seat
like a mantra, and you’ll never know the relief,

having arrived and not been able to see a stable,
having stalled you with an ice-cream which you wore

like a glove as it melted over your hand,
of finding the woman who showed us where

the horse rides took place, where you waited
so quietly in line, where I stood and watched

as you approached the man with a five pound note
scrunched up in your tiny hand. You spent

the rest of the day repeating the words too little
like a radio breaking bad news every hour on the hour.

We took you down to the lake and watched
you throw stones at the water, watched clouds fall apart

and mend as rowing boats left the harbour and you
sat still, refusing to join another queue.

 

What I like so much about this poem is its clear-eyed objectivity. It could so easily have been sentimental. Instead it’s close to heart-breaking. I love the way the anxieties of adults and small children are equally weighted, as are their disappointments, and the guilt of parents for which there is no atonement, and for which nothing can be done. Everything is managed through images that are utterly memorable and true….the way the parents make a mantra for the child that’s replaced by the mantra of ‘too little’ , like a radio breaking bad news every hour on the hour; the ice cream

which you wore / like a glove as it melted over your hand,

the clouds falling apart and mending, as reflections do, quite indifferent. I can imagine this poem being endlessly anthologised. I think it should be. Tom Weir’s poetry will do that to you, catch you aslant, unawares, tip you into a world where things like love and joy and security are fragile at best, where we are vulnerable. He makes me think of Larkin’s line that ‘what will survive of us is love’, although Tom Weir’s poetry is more unequivocal than Larkin’s on that.  This recurrent sense of vulnerabilities is given a centre stage in the next poem Tom sent me.

We Might as Well Have Been Made of Glass

When the sun broke through the clouds
we wore rainbows and when we shook hands
we did just like our fathers taught us
and at certain angles there was two of everything

and at certain angles there was nothing at all
and some of us cracked when the temperature dropped
and when some of us passed out we woke
with words fingered onto our foreheads in dust

and some of us were clear and our veins
swirled around our bodies as if we were marbles
and some of us were stained
and some of us were single glazed

and some of us had been shipped in from China
and shook on the wind like water
and when it got late some of us carried light
like lanterns in our arms

and when some of us fell there was no getting up
and when the wind picked up some of our bodies
whined like sirens and when we drank,
wine spilled from our lips like blood

and when the cracks began to appear
some of us filled like locks and when the insects stung
none of us felt a thing and we were all that remained
the following day when the sky fell in.

 

I’d give a lot for the control that lets him sustain the the single conceit and the intensity of the repeated rhythm, all the forward energy of that unstoppable list. I know that I’ll be told that ‘everyone does lists’ or ‘that list thing’s all played out’. But I don’t care. It’s not about fashion. It’s about rhetoric. If it works, it works. And this works. I like a list. I like the rhetoric. I like its performance. If a poet wrote nothing else, then I might worry. But till it happens, I won’t. I’ll just relish memorable images like  some of us filled like locks and when some of us passed out we woke / with words fingered onto our foreheads in dust. And I will note again that here’s another poem where the sky will either be on the point of falling in, or actually do it. In Badminton in Saigon, the sky has collapsed. In Telepathy, as he learns that a friend is dying,

‘it’s not the roof / that caves in, it’s the house – the entire fucking valley’

and I love the anger of that line, just as I love the anger at the futility of men and women caught in monsoon floods, or the death of a calf in a field that the farmer can do nothing about, and that all the time the press of emotion is held so surely by the clarity and discipline of words.

Two more poems, then, and less commentary. First this one, in which I can only read the frustration of a first-rate Primary teacher in the face of the centralised nonsense that passes for approved educational syllabuses these days. If it was me, it would be a rant. But these young ones are wiser, and more talented.

Vocabulary

In teaching we call them Tier Three words—
words specific to a subject, technical
terms like evaporation and disintegration
but also words like shadow and swan.
Tier One words are those you recognise on sight
like clock or train or table or snow or today,
words like church and coffin and road.

But we’re early and they’re yet to dress
the city and the paint has run on the hills
so the greens and browns are bled together
and the sea is missing its kinks
and everything is a fraction too dark
and the air is either still or a hurricane—
there’s no calm breeze, no light rain.

 

I love the control of this, and the way it reminds me of Naming of parts. I like the way it takes a power from the fact we’re not talking about squaddies, but small children, like the one with a hand gloved in ice-cream, the ones who are being abused by the dreadful descendants of Gradgrind with their drills and rules. Thank the lord some children  have teachers like Tom Weir who knows that words don’t sit politely on shelves, and can go off like small bombs when you mix them judiciously: church and coffin and road.. Right. Last one.

Trampoline
after Gerard Woodward.
I should probably mention the dark,
the distance, how we sank a little deeper
into the waves the further we got from land,
and how tired we were after 10 days camping in that heat.
Then there was the brandy
and the brandy after the brandy the waiter poured
from the bottle he kept beneath the bar
that he didn’t charge us for,
that the kitchen staff came out to watch us drink.
He told us they used it to clean the windows
and an hour later, when these children started springing
from the earth, I was no longer sure he was joking—
all these faces appearing on the air,
held at the tipping point where the dim light
strung them up like photographs
above a ground that continued to refuse them,
faces stretched from all that falling
and all that trying not to fall.

Here’s the poem that gives Tom’s first collection its title, and one that I would have asked for had he not volunteered it. I’d have chosen it for its first line (probably? why probably?..there’s artful storytelling), for the way Tom manages to write about faraway and exotic places without ever once doing that thing which is the equivalent of posting your exotic photos on Facebook; the poems are where they are because they have to be. There’s never a hint or a scintilla of self-advertisement or ego. The anecdote is the anecdote, but the ending is an astonishing and unforgettable dream. Tom Weir will take you to exotic places, up Dales valleys, across evidently English farmland, and always surprise and arrest you.

So thank you for being our guest this Sunday, Tom. It’s been an unalloyed pleasure, for me. Stay forever young.

Here are the details of Tom’s work so you can rush out and buy it. Next week will be without a guest but full of maskwearers and the downright evil. Come dressed accordingly.

The Outsider [Templar Poetry 2014] £5.00

All that falling [Templar Poetry 2015] £10.00

 

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