The Poet Upstairs, John Tottenham converses with Anh Do
I have a neighbor who happens to be a poet. I like to say we’ve been trying to steer clear of each other since I moved to Angelino Heights a year and a half ago. Although he’s just right upstairs–I can hear him enter and exit his house (and likewise I’m sure)–I thought an email conversation was apt considering our inclination for mutual avoidance. This conversation mode was actually perfect for both of us as we both isolate ourselves.
In the sun drenched setting of Los Angeles, John’s subjects find bleakness and inertia…
Anh Do: Although we’ve been neighbors for a while now, I wasn’t really aware of what you did, but then I read your essay “British People in Hot Weather” recently and had a good chuckle. There seem to be quite a few British expats making art, writing, playing music and just existing in Los Angeles right now. How conducive is hot weather to being an English writer? Does it make you more or less productive? Your subject matter generally leans towards the morose and slothful, your recent book of poems is titled The Inertia Variations. Is that symbolic of Los Angeles itself?
John Tottenham: Yes, quite possibly. The constant sunshine was refreshing at first. It has a seductively deadening quality, which I probably sought out as an antidote to the more bracing climate I grew up in. But it’s unnatural, it numbs you out, and these days I’m very conscious of being weather-deprived… and numbed out. Reality seems to lie elsewhere. At the same time, I do prefer writing when it’s sunny outside: it seems to enable the subject matter you refer to… a vicious circle.
AD: I’m glad you described it as “unnatural,” as I’ve been compulsively using that word when describing this physical environment over the last year. It is unnatural here, preposterously so, but if reality lies somewhere else how do you make your own reality? You’ve been here for 20 years (correct me if I’m wrong) so you must to some extent like it here. Is it all that great here or are you just being complacent? And if you were to live in a more “real” setting, would your work then be brighter?
JT: Yes, I’m definitely being complacent. I worry that after a while (i.e. 20 years, though I did leave for five years in the middle) one begins to suffer from Hotel California-syndrome. Other places I’ve resided in this country – New Orleans, Portland, NYC (briefly) – I didn’t seem to meet as many kindred spirits, never felt as at home. Living here seems to somehow build character. Until recently, at least, it was a much harder place in which to lead a marginal existence, unlike the cities further up the coast, which cater more to a bohemian lifestyle. But nowadays there’s not much difference between Echo Park and the Mission district in San Francisco, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One of the nicest things about being an Angeleno is that once you get outside the city limits nothing but disdain is heaped upon the place. No other city inspires as much animosity. San Franciscans, in particular, seem to regard it as their civic duty to hate LA, although, curiously enough, the feeling is not reciprocated. New Yorkers are none too fond of us either. A case of empire envy, perhaps. As far as “reality” is concerned, I’m not sure if I’d want to deal with it on a permanent basis. I’d probably be even more of a miserable bastard elsewhere, living here takes the edge off.
AD: For me, existing here seems to degrade my character. Is it because I grew up here that everything is too easy for me, even pedestrian? San Francisco hates us because we perversely mature and New Yorkers envy our space and privacy. But let’s delve into your writings. What drives it?
JT: I’ve always written compulsively. Nowadays, I write more out of a sense of urgency. With the poetry, I only address subjects that haven’t been exhausted and that I am able to speak on, for better or worse (usually the latter) with a degree of authority. Most of the stuff I dredge up has been poisoning my system for a long time. Now I’m interested in poisoning other people’s systems.
I like to think that I’m performing a public service, but the public, of course, couldn’t be less interested.
AD: “Every man who says frankly and fully what he thinks is performing a public service.” I think a British philosopher said that once.
JT: I’m going to send you a complete version of The Inertia Variations. Don’t judge me too harshly. I don’t want you to think a complete degenerate wastrel lives directly above you. The funny thing is that everybody relates to this stuff, and is amused by it, even people who appear to lead healthy, active lives, because everybody thinks they don’t fulfill their own potential. And don’t feel you have to read all of this, for Mercy’s sakes. The published version contained the first seventy, there are now almost twice as many. A cursory look-over should give you the general idea.
AD: After a quick glance, I wanted to ask you about your use of language. Each word seems exact. When I read your poems, I see what you are saying; you use words as precise visual images.
JT: I hadn’t written poetry before, at least not since I was a teenager. I was more of a frustrated prose stylist. I write rather slowly and I’m not particularly interested in telling a story or creating character. Initially I had planned on writing a more autobiographical sort of novel on a similar theme and struggled with various attempts over the years, but I could barely even finish a short story. Finally, I gave in to the poetic form. It was obviously ideal. But I’d resisted it for a long time: It made me squeamish, owing to the unseemly stigma attached to it. I regret now that it took so long to embrace it. Each short poem is a monument to reams of discarded prose.
