Glass interviews writer Jeremy Reed — prophet of the radical and marginalised

“PART desperation, high on risk and big crowd anonymity,” visionary poet Jeremy Reed intones in a sotto voce yet raspy drawl upon Piccadilly Bongo, the album opener to Big City Dilemma, his first aural chancing with musician and producer Itchy Ear. This is an effective miniaturisation of the visionary scribe’s vast polarities – all glamour and glut, mundanity and miasma. An insidious jarring of lyric and sound. During a 30-year career, he has had over 40 works published ranging from collections of poetry, novels and biographies of Scott Walker and Anna Kavan amongst others. It is a wonder he hasn’t utilised this form before.

Glass meets Jeremy in Patisserie Valerie on Old Compton Street, or Pat Val as he fondly refers to it, once of the last starry-eyed haunts of a fading Soho. Like a modern-day Marcus Aurelius, Jeremy exudes a certain erudite calm amongst the busy carnage of his surrounds. He is wistful yet never obtuse, succinct in his recollections. A charming dichotomy trussed up in a purple beret …

Jeremy Reed, Soho, London 2012 by Gregory HesseJeremy Reed, Soho, London 2012 by

In a lot of your work you comment upon the fringe characters, the miscreants, vagabonds and down-and-outs which populate Soho. There also appears to be quite a bit of menace to your observations. Would you say you were more affectionate towards or wary of this area?
Both. Using Iain Sinclair’s terms, I’d say it was a form of Psychogeography. Ever since I came to London in the mid-80s I gravitated to it, but it was then, much more than now, liberated into Bohemianism. Now it’s commercialised.

Do you believe the bohemian aspect has deteriorated now?
Yes. The people who think they’re dangerous just aren’t very dangerous. It’s that simple. I think it’s allure (in the early ‘80s) was that it was a compact village. It was a grid, it was dark, it had masses of yards, it had very bizarre characters … rent boys, Dilly boys, whatever whatever. It was place you went because you were different. Soho accommodated those people. That and you never know Soho, nobody does. There are so many alleys, basement, cellars, yards. Nobody ever knows it.

As Marc Almond says in Piccadilly Bongo, everybody has its own Soho, so to people today, this is Soho. It’s lost, naturally, a lot of its mystique and the fact that genuine outlaws and outsiders came here (but) I think Soho still is a nucleus for a certain, sort of socially disaffected person who may be creative, or bohemian. So I still come here, I always will, because it still has an incredible blast of energy.

Jeremy Reed, Soho, London 2012 by Gregory HesseJeremy Reed, Soho, London 2012. Photograph: Gregory Hesse

Is Psychogeography something one practises?
I think it’s just something that enters into you in a sense that you identify with parts of London, whereas Iain identifies very much with Hackney. I think Iain works much more in a methodical way and of course he does it by walking London. I think it’s very important to walk around London extensively because then one gets the DNA in your shoes.

Do you think anywhere else in London compares to that level of stimulus for you?
No. I often write novels out of doors in Soho. In Newport Place in Chinatown, where they play Mahjong on the stone pagoda there. I’ll often write there three or four hours in the afternoon. I like to write in public because it often provokes huge admiration, you meet a lot of friends that way.

Your output is quite remarkable. Is this something you can quantify?
I always run concurrently three or four books, three or four projects. I think the reason I write so much is because I don’t treat it as precious. I don’t like people that sit down at desks to write with academic formality. You can do it anywhere. I can sit outside on the pavement all day and write without any disruption, except people coming up and saying hello, what are you doing, and then you meet the strangest, most delightful people like that, all the people that inhabit my poems.


Jeremy Reed, Soho, London 2012 by Gregory HesseJeremy Reed, Soho, London 2012. Photograph: Gregory Hesse

So, are the characters that feature in your poetry, for example Jonny (who appears in Piccadilly Bongo,  also his most recent poetry collection) a composite of people that you met on the Soho streets?
No, no, Jonny is a real person – a drug dealer that came to Red Snapper books where I was working for a few years, a counter-culture bookshop in Cecil Court.

