British writer and provocateur extraordinaire talks about some wild sidetrips his literary career has taken, how he has managed to write his numerous books by hand and his love of groundbreaking literature by Anne Sexton, J.G. Ballard, William S. Burroughs, John Wieners, Robert Lowell. And, oh yes, Leonard Cohen, Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd.
Jeremy Reed (bn. 1951) is an incredibly prolific and brilliant British poet, novelist, and biographer, who I met through Danny Fields. In addition to his nearly 70 books of poetry, he has also published books on the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud and John Ashbery, biographies of Anna Kavan, Jean Genet, Scott Walker, Brian Jones and Lou Reed (two of them!), and several novels. We sat at a café in London’s Soho where Jeremy writes every day. We talked about Anne Sexton, Jimi Hendrix, John Wieners and John Lydon, to name a few. And about science fiction and suicide, not to mention neurobiology. He says he has always followed Oscar Wilde’s dictum, ‘it is an honour to be ruined by poetry.’
Gillian McCain: Where did you grow up?
Jeremy Reed: I grew up in Jersey, in the Channel Islands.
GM: So you moved to London what year?
JR: Early 80s.
GM: When did you start writing poems?
JR: When I was about six, seven. I’ve never done anything else but write poetry and all the rest of the stuff I write. There isn’t anything else to do in life if you do that.
GM: So have you ever had to have a straight job?
JR: No. I’ve never done any form of systemized job. I’ve worked occasionally as intellectual companions to wealthy men. That’s about it.
GM: Really? What does that entail?
JR: Oh, you know – just being a friend, and dealing with loneliness. And helping on psychological levels. I’ve done that for several people. I was also a professional pornographer for about eight years to [lowers voice] a private patron, who would employ me to write particular, um – pieces of erotica that he wanted written. He would simply dictate to me what he wanted, and I would write it for him.
GM: Really? For eight years?
JR: Yes! Probably accumulated about seven hundred pages of it…
GM: So would you make it more, um…
JR: I would make it exactly as he wanted it. And once I got to know him well, then I knew how to tailor it.
JR: Oh, it was lovely. He was a rich, Canadian sort of entrepreneur – he died, anyhow, a few years ago. But he was just this masterpiece of an individual who employed me as his professional pornographer. So I would write the piece, deliver it to him, and read it to him, and then receive my payments. That’s how we did it; every two weeks I’d go up to his lodge with what I’d written…
GM: Would you have to read it out loud?
JR: Oh, yes, because I’m such a good performer. So that was all part of it. It was great. He died about four years ago.
GM: And was that his real first name?
JR: Alan? I assume it was. Although he went under many names. He had certain obsessive fixations in some erotic spectrum that I colored them up for him. By writing it, putting it into a tiny little film he might make with a couple of people. Private film. Or short story…
GM: So you wrote mini screenplays and stories. But he didn’t ask you to be involved with the productions?
JR: Nope. Not on any level. No. My only role was writing.
JR: Probably not. I don’t want them traceable to the particular person. Alan also drew extensive erotica and composed. So some of them I would write as lyrics for him. He was a very unusual individual. And then when I first came to London I worked as a – psychological support to a very wealthy businessman in Kensington two days a week.
GM: And what did that entail?
JR: That involved listening to his problems. And sympathizing. And so I worked for Jonathan for about four, five years. Six years, maybe. Two days a week –
GM: But how did you get that job?
JR: I saw a little ad in a paper, which said: “Author wants secretary.”
GM: When did it become evident that he wasn’t looking for a secretary?
JR: Right from the first time I met him. But we got on fantastically. He was enormously kind and very much into his own private world. He had family money. And he was also using stocks and shares, et cetera. He didn’t like the system. He was very reclusive.
GM: Do you feel like you helped him?
JR: Yes, we helped each other. He made it possible for me to write, and I gave him the psychological, emotional support he needed. So it was a perfect exchange.
GM: So you’ve been an informal therapist –
JR: Yes –
GM: A pornographer –
JR: Yes –
GM: Poet –
GM: What other gigs?
JR: Nothing else. Just a novelist. Biographer, performer – that’s all. I’ve never worked for anything outside of individuals. And again, on a very marginal basis. Never had the time. When you write seventy books, you don’t have time to –
JR: Can’t remember. Probably fifty, maybe. Something like that…
GM: Wow. Do you work on more than one thing at a time?
