There is a feature in this week’s (April 27th) print Sheffield Telegraph about what it’s like for me as a writer living in Sheffield. The piece will also be available online shortly.
There is a feature in this week’s (April 27th) print Sheffield Telegraph about what it’s like for me as a writer living in Sheffield. The piece will also be available online shortly.
Martin, the handsome and illustrious leader of the Paper and Ink empire, interviewed me for his site.
You can read the full interview here.
It’s Friday night. You’re walking down a busy street. People bump into you. No apology. The bars are all awful cocktails and terrible music. A hand reaches out and grabs you. You’re led down an alley you’ve never seen before. Then another. Then another. Then another. The streets are getting darker, the floor more and more uneven. You come to a stop. You look up and see a pub, as old as it is grand. You read the sign. THE LITERARY UNDERGROUND. The door opens. A shadowy figure emerges from a cloud of smoke…his name is Joseph Ridgwell.
I’ve had to pick up my Ridgwell publications as and when I’ve been able to track them down. Do you think there’s a perfect order to read them in? Is there an overall Ridgwell legend being told across the work?
It’s funny you should mention this as not many people have picked up on it. Or if they have they haven’t let on. US poet Hosho McCreesh was the first to realise that many of my books are interlinked. Hosh identified – Burrito Deluxe – as the start of the Ridgwell Legend, which was correct at the time, but is no longer so as I recently completed the prequel. Actually what I set out many years ago to do was fictionalise my entire life, inspired by Kerouc’s Legend of Duluoz and John Fante’s Bandini Quartet. I’m a great fan of autobiographical writing, such as Bukowski, Burroughs, Henry Miller, Knut Hamsun, Cookie Muller, Jack London etc. I don’t limit myself to just this kind of writing, but if I think most of the events portrayed in the books actually happened in real life then it adds another dimension. If I start reading a book and immediately sense that the author is making it all up then the book is dead for me. And this is not my failure as a reader it is the writer’s failure as an author. The truly great writers make the reader believe in their work, that it’s actually happening even if the reader knows this is impossible. Once a reader invests a certain amount of emotion into the work of a writer then the writer has them for life. This is my theory behind – Cosmic Realism – the literally genre that I invented on a desolate Mexican beach in the last years of the 20th Century. CR is the ability to tell a story that is so far-fetched and obviously not based in any sort of reality, but which the reader accepts as the TRUTH.
Anyway, there is no perfect order to read my books, but there is a chronological order – especially with the novels, which are examples of True Story novels. The events in the narratives actually happened in real life. The fictional parts are less then 10% of the MS, but it is those parts that make the novels interesting and readable, or so I’ve been told.
Civil Service takes things right up until 2014. All six of my poetry collections mirror events in the novels, but there’s not enough space here to state what order they should be read in. Any intrepid reader will be able to make up their own minds. There is a trilogy of short stories published by Pig Ear Press – Cuba – Jamaica & Mexico, which fit in just after Burrito Deluxe.
Also there are a couple of published short stories flying around that really should be chapters of the Buddha Bar. The Famous Ice-Cream Run and Tsunami.
The only examples of 100% fiction in my work are to be found in my two short story collections. Ridgwell Stories (Bottle of Smoke Press 2015) and Oswald’s Apartment. (Blackheath Books 2010)
At this point you’ve got a huge number of publications behind you. How disciplined are you as a writer? Do you go through spells with it or is it something you’re always doing?
I was completely undisciplined as writer and would often do anything other than write like stare at a table leg or something. And I started late – not taking the craft seriously until I was 30 or so. This poss explains why I was or am a relatively late developer. A crucial factor to my development was landing a cushy office job where I was more or less paid to write each and every day for years and years. It was like being in prison. I was trapped inside the buildings for eight to nine hours a day with nothing to do. So instead of pissing my life away surfing the web or staring at one sentence emails or a paperclip, I started writing. Ironically the job forced me to be disciplined and the bulk of my work was done during this period. Then, like a miracle, I quit that life. I’d worked my entire life so this was like a revelation. With all the free time I made several breakthroughs as a writer, most centring on the craft of writing. I don’t think I would’ve achieved these breakthroughs whilst continuing to work full time. Not that I’m recommending aspiring writers quit their day jobs or anything. Allayed to the time needed to refine your craft you also need talent. Without talent the writer can have all the free time in the world and come up with nothing.
