Issue 24: Theresa Muñoz
From Behind a One-Way Mirror: my PhD on Tom Leonard
When I found out about Tom Leonard’s death in December 2018, I was in Glasgow. I had just come off the train from Edinburgh and was outside Queen Street station. It was chucking it down and the evening air felt velvety. I was in the alley between the Irish bar and the clinically-lit bookies. The alley’s brick walls and narrow walkway always felt dramatic to me, like you were emerging from a deep sleep. I casually checked my Twitter account and saw a report of his death. I read it again. I ducked into a card shop which sold silly cards. I stood beside a row of cards with mince pies in Santa hats and wept.
I met Tom on the first day of my MLitt in Creative Writing at Glasgow University. He wore a gray wool jacket that bore a small ink blot, like a tiny aubergine on his lapel. He was pleased to meet me and was looking forward to us working together, with me as his tutee. It would be nice to meet in his home office, he said, where we could have a cup of tea. He wanted to show me where he lived. We stood at the top of a hill near the uni, where the street ribboned down into the park. I wasn’t sure what he had said at first, and I guess my face gave that away. He laughed and said again, ‘The tenement with the white pipe’. That was the first word we thought about together, pipe.
We met many times over the course of a year. His flat was on the top floor; his office a box that overlooked Kelvingrove Park. Inside were rows of smoke-scented books and outside a view of trees that gave the window a long shadow.
I told Tom about my culture. I told him about the leafy streets of Vancouver, the skyline of glass buildings, the moist sushi rolls topped with avocado and the steamed pork buns. My parents were Spanish-Filipino migrants, I told him, they met in the bookstore in Toronto. I said that my coming over to Glasgow was my first international flight. I used to live in a studio apartment by the beach, I said. While I was saying this, I had the momentous feeling that that part of my life was done, that this move had bisected my life into the before and after.
Tom told me things as well. Excitedly, with his hands. His father came over from Dublin to Glasgow at age 14 and for the rest of his life was a railwayman, heating a thermos of cold tea on a hotplate on the engine. Tom grew up Glasgow, the youngest of four and black sheep of the family; he was also the first in his family to attend university. And about the times he and other Glasgow writers had parties at Tom McGrath’s West End flat, which, he said, had really been the epicentre of Scottish Literature in the 1970s, rather than what he described as the 'mythical' Philip Hobsbaum writing group at Glasgow University.
I’m not sure he understood much about the world I grew up in. ‘I’ve been to Colorado’ was the only thing he said about North America. He had gone to give a reading there, he told me, and spent the entire reading fee on a silver bracelet for his wife.
The way he worked with poems was quite visual; often he moved my poems around on the screen of his Mac in different shapes, creating new line breaks and therefore new lines. So I understood that poetic form was the essence of how he understood a poem.
‘I don’t write as often as you’, he would say when I asked about what he was working on currently. But he did talk about his place in Scottish Literature, his compromised position within the tangles of class, language and literature. He felt that his work was terribly misunderstood. ‘No-one in Scotland, apart from James Kelman, has a clue what is actually going on there in its fundaments’ he said more than once.
It was Tom’s sequence nora’s place that we spoke about most often. Slim and toast-coloured in its original printing, nora’s place was a pamphlet featuring the fragmented voice of a Glasgow woman struggling with the existential dissatisfaction in her marriage, her life, her pals down the pub. This text took a shape in the room, we used it often as model of how one could shape voice with space and lower-casing. Tom said it was the sequence he was most proud of, despite it being written in English and not the urban phonetic dialect he was known for. It was the sequence he wished critics would concentrate on, other than Six Glasgow Poems. ‘Only you see the significance’ he declared. One day out of the blue he gifted me a first edition, unwrapped but with a green ribbon tied around it.
After my MLitt and our meetings ended, I was offered the opportunity to write a PhD on Tom Leonard. I realise now, that it shouldn’t have been me. It should have been done by a young white male from the West Coast of Scotland, with a working-class background of politics, sectarianism, football; who, perhaps, shared Tom's sense of dislocation from class-based hierarchies.