Was that a place where you’d welcome these fringe characters that feature so heavily in your writing? They don’t seem to exist in bookshops nowadays.
Yes, Red Snapper attracted most counter-culture aficionados because we sold counter-culture books. We played rock music all day, so masses of people came there – people who didn’t go to other bookshops. It was wonderful because I’d write there all day and people would just come in and talk. We were an exception though, most of the other bookshops in Cecil Court were very stuffy.

Jeremy Reed, Soho, London 2012 by Gregory HesJeremy Reed, Soho, London 2012. Photograph: Gregory Hesse

When you first came to Soho, who were your first peers and inspirations? Were there people that led the way for you? Marc Almond obviously springs to mind …
Yes, Marc Almond had always been an iconic singer to me, his lyrics and his sensibility, also the artist Francis Bacon who helped me financially. Here was a place where you came across people who were … slightly crazy I guess.

Over the last 30 years you’ve penned “creative considerations” for an array of figures – mostly tortured souls. What made you want to cover these?
They were people who I personally empathised with and (it’s a way of) helping the dead because they can’t help themselves any longer, a way to rehabilitate these people. I just finished a non-fiction book on Piccadilly rent boys, a very colourful history of London that vanished in the 1990s, of course when all rent boys went online and when CCTV went into Piccadilly. Before that, that arena was the most colourful place of extraordinary characters from runaways to pretty boys, so I’ve done the first ever book devoted to them.

Which counter-cultural heroes from present day would you write about?
I would certainly like to do a biography of Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones guitarist 1969-1974), again an outsider who walked out of the Rolling Stones for unexplained reasons. He’s probably the world’s best blues guitarist who went off the radar and dropped out. Those are the people who interest me. I’m not interested in mainstream people because they’re usually very limited in talent and extremely exploitative in terms of ego and power.

All those guys like Alan Hollinghurst, (contemporary homosexual author) they’re trash to me, they’re not even writers, they’re just people who manipulate the system. He’s Edwardian. It’s so politically correct and mainstream. I don’t want to single him out as a bad writer but that sort of ordinary writing doesn’t interest me. I’d much rather have somebody who actually lives it, not somebody who’s wealthy and sits down at a desk for an hour a week. There are much more interesting people that create out of a corner.

Jeremy Reed and Itchy Ear-the Ginger Light by Jamie McleodJeremy Reed and Itchy Ear – the Ginger Light. Photograph: Jamie Mcleod

Considering your work with the musician and producer Itchy Ear in your collaboration, the Ginger Light, which incorporates sound and visuals, do you make a concerted effort to modernise your work and to tap into “new-media”?
Yes, I’m trying to always find a new language for poetry, I’m interested only in a language of the future. I mostly read science, I read magazines like New Scientist, I pick up my vocabulary from that sort of source. The past is gone. Even 60 seconds ago is out of date.

It’s curious that we think of writing, in particular poetry as an antiquated art form …
I know. My argument with British poetry is that it uses a diction that is completely literary and out of date. If I read a poem by most mainstream poets I think, this could be written in 1950 because it’s so insensitive to language. I don’t read British poetry generally because it bores me. It’s socially constrained by its politeness. I mostly read American poets.

What was your process in writing the Ginger Light album? Did the music or the poetry come first?
Gerry Mcnee (Itchy Ear) and I met by pure accident when I was working in Red Snapper. I was performing one night at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (South Bank Centre, London) for some event to do with Jean Cocteau and they gave me a CD of (the recording). I played it to Gerry who said right, I think we can work together. So I started going to his flat in Covent Garden and I’d come up with the things that I think he could work with. Now I tell him a mood or a colour or a tone and then just leave it to him. I record the vocal and then he puts the music on it.

