Jeremy Reed: A supernova in orange and purple ink
The flamboyant, visionary Jeremy Reed, author, poet and full-time dreamer, talks to Gary Lachman about his obsession with the Sixties
Sunday 30 July 2006
Even before I turned on the tape recorder, Jeremy Reed was quotable. "I've always felt that literature is the enemy of the imagination," he said, sitting down to his Lapsang Souchong tea. Lapsang Souchong, I soon found out, is the only tea he drinks, and as we settled in at the Photographers Gallery for our conversation, I realised this was the first of several "onlys" I would discover that afternoon. Another was his choice of favourite photographer. For someone with a reputation for flamboyance, he was surprisingly camera shy; the only photographer he trusted, he said, was Mick Rock, the collaborator on his 1994 poetry collection Pop Stars and the creator of so many iconic Glam Rock images. Jeremy's preference was understandable and I almost felt apologetic that Mick wouldn't be showing up. The next "only" emerged when I mentioned that I was taken by his phrase "the committed imagination". Committed to what, I wondered.
"Committed I suppose to what JG Ballard called 'the visionary present', transforming the universe into its imagined equivalent. I mean, realistic writing doesn't interest me at all, it bores me. I'm always looking for the strange supernovas that flare up, the eccentrics and obsessed... Imagination to me is a faculty I was born with. I started writing at the age of six or seven. In orange and purple inks, just like the inks I use today. I only use coloured inks and I always write everything in exercise books by pen: novels, poetry, essays. I was delighted to find that Francis Bacon used to use green ones... I celebrate writing every day." Later he remarked that he started each day by holding his pen up to the sun.
Given that Jeremy has been writing since day one and that "I should think I could cross the Sahara with the amount of writing I've done," I had a vision of a sea of depleted felt pens, their contents sacrificed to capturing the dreams he has "with my eyes open", a pastime he engages in daily. Yes, Jeremy is committed. He's one of a dying, if not defunct breed: the full-time poet.
Jeremy Reed's poems first started to appear in small press publications and magazines in the 1970s, venues he still appreciates today. His first substantial collection, Bleecker Street, was published by Cape in 1980. Since then, his coloured pens haven't stopped, and his exercise books have produced an intriguing oeuvre. Along with his poetry, including translations of Rilke, Montale and others, he's written novels ranging in subject matter from the Marquis de Sade's sister and the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus, to Isidore Ducasse, better known as the Comte de Lautréamont, and Oscar Wilde's Dorian Grey. Then there are the critical studies of Rimbaud, Jean Genet, Artaud, and Anna Kavan. But Jeremy has also focused on a related passion, writing long literary love letters to pop stars and singers like Marc Almond, Lou Reed, Brian Jones, Scott Walker and Billie Holiday. If this infra dig interest in torch singers wasn't enough to make him suspect, his personal style and appearance have often made him a target for less committed critics. Jeremy usually appears at readings in black leather trousers, nail polish, beret and shades, and is given to tossing up a handful of sequins at the end of a verse. This hasn't gone over well with the well-heeled and buttoned-down among his peers. Andrew Motion, in particular, called him "that effete little pseud", and the "David Bowie of the poetry circuit" - a left-handed insult in Jeremy's case. But others felt differently. Kathleen Raine, JG Ballard, David Gascoyne, Terry Eagleton, David Lodge and even Björk have spoken highly of his work. Yet even with this considerable fan base, he still finds himself excised from "the British literary establishment," a situation that his new collection of poetry, Orange Sunshine, dedicated to "the 1960s, the party that lasted a decade", probably won't change. He's still looking for supernovas. Were there more of them back then, I asked.
"Yes, very much so, it was a decade of the imagination, whether it was the drugs, the fashion, the music, the socio-sexual revolution. There was a detonation of the unconscious then. Something that people have had to react to ever since. There really hasn't been anything like it since, except I guess punk. But most English literature... it's always so depressing. We have the barbiturate poetry of Andrew Motion and those post-Larkin poets. Very grey, very drab. But I decided about three years ago that so much great music had been made in the 1960s that rather than write a prose book about it, I would do it as an epic poem. I felt the music deserved to be celebrated through poems. The book is about my reaction to Blair politics, the police state, the police politics of British literature. It's about a time when people tried to blow all that up, to detonate the unconscious. Sadly all that quickly re-entrenched itself."
The 1960s have got a lot of bad press, I said, but people always seem to go back to them.
"Well, you had people like Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. The Stones brought us into imagination. Britain refused to take on surrealism in the 1930s. It's that British conservatism and the politics of the establishment, a refusal to open the psyche out to the imagination. The only manifestation we've really had of it is through music. We could blow up the social structure through music, but it never seems to happen through literature, apart from JG Ballard."
Why is that?
"Well, there are those who are committed to writing poetry and those who use it for power or politics or as some minor vocation. I'm only interested in the ones who are inseparable from their work. People have reacted so nastily to me and tried to airbrush me out of the picture. I read at the Queen Elizabeth Hall recently, at a concert for 20th-century French music, and after each poem I showered the air with sequins. The establishment never forgave me, because I used to give readings in heavy make-up. That so antagonised these suited men. But the point of poetry is not to care about your 'reputation'. And when you consider how much Keats or Shelley wrote in their short lives, compared to today when you're supposed to put out a 50-page book every six years... I write every day. What are these others doing the rest of the time? They have no experience. They have safe little academic jobs. They don't know what living is."
I wondered if there was still an audience for a full-time poet.
"There's an audience for imagination, but the literary establishment consistently blocks it. They use beta-blockers on it all the time to try to get rid of it because they're frightened of it. You can't have imagination with these safe academic jobs, or writing these neat little essays on Bob Dylan whom you've discovered 30 years too late."
Yet there's an apparent lack of a 1960s ethos today, and the recent riots in Paris were for job security, not freedom of imagination.
"Yes, that's sad. The years of Thatcher and Blair have created such a grey horizon that youth today has no conception of revolution. It's the prerogative of youth to rebel but today the belief, or even the recognition of this has disappeared. Jung said the great revolutions begin on an inner plane and surface later, and Yeats said that in dreams begin realities. We need to remember what André Breton said about poetry, that it's dreaming with your eyes open. That's what I consider myself doing all day."
You have a line somewhere about "writers who work without remuneration or overt fame for the good of the imagination"...
"Absolutely. I'd like to write a book called "Alien" about my life as a poet. I've never had a job. I've written and survived by magic and the help of friends, patrons, money falling out of the sky. I do this for love and for no other reason. You have to go out there and do it, and if it goes wrong, who cares? You live and die as one. I hope to die writing. That's what I've always done."
Was there for him, I wondered, a defining moment of the 1960s?
"I'd say it was the first time Brian Jones wore a girl's polka-doted blouse. It had never been done before."
'Orange Sunshine: The Party that Lasted a Decade' by Jeremy Reed is published by SAF Publishing, price £8.99. To order a copy, with free p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897
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