As for all the publications – I mean why would anyone be interested? One of my publishers was once asked why he continued to publish my stuff as they didn’t think much of it. The publisher – a very wise man – replied that it was because there was nothing else like it out there. There are all these writers who can’t get published bemoaning the state of the publishing industry or their lack of a success as a writer. And yet they are writing the same shit that the mainstream produces. The fact they can’t get published is down to bad luck or bad timing or both.
London or Edinburgh?
If I were in my twenties then it would be London all day long. As I’m in my forties, Edinburgh has a nice laid back vibe that I appreciate. Less people, less traffic, less ambitious fruits with too much energy and ambition, but no real talent to speak of, running around. And If I get to missing Old Smokey, then I can always jump on a big bird and be there in under an hour.
What can you tell me about Cosmic Gigantic Flywheel? The showbiz murmurings have it potentially appearing some time this year?
CGF is my sixth and latest collection of poetry. In terms of Chronology, it mirrors the events in Civil Service and as such should be seen as a companion piece, a little like Bukowski’s Women and Love is a Dog from Hell. CGF is my most ambitious book of posey and it’s big with nearly a 100 pomes. People who know me from this recent period might just recognise themselves, which I hope is a good thing. Either that or they will curse my name. Both books are complete and ready to hit the streets. I just need to find a publisher or publishers crazy and brave enough to publish them.
Finally, what was the last thing (book, place, record etc) that you totally fell in love with?
Yesterday, January 10th, I appeared on BBC Radio Sheffield with Rony Robinson to chat about a variety of things.
You can listen to the show in full at this link. I come on at about the 1hr36 mark.
Let’s be honest, Howlin’ Wolf had probably the greatest voice to ever come out of a human being. It’s astonishing. I feel like a lot of America’s problems could be solved if they would just unite under the fact that that they live in the land of Howlin’ Wolf.
Gina Berrett is the director and producer of the upcoming Howlin’ Wolf Smokestack Lightning: The Legendary Howlin’ Wolf – something I’ve been excited to see for quite some time now.
You can see a teaser for the film here.
Do you remember the first time you heard Howlin’ Wolf?
I remember more hearing Charley Patton, who was Howlin’ Wolf’s mentor, for the first time. It was stunning because Patton sounded like no one else I’d ever heard. There’s no context for it from the music of that time and place. It’s like he was dropped to earth in the Mississippi Delta by aliens or something. Where did that sounds and voice come from? From there I really got into Wolf’s music, and over the years no matter how many times I might hear the same song or parts of a song over and over while I’m editing the film, I never get tired of it. I really love it. There are a lot of layers of meaning and emotion in his music. As the late Jim Dickinson says in the film, “It’s still here because it’s art. Pop music fades. Art lasts.”
Through your research for the film, do you feel like you’ve gotten a good sense of Howlin’ Wolf the person, not just the musician?
The more I learned about Wolf along the way, the more Wolf as a person emerged from behind his stage character – he was more than the funny clowning performer, or the stealth Taildragger. He was complex – intelligent, competitive, hardworking, and an incredibly charismatic man. I’ve put a lot of thought into who he was as a man and performer, and this is the basis of the film. He is an American hero.
In terms of making a documentary focusing on a figure who was born so long ago, have there been challenges in terms of gathering the material you need to tell the story you want to tell in the way you want to tell it?
There was a lot of driving through Mississippi and Chicago, digging through old boxes finding Wolf’s living friends and relatives, a lot of adventure in that. It has been especially challenging finding material to tell the story of his earlier years of 1910-1950 in Mississippi, but I have figured out a creative way to tell the story. There were a few amazing discoveries of archival materials that I can’t wait to share in the film. The most important photo we found is one we had been unknowingly walking by in a hallway for a decade. It was 2 inches square and it was stapled to a cork board. That was a very good day.
There’s been some publicity regarding certain difficulties you’ve faced along the way with the making of the documentary. Where do things currently stand with regards to a release? When do you imagine people might be able to see the final product?