JR: I usually work on three or four things at a time. Usually write the poetry in the morning, then other books in the afternoon. Just depends. But I’m always working on a novel, and a nonfiction book. I just finished a book about poetry and suicide called Swallowing the Romantic Snake.
JR: Probably never find a publisher, but it’s really good.
GM: So, who do you talk about? Plath, Anne Sexton –
JR: Yeah. Sylvia Plath’s involved in it, ha ha ha, and my own suicide attempt in my teens. Hmm, who else is in it? Harry Crosby is in it. Thomas Lovell Beddoes is in it.
GM: Who’s that?
JR: He wrote Death’s Jest Book. Nineteenth-century Romantic poet. Lots of other people. Ann Quin. Favorite novelist of mine, who drowned herself in Brighton. Anna Kavan, who I have already written a biography of. B.S. Johnson, who cut his wrists. A whole lot of people.
GM: How did you try to do it?
JR: Oh, just an overdose on a beach, hoping that I would drown.
GM: And you woke up?
JR: No, unfortunately somebody found me.
JR: That was the worst moment of my life. Yes. Because otherwise I wouldn’t have to have gone through all of this! Ha ha ha. So it would have been much easier. Much easier.
JR: So I’ve traveled the spectrum of unknown people in this book. Which some friend will type up for me. It’s probably about three hundred pages. It deals with Anne Sexton as well. Those sort of people. But also lesser-known people. And it deals with Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Jimi Hendrix.
GM: You think Hendrix committed suicide?
JR: Oh, without doubt, yes! He took nineteen sleeping tablets.
GM: Why? Do you think he suffered from depression?
JR: I suppose it was a very difficult time. Jimi Hendrix Experience had split up. He would always have remained the greatest guitarist in the world, but he’d been robbed of all of money, et cetera. And he just – had enough. As he said, he was made to look like a clown onstage, you know? Setting fire to his guitar, and smashing it up, and all of that. And he got sick of the game. If you read the circumstances of his death, it’s pretty horrible. He died in a sordid little room in Ladbroke Grove, and the woman that was with him deserted him when she saw he was dying.
GM: That’s not unusual.
JR: She cleaned up all the drugs and just left him there. Locking both entrances to his flat, et cetera, and about six hours later called an ambulance. By which time, of course, he was dead. Large overdose of barbiturates. So that covered quite a spectrum of people. I hope we’ll find a publisher, but I’ve no idea how.
But Ballard, to me, is the greatest British writer of the last hundred years. There is no novel like Crash. It breaks every frontier. And the language is just amazing from beginning to end. Ballard, like me, had nothing to lose in the literary world. Never entered it, and never cared about it.
GM: Who do you like to read?
JR: In poetry, my favorite poet of all time is John Wieners. After that, I think maybe John Ashbery is my favorite. I don’t read any British. It all bores me. Completely. It is all just social commentary. Whereas I love Ashbery enormously. And John Wieners. I love James Schuyler. And the earlier people, like Frank O’Hara, that lot –
GM: Those are all my favorites, too.
JR: Because they liberate subject matter into the modern world. British poetry reverses back to the 1920s. It’s always been backwards, never forwards. Whereas when you read Ashbery you travel to places that he’s discovering in the process of writing. So it’s fantastic. I like Thom Gunn as well – a British poet who lived in California – he wrote some very good poetry over the years. I like – although I don’t read her so much now – Anne Sexton a lot. But I don’t tend to read a lot of poetry. I tend to read more neuroscience, and…
GM: Do you really? Ha ha ha.
JR: Yes. I read a lot. Particularly about neuroscience, neurobiology, and all that. My great hero was always J.G. Ballard. Who loved my work, and I loved his work. He was the only British writer of any interest, because he used a neural vocabulary, and he dealt with tech and all of that stuff. Without knowing anything about it. And William Gibson – I love him, too. Probably think he’s the greatest poet alive today. Even though he writes in prose.
