SOMA/SEMA, David Toms (52pp, £7.00, Knives Forks and Spoons Press)

Imaginary conversations #17: poet and occasional critic and cricketer Jeremy Twill in imaginary conversation with David Toms, about the latter's new book, SOMA/SEMA.

JT: Can I begin by asking if you are well?

DT: I'm as well as can be expected. Thank you for asking.

JT: You're welcome. Can I begin again by asking if the book is called SOMA/SEMA
, SOMA SEMA, or SOMA│SEMA? And, if I may, follow that up by asking if it matters or makes any difference?

DT: I leave it to you. The reader is an integral part of the poetic process and so her/his decisions are as important as my own.

JT: Thank you. I find that quite empowering.

DT: You're welcome.

JT: Does it then follow that I'm allowed to interpret the poems in any way I choose and to make up my own mind as to a meaning, or about the reasons lurking behind some of the techniques you use in them?

DT: No, it doesn’t follow. My poems are not accidents, nor are they open to any old interpretation, although I would allow some room for manŌuvre in that field, given language's indeterminacy. But poets have reasons for what they do. And so do I.

JT: I see, I think. However, can I go out on a limb here and tell you some of my thoughts regarding an interpretation of the first poem in the book – "Touch/Pause/Engage"?

DT: By all means.

JT: I hope you will not be upset if I'm way off target.

DT: Let's wait and see, shall we?

JT: Fair enough. Well, if I might quote one section of the poem for the benefit of our reader, or readers [titters], while pointing out that there are nine sections each similarly constructed…. here goes:


     metronomic &&

I want to say first that I like all these words (although I feel less enthusiastic about the "w/" and the double ampersand) but I initially had trouble connecting all of them up. It's not so hard with 'calibrated', 'metronomic' and 'blinking', because I can place them in some kind of mechanistic engineering kind of relationship, although that doesn't seem to get me very far. But I struggled more with 'ghastly', 'pensive' and 'corrosion', and I'm still struggling. A friend suggested that corrosion suggests age and wear and tear, but I had already thought of that myself. He/she had nothing to say about the other two words and carried on preparing lunch. I wondered about ghastly thoughts leading to some kind of mental corrosion, but decided that was a stretch too far. And I wondered if the nine sections connected to each other – I know that the word 'enrapture" is repeated three times, but I wondered if that was just a ploy. I assume they do
connect in some way, but again I found myself somewhat at sea. I'm all for a reader having to do some work when reading a poem, but they surely shouldn't have to labour so hard their head  begins to hurt. Can you help me at all? Perhaps I am not very bright......

DT: Well, that's possible, of course. [Smiles] And what you say about the working reader is something we might debate for a long time and never come to an agreement. How can I know, for example, how much what you
call thinking makes your head begin to hurt? Perhaps it's not much. But that's a side-issue. Your reading of the poems should be informed by a knowledge that what they endeavour to do is think inside the physical form of the language.

JT: Come again?

DT: You seem to think that if you connect the words in the rather schoolboy-ish way you describe you will be solving some kind of puzzle and so deserve a prize. Poems are not puzzles, they are linguistic constructs with a physicality that imbues them with more than what we normally and somewhat lazily call "meaning".

JT: Well, leaving aside whether or not words have lazy meanings, which strikes me as a very good title for a very boring seminar somewhere, does the poem "Flickpatter", which I can't quote fairly because some of it's made up of words [speaking in italics] actually on top of each other
– is this a case of the words physically fighting one another for a position on the page, or competing with one another for attention?

DT: I leave it to you. The reader is an integral part of the poetic process and so her/his decisions are as important as my own.

JT: I found it interesting that on the page opposite "Flickpatter" the poem "Words" says "words/ frail like/ woods/ strike out in silence". And on that page there is a lot of blank and empty silent space.

DT: I'm interested in what you find interesting.

JT: Really? I doubt it. Anyway, the same "jostling for space", as far as I see it, also happens later in one or two other poems that prove quite difficult to read in the conventional manner because some of the words are obscured and literally unreadable. I suppose there is also a visual and eye-strainingly physical element at work here that is part of the meaning, although I'm already wary of using the word "meaning". There IS, after all, a passage in one of the poems that goes "If meaning something/ Something meaning anything/ Anything meaning/ Nothing noting that/ Ambi/ Textual….." and so on and so forth, which suggests to me that, if nothing else, meaning is not something that for you has a fixed value.

