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Poet of the Week – 4: Tom Phillips


Tom Phillips was born and grew up in Buckinghamshire and, after studying English at Cambridge, moved to Bristol where he worked in local radio for ten years, before switching to print journalism. After nearly two decades at Venue magazine, he went back to university and studied for a PhD in creative writing at the University of Reading, before teaching the subject there and at Bath Spa. Regular journeys to SE Europe around the same time led to his establishing links with writers and artists across the region, learning Bulgarian and translating contemporary Bulgarian literature. Tom and his wife Sarra, a visual artist, moved to Sofia in September 2017.

Aside from occasional dry spells, Tom has been writing and publishing poetry since the mid-1980s, mostly in magazines, but also in anthologies, pamphlets, the online poetry/art project Colourful Star and the full-length collections Recreation Ground (Two Rivers Press, 2012) and Nepoznati Prevodi / Unknown Translations (Scalino, 2016) – the latter written first in Bulgarian. His work has been translated into Bulgarian, Albanian, Romanian, Macedonian, Serbian and Italian and he has appeared at a number of international poetry festivals in SE Europe.

As well as in the two editions of Balkan Poetry Today he edited, Tom’s translations of Bulgarian poetry have appeared in Modern Poetry in Translation, The High Window, Raceme, Blackbox Manifold and Ah! Maria. Besides poetry, Tom has written more than twenty plays for theatre companies in Bristol and Bath, including Show of Strength, Theatre West and Ship & Castle.

Tom Phillips writes:

The poems I enjoy reading most are those that leave plenty of room for manoeuvre. Poems that are objects in the world you can look at, look into, and indeed look back out of from different angles. That doesn’t mean my own work necessarily turns out that way, but that’s the ballpark I’m aiming at.

Like most ballparks, though, it’s a fairly broad and ill-defined one. And that’s probably related to the way I work. I rarely sit down knowing what I’m going to write or write about, and it usually starts with three things arriving at roughly the same time: the observation or memory of one or two minor details; a few likely-sounding word combinations; and a vague neural itch. From there the process tends in a relatively haphazard manner until it – whatever it might turn out to be – starts acquiring a shape and form, a direction and focus, an internal emotional logic. At some point, too, I have to decide whether to commit to what’s coming into being or not: is it a poem in its own right? Is it an ur-poem or testbed for phrases and images that end up belonging elsewhere? Or is it a red herring, a complete non-starter?

Perhaps because of this, my work tends to go through quite distinct phases (although these often overlap or run in parallel). In a piece about Recreation Ground, for example, Bristol Review of Books expressed considerable surprise because, in Bristol at that time, I was mainly known for satirical performance-oriented poetry. There were similar reactions to Unknown Translations too, because writing in a second language – Bulgarian – sent my work off in a completely different direction again and that, in turn, has had an effect on the poems I’ve been writing in English since then.

If there is a common thread, though, it’s place. That’s always been a reliable theme, but moving to a different city in a different country has inevitably brought it into sharper focus. Both the pamphlets I’ve put up online since we came to Sofia – Present Continuous and Foreign in Europe – effectively continue what someone described as ‘the love song to the city’ that runs through Unknown Translations, while there’s another batch called Kvartal (Neighbourhood), a fragmentary diary that records happenings in our street and was almost entirely written on our balcony over a few weeks towards the end of last summer. Naturally, at the moment, in this current period of isolation that feels like it was written about, and in, another world.


All through her second wedding, your sister carried white lilies.
She chose Psalm 23 and we duly mumbled
‘The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want’,
thinking this is more like a funeral
and trying not to giggle at the serious bits.
You dug me in the ribs and said,
with more feeling than you meant,
that this is what passes for life in Portishead.

Outside – we nipped out for a fag during ‘Abide With Me’,
tip-toeing past weeping aunts and teenage sons
in suits they’d bought for work experience
(a row of bulging parcels waiting for collection) –
outside you breathed again and then you said
how glad you were you’d escaped
what passes for life in Portishead.

And when you kissed me in the graveyard
with its blots of dead confetti like giant flakes of dandruff,
I was thinking: Yes, thank God, thank God,
if it hadn’t been for this town’s deep chill,
its icy politeness and evening classes,
its Sunday lunch drinks and over-cooked roasts,
the dismal rain on the Lake Grounds of a Saturday night,
if it hadn’t been for the gossip which spread
like a bushfire when you dyed your hair red
and started hanging out with unsuitable types
who played in punk bands like Chaos UK
or limped along the high street on farting Lambrettas –
if it hadn’t been for this town’s desire
to disapprove of all it didn’t understand,

you’d never have run for Cornwall and the sea,
you’d never have run for a place of your own
and you’d never have run into me.
In the doorway of the church, I almost smiled and I almost said:
there are so many reasons I’m grateful
for what passes for life in Portishead.

[from Recreation Ground]


The first sight of dry patchwork rolling out beneath us
or unfamiliar words murmured at zinc bar counters;
peeling skin on my back like an unfolding map
or yellow acres of sunflowers facing up to the sky;

sporadic glimpses of a slow-moving river
through slits set into the curves of a staircase;
terracotta pigeons on terracotta tiles
or icons glinting through incense and gloom;

a late tram rattling through lamplit suburbs
or an early plane flying over low city rooftops;
those spiralling conversations lasting all night
or the plangent musk of newly poured wine;

the passing last whistle of a passing last train –
those days we needed nobody’s leave to remain.

31 Jan 2020


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