AD: I just read the first 28 Variations. You are an entertainer! I’m already poisoned, is that why I find them so delightful? And you’re right, even the most ambitious, as well as the socially driven, will relate to them in some way. I think you have to come from some sort of autobiographical perspective in order to make anything authentic, for it to be strong, to make people believe it. So tell me how this book came about.
JT: It was the fruit of many fruitless years. More than anything, I write out of a sense of duty, and experience a corresponding sense of guilt when I don’t do the work, which was the case for many years and is one of the themes that runs through the Inertias: that of work-avoidance, thwarted promise, guilt-wallowing, self-wrought blockage. It’s definitely not a celebration of indolence (though some people, strangely, interpret it as such), more of a lament. I felt I had to report back, hopefully in a way that others could relate to and be entertained by. Yes, it’s true, I’m ashamed to say, I put in all the empirical drudge work. I’m not going to win any awards for time management. As a result, however, I have become much more disciplined. I’ve done a lot more work since then. And I’m no longer capable of napping.
AD: Clearly you haven’t been suffering from any sort of intellectual laziness all these years. How are you managing your time now that you’re free from napping and chronic indolence?
JT: I have a new series that’s more or less finished: The Antiepithalamia. An epithalamium is a classical poem celebrating a marriage. These are the opposite: basically an evisceration of the concept of romantic love, with particular respect to the institution of marriage, focusing on some of the less exalted aspects of the enterprise. A few of them have been published here and there. I’d like to see them printed in their entirety at some point. They seem to strike a chord with people. The problem is that it’s poetry. A futile, masochistic exercise. In the time it takes to write a short poem, I could probably execute a painting, and sell it. Yet I have become addicted to this moribund form of expression.
AD: I don’t think of poetry as being futile or masochistic, I think it’s pretty badass to be a poet in today’s world.
JT: Too many people have given it a bad name. Anybody who scribbles on a napkin is allowed to call themselves a poet, whereas if you’re a musician you at least have to learn to play an instrument. As Robert Frost said “free verse is like trying to play tennis with the net down.” Another thing, it’s very difficult to get published and even when you do get published, nobody notices, and there’s no money in it. It seems that unless you’re in tight with the incestuous world of academic presses and literary magazines, you don’t stand much of a chance. There is no “supply meets demand” dynamic such as exists in the arena of music or art where middlemen are perpetually scurrying around attempting to satisfy the appetites of an ever-expanding audience hungry for whatever mediocre rubbish is thrown at them. There is no recognized criterion of quality because there isn’t much of an audience, which allows the powers that be to perpetuate a closed system. A few months ago, I took the unusual step of sending out some unsolicited work to about twenty publications and, curiously enough, the only submission that was accepted was the one that went in ‘over the transom’ thanks to the recommendation of a friend who was on good terms with the editor, at a fairly prestigious magazine, as it turned out, which somewhat added fuel to my paranoid theory that nepotism just might exist in the world of letters. I’ll send down a selection of Antiepithalamia. I hope these bitter words bring you solace.
AD: Thanks. Being a recent divorcee, these really touched a nerve. Companionship, loneliness… Aren’t they the same thing? There’s only you at the end of the day… and no one else. When I think of poetry, I think of beauty, compassion, the search for true meaning; perhaps that’s the naive idealist in me. But your Antiepithalamia are beautiful, compassionate and truthful. Like the Inertia Variations, the subject matter hasn’t been done to death and you seem to have a firm grasp on the theme. I love the cadence of these poems. I want to know more about how they were developed.
JT: There doesn’t seem to be much point, at this point, in penning another love poem or song. There are already far too many, and most of them aren’t very convincing. I remember, as a six year-old, being keenly aware of the nauseating preponderance of love songs, and vowing then to do something about it. At the time I thought I’d write songs about fighting and war. But things turned out somewhat differently. The hypocrisies inherent in romantic involvement have turned out to be a surprisingly fertile and relatively untapped field of inquiry. I’m glad you view them as compassionate. Some people find them mean-spirited, can’t imagine why. It just doesn’t seem that the selfish underside of love gets much of an airing.
AD: I’ve been wanting to ask you about music and how it affects your writing. I’m sure it’s a huge part of your life, as it is mine, and I’m completely positive it consumes you as it does me.