Instead it was me: young, female, ethnic minority, first generation global citizen. I never saw any other BAME students in the Scottish Literature department where I did my thesis. However, there was no shortage of young white men in my department who were ironically confident about spouting their theories of decolonisation in seminars. Even my viva panel was, disappointingly, three white men (and I only ever had white male supervisors – a string of five of them).
And yet so far, no one else has ever written a complete paper on Tom, far less a book-length project which spans the years of publication 1969 to 2015. No one else has done much of anything, yet.
I read through my PhD again recently. I had forgotten how much I knew about him.
“Tom Leonard inhabits an influential though narrowly thematic critical space in Scottish poetry as a result of his pioneering renderings of urban phonetic dialect and his representations of marginalised figures in his poetry and prose.”
“Similarities can be discovered between Ian Hamilton Finlay’s pamphlet of urban creatures Glasgow beasts, an a burd haw an inseks, an aw, a fush (1961) and Six Glasgow Poems, specifically in the politicisation of the oral and its visual appearance on the page and in the presentation of linguistic humour.”
“In the seventeen poems of nora’s place, Leonard creates a female-centric situation where a woman searches for a sense of individuality in her family base… Identity crisis of an ontological nature is a concern in nora’s place and Leonard centres the fragments in some poems so that the white space suggests feelings of isolation.”
His failing university the first time, when he gave up the drink, the many years it took to write the James Thomson biography, Places of the Mind – it’s all in the PhD.
For those who have written a PhD on one person, you’ll know it’s like being in a relationship. You become obsessed with knowing this person’s work, the momentous parts of their life. You think about them a lot, you ponder a line of their poetry while you put away the dishes. While researching the PhD, I re-traced Tom’s steps; up and down University Avenue, the old Rubiyat pub where he once drank, in the archives at the Paisley Library where he wrote his anthology Radical Renfrew.
It’s a lonely effort to understand someone, like watching them from behind a one way mirror. It’s hard to uphold the constantly loving way you imagine them, to continually hold them in total positive regard. And while you may be critical of them, it is difficult to hear others’ criticism of their work, or criticism of your ideas about their work. Writing a PhD on someone is a labour of unthanked love.
One Christmas Eve I was the last person in the National library of Scotland reading room, typing away on a chapter. I looked up and saw the cupola in the ornate ceiling had been covered with snow, signalling it was time to go home.
I wish Tom had been happier about me writing a PhD on him. I think he hated the idea of it; I think it upset him. I was excited to tell him when I received funding. We met in a Glasgow café with a colour wheel of macarons in the window. At first he seemed pleased and said ‘If there is to be a doctor on my work, it might as well be you’.
He agreed to help me with some insights and interviews during the PhD. A few weeks later I sent him some questions via email, to which he gave one word answers. He would sometimes write me angry letters in the middle of the night, which I would receive in the morning with much sadness and bewilderment. Then he would write the next day: ‘I am a quite passionate sort of guy who can lose the rag, it's just part of who I am’. Or he’d say ‘I've sounded off and I'm fine now’. I wrote to him and said, ‘For the sake of our friendship, I won’t send you any more questions’. And that was that. Eventually I finished the PhD and sat with my boxes of notes, journal articles, and drafts covered with rainbow post-its, unsure of where to put it all.
When Tom died, I should have memorialised him more. I should have piped up with all the knowledge I had about him and the years I spent trying to understand his body of poems, essays, memoirs. I kept typing a tweet over and over, with a photo of my completed PhD, and then pressing delete. Now when I walk past his tenement building in Glasgow, the one with the white pipe and flower boxes in the window, I think of what more I could have done, to show how much I loved and admired his life and work. Perhaps this is a start.
Theresa Muñoz is a Canadian poet and academic living in Edinburgh. She is Research Associate at the Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts at Newcastle University, where she also teaches Creative Writing. She holds a PhD in Scottish Literature for her thesis ‘Alienation in the work of Tom Leonard’, where she was an Overseas Research Scholar. She has published one collection of poetry, Settle, which was shortlisted for the Melita Hume Poetry Prize.
Her work has appeared in Ambit, Poetry Review, Canadian Literature, A Year Of Scottish Poems, and many other places. In 2018 she won a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship, and a Muriel Spark Centenary Award to write a sequence on the life, legacy and letters of Muriel Spark.
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