Issue 24: Introduction by Nicky Melville
In spring last year Adam Piette asked me if I’d like to pull together a memorial tribute to Tom Leonard for Black Box Manifold. Of course I said yes, and was honoured to be asked to curate such, however daunting. Tasked with finding six writers for the tribute - a very small amount considering Tom’s influence - I pushed it to eight, including myself. I selected a mix of people I know - Dorothy Alexander, Jim Ferguson, Jane Goldman, Peter Manson, Theresa Muñoz, Rodney Relax and Gerry Smith - who were on good terms with Tom in some way or other.
The one thing that links us being the man himself, who was a humanistic and poetic mentor, source of inspiration and great champion of our individual endeavours. I will let the tributes speak for themselves, but the range of work is testament to the variety of Tom’s own output, interests and world view.
I know Adam from my time at Glasgow University undertaking a part-time masters in creative writing between 2001-2003. This is also where I first met Tom, who would be my tutor. By that point I had known Tom’s work for about five years but had never met him. At the end of the masters, after two years of serious but enjoyable engagement with language and the man, I remember timidly asking Tom if we could stay in touch, to which he replied, of course, we’re friends now. And friends we remained till his death on the shortest day of 2018.
The first, what I call, proper poem that I wrote was in 1996, when I had just turned twenty-one. It was a vernacular piece inspired by the use of Scottish slang in books by Irvine Welsh and James Kelman. I felt I had found a valid and true way of expressing myself, so continued to write in this fashion for a while, stopping not because I found ‘the use of phonetic urban dialect rather constrictive,’ but as a result of gravitating toward concrete and appropriative poetic forms.
These early poems, typically short, were mostly worked out fully in my head before committed to paper (by hand, I didn’t even have a typewriter at the time). I still know some off by heart. This modest feat of memory allowed me to annoy people I thought might be interested, at parties or in the pub, by insisting I recite them a poem.
One time a reluctant friend of a friend said my poems reminded her of Tom Leonard’s work, which I didn’t know. So I went to Dalkeith library, where, miraculously, they had Intimate Voices. This was revelatory to me and my real introduction to modern poetry. You will notice that I didn’t add the adjective Scottish, which I might have done at the time, for Tom Leonard is an international poet, in stature and outlook. He is simply a poet and should not be constrained by any adjectives - Scottish, vernacular and all the rest - which were often used pejoratively to dismiss, patronise or pigeonhole him as being outside the narrative, yet tolerated in that space, while alive.
His body of multi-faceted work holds its own against anyone you care to mention and puts the boot in untold others. Heartening, then, to see him make the top ten of Scotland’s greatest ever poets in a recent poll in The Times.
There are quite a few phrases that Tom said to me over the years, poetic and personal, which I remember vividly. ‘The line as a unit of semantic yield’ was a favourite of his. I remember telling him a story - which I can’t relate here - where he laughed so hard I thought he was going to have a coronary in my car.
One time when I was his tutee, after a particularly fecund run of poems, he called me a ‘prolific bastard,’ humbly stating that he typically wrote only a handful of poems a year. But as Jim Ferguson details Tom was unbelievably productive in his prime. After calling me a prolific bastard, he looked at me with a little gleam in his eye and said, by way of explanation, ‘it’s spring.’ Since then I have indeed noticed a perennial springly surge of poems, but it was also his encouragement and comradeship at that time.
Tom was an ally, whom I miss having in my corner. He was the first of three allies I lost in a year, the others being Graham Brodie and Sean Bonney - within a week of each other! - at the tail end of 2019. The last time I saw Tom was the night of Jim Ferguson’s book launch for the delightfully titled when feeling fully at home in the drifting living room of time, in April 2018. Tom wasn’t going because it was at night, but we arranged that I’d go round for my tea before I went along to the reading. I mention this not only as it was our final meeting, but also to illustrate Tom’s brilliant command of language, in this case swearing - he was definitely one of the best swearers I’ve met or heard.
One of the shelves in his study was a bit shoogly when he was putting a book back, that he’d got down to show me. As he tried to replace it the shelf came away from the wall, which he caught before it fell, emitting a hearty ‘for fuck sake,’ closely followed by ‘come oanty fuck.’ The latter phrase is one of my favourites, I use it all the time and was so glad that Tom used it too, I’d never heard him say it before. Together we engineered a makeshift solution for the shelf. After this encounter we exchanged a few emails, some of which wound up in my elegy.
I created the elegy from email replies from correspondence with Tom, which I copied into a Word doc that was thirty-eight pages in length and edited down to the poem here. Unfortunately, these emails only stretch back as far as 2004, even though I remember some specific phrases from emails sent in the two years before then, when our correspondence began. No doubt they have been archived somewhere unbeknownst to me by Microsoft.
As I searched through our emails I found a sequence of four unpublished poems of Tom’s that he called ‘Zero Minus One.’ A response to ‘branding being so pervasive,’ he sent me these in 2015 - although written years before - as he felt they were relevant to my own work at the time, as well as the political climate then current. I am delighted to be able to present some of Tom Leonard’s unpublished work here for the first time.
It’s now spring and all as I write this, well, summer in Scotland, which is basically like spring, and much has changed in the world since Tom died. I am in lockdown, the coronavirus is in spate - the UK second in the league table of death - the far right is strategically entrenched worldwide and environmental catastrophe looms.
But there is hope. First with global climate strikes, and now with Black Lives Matter protests taking place across all fifty states of the US with demonstrations spreading and converging around the world. The optimistic side of me dreams of a systemic reset resulting from these interlinked issues of neoliberal capitalism and I think Tom would also be buoyed. You pinch yourself.
I hope that readers will enjoy this tribute as much as I did putting it together, painful though it was at times, and take pleasure from spending some time with, and thinking about, Tom Leonard.
Nicky Melville’s latest book is ABBODIES COLD : SPECTRE (Sad Press); THE IMPERATIVE COMMANDS will be published with Dostoyevsky Wannabe in 2021. He recently started making demos under the name Fuck This.
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