JT: Yes, it’s unfair, the advantages music has over the other arts. I almost resent it.
AD: How truly necessary is it to you and how does it affect your writing?
JT: Probably not to the extent that I’m guilty of: consuming entire genres in a retentive, completist-type manner. It disturbs me to consider the amount of time that has been devoured by the pursuit of collecting. The bug, thankfully, has somewhat faded recently. There doesn’t seem to be as much point in holding on to things as there used to be. I’m still very attached to vinyl. But at least I listen to it. And without music I wouldn’t be able to remember anything, it has soundtracked my life to such an extent. Every road trip, every romance can be recaptured by replaying what one was listening to at the time. Regarding my own listening habits, I’m obsessed by old blues records, mostly the pre-war stuff. I’ve pretty much listened it around the clock for the last twenty years. Around that time my tastes began to recede into the past and they’ve never really resurfaced. I had to work my way through a lot of other music to get there. It was a long haul. I like to have music playing softly in the background while I write, mostly old blues or John Fahey or chamber music, it helps to create a mood.
AD: I don’t know much about blues. Is it more about the music or the lyrics for you? Collecting is quite pleasurable. How to you collect? Do you also have CDs? CDs are disposable but not records, which are very tangible, there is real meaning behind them. Have you gotten around to digital music? What do you think of file sharing?
JT: I started collecting records at a young age and have kept it going ever since, never really embraced CDs – a shabby substitute they seemed – and still haven’t got involved in mp3s, file sharing, etc. Used to own a lot of 45s and lament having got rid of most of them. Collected 78s for a while, junked some very desirable ones when I lived in the South: a Charlie Patton on Paramount, various others. But I stopped. The fun’s taken out of it when everybody has access to eBay and the price guides. As far as getting into blues was concerned, I guess I worked my way down to it through other music. I was always attracted to the blues and country elements in the rock music I listened to when I was growing up. I have many lonely passions and when I get interested in something – be it music, literature or a murder case – I study every root and branch of it. I could, perhaps, have been doing something more useful with the time that was thus consumed. But it’s given me a lot of pleasure. Blues lyrics are a kind of whole poetic field of their own, the imagery is extraordinary: “So cold in China the birds can’t hardly sing”; “Blues came across Texas loping like a mule”, just to use Blind Lemon Jefferson’s first record as an example. Admittedly, I find the morbidity, fatalism, anomie and sense of rock-hard resignation very attractive. It serves as a fine aid to contemplation.
AD: Nowadays, anybody who claims they are a musician can be a musician. And anyone with a laptop and Serato (not even vinyl!) can call themselves as DJ. Isn’t this absurd? It doesn’t take any talent or skill whosoever (well perhaps knowing how to use a ‘puter) and this has been proven over and over again in music lately. It’s the standard now. Art as artifice, it’s a total joke. What do you make of the state of contemporary music?
JT: I’ve never even heard of Serato. I’m horribly jaded, of course, but it seems to me that one of the problems with R&R music nowadays is that far too many young people seem to view it as an avenue of self-expression when they have absolutely nothing to say. They like the idea of being “in a band” and living out the R&R dream; they enjoy the lifestyle and the attitude it permits them to exude but they bring nothing new to the form. It doesn’t even occur to them that they could be doing something inventive. There are some questing performers out there but mostly they’re confined to the margins, which is probably the best place to be, anyway.
AD: I really do believe that when it is good, it’s good and there’s no denying it. And yours is good. Perhaps you will be celebrated posthumously? Cult classic or best seller? Which do you prefer?
JT: When artists complain that they only have cult followings, I’m always amazed by their naked greed and vulgar ambition. Mass appeal usually signifies artistic worthlessness. To be understood by everybody would be very disturbing. At this point I would happily settle for posthumous acclaim but it’s difficult to arrange these things in advance. Maybe if I killed myself… that might enhance my legacy.
AD: Since we’re leaning towards what could possibly happen after death, do you think you’ll continue living in LA? Has living here been what you had imagined it to be?
JT: That’s not a very nice way to talk about your hometown. I romanticized the place in advance, from afar, at an impressionable age. It met my expectations. I stayed here. Then it got stale, as places will, as one does. I’d like to live in the country, watch flowers grow, listen to birds sing. That’s the life I fled to begin with, having grown up in the most idyllic bucolic surroundings imaginable. But it’ll probably never happen. I’m in my element here, much as I sometimes get sick of my element. I can’t imagine being as comfortably uncomfortable anywhere else. -30-