JR: I adore William Gibson’s novels. They just get better and better…
JR: Because he, like Ballard, writes the greatest poetry in prose. I think William Gibson is absolutely the best prose writer on Earth. I don’t think there’s anybody to come anywhere near him. Every sentence is full of imagery and it’s stunning. Just like Ballard was. There’s nothing like Crash, The Atrocity Exhibition, High-Rise, Concrete Island, all those books – that, for me, was poetry. And I like Edmund White’s earlier novels – but I tend to read – if it’s fiction – sci-fi. I like the imagination and the language, which is always going forward. Rather than stuck in dead literary language. Probably my favorite sci-writer – certainly alive – is Peter Hamilton.
GM: Don’t know him.
JR: Pete Hamilton’s a British sci-fi writer and he is amazing. Every sentence places you in a new world. He’s fantastic. I like Stephen Baxter. Particularly his earlier novels. Kim Stanley Robinson, who wrote the Mars trilogy – Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars. Because they’re all using a new language. I’ve always looked to sci-fi as the way forward. Because those guys do a lot of research. They know the future. And they usually write so well and of course they don’t get any literary credit at all, because they’re sci-fi. They’re regarded as sort of a secondary medium.
GM: Yeah. Yeah.
JR: It’s not literature, so you just treat it as entertainment or something. But Ballard, to me, is the greatest British writer of the last hundred years. There is no novel like Crash. It breaks every frontier. And the language is just amazing from beginning to end. Ballard, like me, had nothing to lose in the literary world. Never entered it, and never cared about it. And, of course, I loved Burroughs’s novels. Naked Lunch, again, breaks every frontier. I particularly like his novel Western Lands. Which I think is a masterpiece. Again, you can’t recreate Burroughs. He was just so inimitably unique. In the way he, again, looked to science – biology, medicine, all of that stuff – to stick it in novels. Fantastic. I also read biographies. I’m always fascinated by particular individuals. What they eat. Drink. What medicines they take – all of that. Health symptoms.
GM: Did you read the Frank O’Hara bio?
JR: No, I didn’t. I’ve got it, but I’ve never had time to read it.
GM: I thought it was really good.
JR: Yes, I believe it is. I’m told that by most people.
Jeremy Reed and Itchy Ear perform at The Serpentine Gallery Poetry Marathon 2009.
GM: And did you read the Anne Sexton one?
GM: Did you like it?
JR: I did. Because it recounted so much case history. I thought it was great.
GM: Yeah. I loved it. It’s just amazing that she learned how to write a poem from a TV program!
What about Alice Notley?
JR: I like her work. She has no profile here whatsoever. The British want to shrink everything – downsize everything to, you know, just boringness. They wouldn’t understand somebody like Alice Notley. Where she’s going? Or Sexton.
GM: Did you like Tom Raworth?
JR: I always found Tom Raworth too bitty and fragmented. I liked Lee Harwood a lot. I knew Lee very well in his later years. Lee was an amazing person. Very influenced by Ashbery. With whom, of course, he had a relationship. Lee was a lovely person. Lived in Brighton. Very special person. He’s a sad loss. He was one of, again, the only English poets I really liked, very innovative and forward-looking and – just did his own thing. And he used to know John Wieners very well. He would tell me a lot about him; his poverty, and madness, and all the rest of it. As you know, John Wieners lived in terrible poverty a lot of the time.
GM: Which is your favorite Wieners book?
JR: They’re all too good. Hmmm, not Nerves, or Behind the State Capitol – maybe the recently published journals, which are really just drops and drops and drops of poems, which are absolutely amazing. Somebody’s supposed to be working on a collected poems of John Wieners, but I have no idea whether that will ever come out. Wieners never collected his work. He’d abandon it. I’ve got so many magazines with his poems in them. Because they’re all uncollected. And there’s tons of them. His collected poems could probably be two or three thousand pages. But in his lifetime – he stopped publishing in 1975. Because he was very disillusioned. Behind the State Capitol was his last book. Although his friend Raymond Foye got together for Black Sparrow a collected poems…
GM: I’ve met Raymond.
JR: Raymond’s very, very nice. When I got in touch with Raymond and told him about my interest, he sent me some marvelous recordings of John Wieners – reading at universities towards the end of his life. Which were fantastic. Raymond’s enormously nice.
GM: Yes, he is nice.