The recent news story actually happened two years ago and the case is in process of being settled. A year ago I decided to just rewrite and do the rough cut edit myself. It’s now ready for the final stages of postproduction. The film is looking great and it should be released in 2017. We’re launching an Indiegogo campaign February 7 2017 to raise the rest of the finishing funds. I learned a hard lesson to be careful who you work with, especially on creative projects.
Finally, what was the last thing (album, song, place, film etc) that you totally fell in love with?
I have been really loving the Amazon series Mr. Robot! Stunningly good story, sound design and music.
A few times over the last couple of years I’ve seen a poem by Gwil James Thomas in some illustrious publication or other. Hey, I’ve thought to myself, I like this. I need to find out more about this guy.
I then proceed to search his name on Twitter, where no account turns up. This, as we all know, means he might aswell not exist at all. I then get distracted by something or other and carry on living my life, until I read another of his poems, and the whole sad process begins again.
Fortunately, for you and for me, Martin at Paper Ink Zine is about to put out a collection of Gwil James Thomas poems called Gwil VS Machine. I believe you’ll be able to place an order through the Paper and Ink site next week. I recommend that you do so.
I’ve seen your work around a few zines over the years, and every time I’ve gone to find out more about you, I’ve not been able to find much of an online presence outside of the places your work is included. Is being removed from social media etc something you feel particularly strongly about?
I wouldn’t say that social media is something that I feel strongly about necessarily. I’ve never had a Facebook, or a Twitter account – so i don’t really know them first hand. I can see that they have their uses, but part of me’s glad that I don’t have to deal with the shitty concerns that can come with them. I’ve been shown things on Facebook that are informative, but I’ve also seen it swamped with a lot of shameless self promotion. That said, I’m sure that at some point they’ll make it too inconvenient to not have one, then I’ll probably sigh and sign up. In the meantime I’d want to get a website out there – I think that’d work far better for me. Besides, it’s probably time that I caught up with 2009.
The word howl appears not only in the title of the opening poem, but also in W*R*I*T*E (“write like the drunken howls/from the evening streets”). I assumed this wasn’t thrown in just as a Ginsberg nod. Do you think your poetry tends to come from a painful place?
I’d be lying if I said that some of the poems didn’t come from a painful place. Though I don’t think I intentionally made them that way. I find that when writing poetry (and more so than any other form) that the poems end up going in a way they want to work. It’s not always in a way I imagined them to be, but sometimes I take a step back and say, fuck it maybe it works better that way. There’s also been a lot of change in my life over the course of time the poems in this collection were written too, which can all be used for material to work with. Life is tragic, beautiful, fleeting and strange – I think all the poems draw from that.
In the Mule’s Early Retirement, you talk about the impact of a string of shitty jobs on your life. Were you always writing during those times?
For most of it. I probably make the jobs sound worse than they actually were – but I remember working fifteen hour days six days a week as a chef in Brighton, it was hard to write after that and there were several other jobs over the years like that too. There was a hell of a lot of characters from all over the world in those jobs and subsequently a lot of varied material to be inspired from. There were certain occasions where I was too tired to write and I learnt that there are times to incubate ideas too – time away from writing is also beneficial. Even if you finish your job at one am and you wake up hungover – it’s makes the next day a little easier knowing you wrote something the night before.
Gwil vs. Machine ends on a tribute to Dan Fante. It’s funny, he had such an impact on a particular cross-section of people, that right from the off I knew it was Dan Fante you were writing about. What sort of impact did he have on you and your writing?
I discovered Dan Fante through his father John Fante. I read John Fante’s work at nineteen and was blown away by it. He was the first writer I discovered that made me want to write. I couldn’t believe how largely unheard of he was – even with Bukowski’s praise for the man. I found something haunting about his work and after reading his biography I spontaneously got a John Fante tattoo. So when I found out that his son was a writer, I knew that I had to read everything he had.
What I like about Dan, was that like his father, he treated his typewriter like a confession booth. They both drew a lot from their own lives. But Dan Fante really took this further. He gave an account that was unflinching, not always flattering, but very real. As a writer I find this can be therapeutic and if done well, can be powerful as a reader.