DT: I think I know what you mean. [Chuckles intellectually]

JT: Moving on, what would you say to someone who told you they rather enjoyed reading your poems although they did not understand them, but felt rather intimidated by them insofar as their author [speaking in italics] appears
to be so much more learned than themselves? I am thinking at the moment about the poem called "The Great American Furniture Sale" and the piece that follows it, "A Gallery: a commentary on The Great American Furniture Sale".
DT: I'm not sure I would say anything to them at all. I'm not sure that someone like that would talk to me, or be reading my poems, or even go to the places I go. They would probably be reading poems they could
[JT's italics] understand, if they were reading poetry at all, which is perhaps doubtful.

JT: Who, then, would you say is, or are, your readership?

DT: I write for those who care.

JT: I'm going to be generous and award you a bonus point for that answer, but only for its speed, not because I like it. You are winning this conversation, by the way. But in the light of that remark about caring, can I turn now to the poem "Standard Deviation", and ask you about a stanza which I will now quote with all its intentional spelling and grammatical and typographical "deviations" :

     Should i continue? Should continuance be a
     pre-requisite of my writing? What of my wrongs?
     There are some suggestions inthe media that
     the medium im workigng in is dead. I dare them.
     They doubt me. I don't blame thm.

It strikes me that this concern for writing is one that any writer would have in these days of computers and cyber-sex and mobile phones that can tell you where you are and tell you what you want to say before you've even decided who to say it to, and when to see someone using a fountain pen is rarer than seeing a youngster give up his seat on the bus to an old lady. But answer me this, if you can [speaking in underlined]: does anybody really care?

DT: Well, later in that poem I point out that certain things need to be said. And they do. Some people know this and care that these things are said. Wouldn’t you agree?

JT: To an extent, yes. But I have my doubts whether or not poetry is the place to say them. Into David Cameron's ear would perhaps be more useful, although he would almost certainly have it turned off, or stuffed full of an impenetrable wax. But someone, I forget who, once said that poetry doesn't change anything, it merely adds to it. Would you agree?

DT: I'm not sure I understand.

JT: That's interesting. I thought you would. Indeed, I was hoping you would, because I

DT: Perhaps we could move on. I have a supper date this evening and want to tinker with some language before I go out.

JT: Yes, I have something to do too. I have to collect my goldfish from the vet, and they close at 5.30. Let's briefly talk about another big poem in the book, which as it happens is called "A Brief History of Ireland – Version #136". The back-cover of the book says this is a poem of "recombined found-texts" that "reflects on 'the transformation of the class structure'". Personally I'm more interested in the compositional procedures you use than the history of Ireland, any mention of which immediately makes me want to go to sleep. For our reader, let's take one short extract first, which just happens to be the poem's opening:




     I was a policeman myself before I was a judge
     for the sceptic, that delicate creature
      that fell: capsized

Now, let's skip over what this might mean, and point out, just in case our reader is not paying attention, that the I, A
and Before all appear in the line that follows. There are then several sections that repeat this procedure with different words, and these are then followed by a long passage that reiterates and recombines and also adds to most of what has been said before in the poem – for example, thus:

     I was a policeman myself before I was a judge:
     somehow, that seemed a despicable occupation
     for the sceptic, that delicate creature,
     is all too easily frightened.

As I say, I'm interested in this procedure, not least because it seems you're getting your money's worth out of the words and phrases by using them more than once.

DT: Now you're being frivolous. And your comment about Ireland is rather insulting. I think it's time we wrapped this up, don't you? I'm afraid it hasn't been very fruitful.
JT: I disagree. And, by the way, one man's insult is another man's sense of humour. I think I read that somewhere, or wrote it in a poem once. I forget so much. But I would like to hear what you have to say about your compositional procedures, and what it all amounts to, for those things fascinate me, and I'm sure some of the folk out there will be equally interested. There are, for instance, a couple of pages devoted to handwritten scribbles that are almost unreadable – one is not much more than a slight word puzzle and the other is like a note – rather than poems as we know and love the term.

DT: But don’t you think such explications take the magic out of poetry?

JT: Ah! I love it when someone mentions the magic of poetry. It's like someone mentioning Roy of the Rovers
or Paddy Payne, Fighter Pilot. Such memories! But I wasn't expecting you to be one of the someone's.

DT: And why not, may I ask?

JT: I've read your book.

DT: [rising from his chair and reaching for his top hat, cape and cane] I have to go now. You are an idiot and a cad.

JT: Sadly you are not the first to hold that opinion. Thank goodness I'm not a real person, and have no feelings to hurt.

© Jeremy Twill, 2012

Jeremy Twill's conversation with critic Phil Borch was published at Stride
in 2005. A collection of poetic collaborations with Martin Stannard, entitled Poems To Read Out Loud At Bedtime is in preparation.