JR: I’ve never met him, but I have email correspondence with him. He’s always been fantastic. After John Wieners died, he sent me a sort of John Wieners shopping list, or memo for the day – one of John’s little notes and scribbles. Which was wonderful.
GM: Do you always write by hand?
JR: I always write the original by hand. Because the contact of pen on paper is very special. And it sets up an impetus to complete it. And then type it up later.
GM: Writing by hand uses different parts of your brain.
JR: It’s a different spatialization. I can go to any bookshop and see which novel was written by hand and which was written on the computer –
GM:Really? How do you tell?
JR: It’s just a different spatialization of thought. I remember Ballard saying, “Computers are too slow for me.”
GM: But don’t you find the hand too slow?
JR: No. Because the problem with the computer is, all the time you’re looking at the screen to see what you’re writing even as you write. And therefore, it’s fractionally slower than actual. Yes, that’s how I always do it. Then type it up later, when it – becomes a different specialization. Then you see all the mistakes in the original. Much easier. For editing. The screen is great, of course…
GM: For poems, definitely. To edit a poem.
JR: Yes, although I find it more for prose than poems. The editing of a line is much easier. You’re more aware of what you’ve repeated, and what’s wrong, and all of that stuff. In the transferring. And notebooks are easy to carry around. Ballard always wrote by hand as well.
Sex Pistols, for me, are the band. They just had it. The look, the audacity – you know? The fuck you attitude. They were incredible. Nothing like them. And then, of course, up comes five hundred craze-eyed punk bands to follow them. And then it all dips down.
GM: I think Burroughs typed.
JR: Later on, yeah. Udo Breger was telling me that at Dalmeny Court – near Piccadilly, where Burroughs lived – he had an electric Olivetti typewriter that he used. Which at the time was probably quite modern. And later on I think he kept to typewriters. I don’t know if he used word processors. Maybe. But he was too old, by then, to care. But, you know, it’s a preference, isn’t it? A lot of people – probably in fifty years there won’t be any hand-writers, because everything will be just…
GM: They’re not teaching it in school!
JR: That’s right.
GM: That’s crazy.
JR: Yes. A certain spatialization of writing will disappear. And be replaced, of course, by something else.
GM: But it’s also – archives.
JR: Yes, archives will suffer terribly. There’s a line by Robert Lowell that I love, in one of his poems, in which he says, “My eye has seen what my hand has done.” Particularly his Notebook, and those very loose sequences he wrote around that time, I think are amazing. And Life Studies, of course, such a fantastic book. And the imagery by Lowell, I always love. There’s nothing commonplace. He always sparkles with imagery. He’s gone out of fashion, but in terms of actually day-by-day confessional writing, he’s brilliant. We wouldn’t have got, say, Plath or Sexton without him, because he taught them and he’d already done Life Studies and made madness, and breakdown, and domestic issues into a viable subject for poetry. Life Studies is a seminal book. Very well written, apart from the Catholicism, and that continuous Catholic guilt, the rest of it’s great. That’ll live on as a good book.
GM: Were you a Ginsberg fan? Or are you?
JR: No, it kind of sprawled too much for me. I mean, I always loved what he stood for but there’s never any central focus in a Ginsberg poem. Which, to me, didn’t ever pull me in. But I admired what he did immensely, of course. He was an ambassador of poetry –
GM: Yeah, he really was, wasn’t he?
JR: Singularly focused on poetry. But I just find that Howl, I like. But the rest of it I find just too sprawling. There’s never any real focus or tension that builds in it. But I don’t know his work well enough. I always much prefer people like Frank O’Hara and that lot. And I like Robert Duncan a lot as well. Duncan, to me, is a much greater poet than Ginsberg.
GM: He goes way over my head.
JR: The mystical imagery is difficult. But he’s still a great lyrical poet.
But I think probably (Leonard) Cohen’s first four albums are masterpieces. I don’t think Dylan’s ever comes anywhere near that, in terms of craft. And the fact that Cohen never complains. He’s so resigned to suffering. Whereas most Dylan songs are, “Oh, you hurt me” or “You did that to me” – boy-meets-girl. Whereas Cohen just accepts totally his existential phenomenology. His suffering. He’s so resigned to it. Whereas Dylan’s protesting.
GM: Who are your favorite songwriters?
JR: Favorite songwriters? I suppose I’ve listened an enormous amount to Lou Reed over the years.