Overall though, I’ll never forget his desire to help another writer. I discovered his email address years ago and drunkenly emailed him, not expecting a response and was surprised when I did. I corresponded with him a bit over the years. In the last email I got from him, he told me of several projects he was working on, one of which was a sequel to Point Doom. I can’t help but wonder about them. But I’m grateful that he stayed sober enough to write what he did. The world’s lost a good writer and a good soul.
Finally, what was the last thing (book, album, place etc) that you totally fell in love with?
Probably, the album Huff my Sack by Lumpy and The Dumpers. I haven’t really been as involved with punk as I have been before, but this record was a good investment. Basically, this album is so shit, that it’s good. Exactly what a punk band should be.
James Giddings is the only poet I know who wore his stinky trainers so long his foot got infected. He’s also the only poet I know.
James is so good at poetry that at my book launch, where he read some of his poems, multiple people came up to him afterwards to ask if they could buy a copy of his book.
This was remarkable for a couple of reasons:
1) James hadn’t even said he had copies of the book for sale
2) These were people I know for a fact have never read poetry in their lives
James is so good at poetry that I read his new book, Everything Is Scripted, twice in an evening. And I’m a busy guy! I’ve got a lot to do! I’ve still not even watched The Sopranos. That’s how good James Giddings is at poems. Better than The Sopranos (maybe – like I said, I’ve still not seen it).
James Giddings is so good at poetry he could probably write a poem about me writing a post about how good he is at poetry. He would probably call it ‘The Things My Handsome and Cool Friend Jared Said About Me.’
Do you remember the time I was in the toilet and the handle broke off so I was locked in, and rather than getting help, you just stood outside laughing? Do you feel the public will still buy your book if they find out what a monster you are?
I’m expecting that’s the only reason they’ll buy it.
There’s a run of what I suppose could be categorised as ‘dad’ poems in everything is scripted. Were those poems written close together or is that a theme you’ve found yourself going back to at different times?
A bit of both really. I think the theme was something that I noticed as I looked back on the work I’d written. Initially they weren’t something that I set out consciously to write, but once I noticed there were a couple of these ‘dad’ poems it became more of a conscious process. Mainly because it was a good way to generate poems from an authentic place of feeling. It’s certainly something I’m still looking at, but I think now the book is out it’s given me the chance to think about how I can add to those poems by approaching the subject in different ways.
Between the dad poems, the work poems, some of the more cynical relationship lines, you seem to often write about the way things can seem quite hollow if you look at them from different angles. Do you think you tend to write more when you’re feeling dis-satisfied with something?
I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or not. I think if I wrote all the time I was feeling dissatisfied I’d be a lot more prolific than I am, but there’s probably some truth in that. I think it’s easier to write about the things that make you unhappy. That’s not to say I’m an unhappy person, but moments of happiness have a bubble effect – they’re experienced very quickly and when you’re in that moment it’s the only thing you care about or want to be a part of. There’s rarely a part of me that thinks, that was nice, I should really immortalise that feeling right now by leaving that bubble and writing about it. Those feelings of dissatisfaction linger around a lot longer than happiness, and writing is a way to use some of that negative energy that weighs upon you in a positive way.
On the release of your first pamphlet, do you have any goals for yourself as a poet? Is there anything else specific you know you would like to achieve, or be involved with, or work on?
I think short term I’ll just be happy if I keep writing. I’ve thought about retiring a few times, but realised perhaps I’m too young for that. In the meantime any good poem produced will be a victory for me.
But on the flip-side, being a very shallow person who draws motivation from suckling at the teat of other people’s love and affirmation, I’d love to clean up any and all accolades out there until I have enough of them to melt down into a big fat chain that hangs a medallion reading Best Poet Alive, just in case anyone who saw me didn’t know. And I’d want that medallion to made out of one of the rims of the Range Rover I’m going to own because my poems have brought me as much money as they have love and understanding to the general public.
Or I don’t know, sell a few copies of the book or something.
Finally, what was the last thing (poem, book, song, place etc) that you totally fell in love with?
Do your eyes count? I think the last thing I truly fell in love with was my girlfriend, but Waves by Jared A Carnie is a close second (reader, don’t trust him one bit, he has me hostage! send help!) I’ve never read such a likeable protagonist in my life as Alex. I’m also listening to a lot of Anderson .Paak at the minute. The guy is groovy.