Jeremy Reed by Jamie McleodJeremy Reed. Photograph: Jamie Mcleod

What do you think are the differences between writing a stanza of poetry or a lyric to be set to music?
Oh, I don’t think there’s any difference. I wrote an album for Marc Almond, Feasting with Panthers (2011) and I just prepared for him Against Nature, Huysman’s novel, I’ve broken that into 15 songs for him where I just give him the lyrics and he finds the music. It’s still probably one of the most decadent books ever written and Marc’s always wanted to perform it and he thought that now we’re both jaded aesthetes we could do it. So that’ll come out sometime later in the year I’d guess. Huyman’s is a very disquieting and decadent book. He’s a character that has highly tuned his senses to the point when nothing can please him.

Do you think there is a sense of that in your writing, that you can never be sated?
If you thought anything you’d written was good, you wouldn’t bother to write. You’re always looking for something that moves you on rather than takes you back. People come up to me to sign old books and I don’t even know who wrote them.

You must remember your first published work though?
Yes, it was a little book of poetry when I was still at school or had just left, probably about 300 copies. That was done by some tiny little press but I would never revisit it or want it reprinted. You’ve got to let go. You have to. What you do is done and the only reason you write something is to write something else.

Jeremy Reed – Sequins by Gerry McneeJeremy Reed,  Sequins. Photograph: Gerry Mcnee

In the course of publishing, do you worry about the creative process being taken over by somebody else?
No, I never worry about that. I disassociate totally. People are very kind to me. People who like my work tend to really, really like it. I think because the mainstream avoid me so much, it attracts a very strong following on the other side. What I always stand for and what I admire in others is people who look like their work and are their work as if there’s no separation between who you are and what you do.Jeremy Reed/The Ginger Light at the Serpentine Gallery, Poetry Marathon 2009Jeremy Reed/The Ginger Light performs at the Serpentine Gallery, Poetry Marathon 2009

On the topic of being fiercely uncompromising. You were good friends with JG Ballard …
Yes, Jim and I were big mutual admirers, before he died he wrote a great introduction to a collection of my poems called West End Survival Kit. He used to write to me a lot and he always put quotes on my books, we’d only meet sometimes because Jim was always writing and very reclusive. He was in Shepperton. He didn’t come into London very often because he kept way out in his own world.

He was attracted to Heathrow Airport where he went every afternoon for tea, watching arrivals and sitting in those lounges, that’s where he got his big fire up. I was the only poet he ever liked. I very much got my language from him. When I was a teenager I started reading his books and I though, yeah, this is the language, poetry is dead. Now my favourite writer is William Gibson …

So again with the science and technology …
Yes, that’s what interests me, I’ve got some new collections coming out which are very very high tech …

Jeremy Reed – Sequins by Gerry McneeJeremy Reed/The Ginger Light at the Serpentine Gallery, Poetry Marathon 2009

Contrary to this, you also have a tendency to glamorise very mundane things, do you consciously seek out the minutiae to give it a voice?
I like to find any brand name, bar-code, anything, and fire up a poem. The colour of green nail varnish on somebody – those are the things I look for. Everything that is considered to be outside of the remit of poetry moves me. People always attack me saying I waste my talents on things outside of poetry but poetry should be about every little detail, that’s what I like.

Jeremy Reed/The Ginger Light at the Serpentine Gallery, Poetry Marathon 2009Jeremy Reed/The Ginger Light at the Serpentine Gallery, Poetry Marathon 2009

Does that kind of criticism hurt you at all?
No, because I’m so completely absorbed in a parallel world, I write really, I guess for extraterrestrials. London for me is like living in a movie. It’s like theatre, you’ve got so much potential and options, that you can stop somebody in the street and say, wow, I love that eye-shadow, what brand is it?

And at that Glass leaves Jeremy alone in Pat Val, surrounded by his notebooks and the felt-tipped pens he uses to scribe his vast swathes of poetry, waiting for a spark, that next quixotic encounter that in his world, is never so far away.

by Benjamin Lovegrove

The CD Big City Dilemma by Jeremy Reed and The Ginger Light is out on Cherry Red Records

The Ginger Light perform at The National Portrait Gallery on February 15.

Jeremy Reed’s poetry is published by Enitharmon Press and Shearsman Books among others