I’ve listened an enormous amount to Marc Almond over the years. And I’ve listened an enormous amount to Bowie over the years. So I suppose amongst those are the people that I like for songwriting. Of course, there are the consummate craftsmen like Leonard Cohen who get it perfectly.
GM: What’s your favorite Leonard Cohen song?
JR: I think it would have to be “Stranger Song.” Or maybe “Who by Fire.”
GM: That’s a great one. I like “Famous Blue Raincoat.”
JR: Oh, yes. Me, too. I adore that song. That’s on the first three to four albums, every song is a masterpiece. There’s no failures. And there’s never been any lyrics like that in pop or rock.
His first four albums I think are the greatest lyric albums in music. Without any conceivable doubt. Even a song like “Suzanne” is so perfect. The meter of it. The way it scans – everything is just superb. And I love his novel Beautiful Losers. It’s a kind of erotic masterpiece. A pansexual, polysexual masterpiece. It’s scattered, of course. And visionary. And it’s not in any way a real novel – but it’s a rush of incredible imagery. And I like that. It’s probably influenced by Naked Lunch and those sort of books – which would’ve been very topical at the time. But I think probably Cohen’s first four albums are masterpieces. I don’t think Dylan’s ever comes anywhere near that, in terms of craft. And the fact that Cohen never complains. He’s so resigned to suffering. Whereas most Dylan songs are, “Oh, you hurt me” or “You did that to me” – boy-meets-girl. Whereas Cohen just accepts totally his existential phenomenology. His suffering. He’s so resigned to it. Whereas Dylan’s protesting. That’s why I much prefer Cohen for that. It’s just the resignation to being overwrought by pain and suffering, but not complaining. Ever. He just lifts it into lyrics. Like, you know, that song – “Last Year’s Man” – “When the rain comes down on last year’s man.” And, of course, he is last year’s man, but he’s never complaining. He just accepts it.
GM: But he isn’t, because my husband and I went to see him– he sold out Madison Square Garden.
JR: Course he would…
GM: It’s crazy! It was great.
JR: But I didn’t think any of his albums post-‘70s were very good. He starts to become, naturally, more commercial. He said himself, he couldn’t play any of the songs from Songs of Love and Hate because they were so desperately despairing. But that’s my favorite album of his, without any doubt. It’s a dark masterpiece.
GM: Well, he kind of became an entertainer.
JR: Yes, that was the problem. He just became a very famous entertainer. On the road. Making a fortune.
GM:And he got ripped off.
JR: [sighing] Yes, but, you know, you wonder how much was he ripped off? He came from a wealthy Jewish family. He had property, he had business – I don’t think he was ever going to be any short of money – Zen Buddhists – why are they concerned about money? Aren’t they supposed to renounce that? And then they come straight out of a monastery into litigation. And you think, “Why did you bother to go there?” Obviously didn’t learn his lesson well. As he tries to say in that song – what’s it? “The Master” – you know – “Learn your lesson well.” I don’t think he did. Avarice overcame him.
GM: What’s your relationship to punk? Who was your favorite punk band?
JR: Oh, I think, without doubt, the Sex Pistols. Because the assault, and the look – and the fact that, you know, they didn’t wanna make it into a five-year journey. Just whap! and that’s it. Eighteen months – they couldn’t’ve gone on any longer and they knew that. For me, they’ll always remain the ultimate punk band. I know Danny loves the Ramones. But Sex Pistols, for me, are the band. They just had it. The look, the audacity – you know? The fuck you attitude. They were incredible. Nothing like them. And then, of course, up comes five hundred craze-eyed punk bands to follow them. And then it all dips down. And I love Public Image. I think the first three Public Image albums were masterpieces. Metal Box in particular. One of the most depressing, despairing, downbeat albums ever made. Songs like “The Albatross” are some of my favorites ever written. I think the early Public Image were probably the best band of the ‘80s. And then they commercialized, and he got rich, and naturally, they changed. But obviously, after the Sex Pistols, Lydon went into a deep fit of depression. That’s why those first three Public Image albums are so good. Because they’re so anti-commercial and despairing. Almost to the degree of Cohen’s first four albums. They’re real suicide albums. Masterpieces. That hardly sold.