An interview with Tom Jenks: poet, publisher, Moshi biographer

Tom Jenks is a poet, mainly, with thirteen books to date. He’s done all sorts over the years: written text, found text, computer-assisted text (such as his spreadsheet translation of The Book of Genesis) and visual work, which he’s doing a fair bit of at the moment. 

He’s also editor of zimZalla, a small press specialising in literary objects. 

TURNS by Phillip Terry: three literary objects, presented in a box
TURNS by Phillip Terry

What was the first album you bought? What do you think of it now?

That would be Shakin’ Stevens and the Sunsets on cassette, an album, I think, of rock ‘n’ roll covers. Unfashionable as he is and his tendency to jump on Richard Madeley (Google it) notwithstanding, Shaky is a hill I am prepared to die on. Him, Adam and the Ants and Madness were what I loved when I was very young. 

I saw Shaky some years later in the street in York. He was wearing double denim and aviator shades. It was a perfect encounter.

Can you play an instrument? Were you ever in a band? 

I can play piano, passably. I used to play bass, to no great effect. My friends and I once started what I think was meant to be a soft-metal band, which was a problem for me as I didn’t like metal or silk blousons. 

I learned the keyboard intro to ‘Here I go Again’ by Whitesnake, which I still put on my CV.

Poem text: Rishi Sunak decides to dress like Sonny Bono in the classic performance of I've got you, babe by Sonny & Cher which he has just seen on Sounds of the Sixties on Yesterday TV. He gets a long-sleeved black t-shirt from Tesco Extra. He sources some stripy trousers from a circus clothing specialist but they won't arrive for two days, even with Amazon Prime. Rishi Sunak sits forlornly on his greay leathette pouffe and watches the Scotch egg masterclass on Saturday Kitchen. Rishi Sunak's bare legs stick to the grey leatherette so he avoids moving unless absolutely necessary, e.g. to go to the toilet or check on his baked potato.
A poem by Tom Jenks from his @zimZalla Twitter page

How does music influence your poetry? We love the humorous references to Fleetwood Mac, Hall & Oates, The Carpenters etc that pop up in your work.

I listen to music pretty much all the time, so it finds its way into my work a lot. I find I use it a means of indirect referencing. The Carpenters, for instance, have all sorts of vivid associations for me (clothes, haircuts, colour combinations, particular types of furniture etc.) and dropping them into a piece of writing is like sprinkling on a bit of 70s space dust. It does the descriptive work for you. 

Hall & Oates are a fine example of a musical group that could also be a firm of solicitors. See also Godley & Creme, Emmerson, Lake & Palmer and Ashford & Simpson, who I imagine would specialise in boundary disputes and be based over a branch of Costa.

Poem text: Two men appeared dressed as the Easter bunny, one claiming to be Hall, the other Oates, a claim hard to verify when they refuse to harmonise.
A poem by Tom Jenks from his @zimZalla Twitter page

What is the worst earworm (a song that gets stuck in your head and won’t budge) you have ever had? How long did it last?

I’ve had ‘The Birdie Song’ by The Tweets stuck in my head so long it would take a vet to remove it.

You have a gift in creating so much magic by playing with the context of everyday items – children’s books, tv shows, toasters on Mars, aspirational waffle holes – making the ordinary seem extraordinary. Does being at home inspire you?

Yes, which is just as well. But I think everything is inspiring. It’s my belief that there is no such thing as an unpoetic subject. I love the bits and pieces, the ephemera of the world, the mystery of loading bays, the bathos of the reduced counter. Writing for me is essentially just reaching out and picking up whatever lies linguistically to hand. 

Poem text: Syrup on soya, the square holes in waffles, cheesy dumplings, ancient grain rolls, I don't know what to make of any of it. All of the elements for a good life are in place, yet a good life is not being lived. We should rethink the solar system or buy each other shoulder bags. I saw a dog that was entirely see-through. I've got a ride-on mower, but I still use scissors.
A poem by Tom Jenks from his @zimZalla Twitter page

Can you tell us more about zimZalla and your literary objects? We heard on the grapevine (your website) that since 2009 you have produced poetry fossils, a beautiful blue novel without any words and future-predicting index cards, among other treasures.

zimZalla started off as a desire to do something different after running a magazine for a while. As well as those you’ve mentioned, the press has published board games, badges, betting slips, poems printed on transparent vellum, miniature books to be read with magnifying glasses, and many other things. The next publication will be number 60 and that is the future-predicting index cards (INDEX, by Sophie Herxheimer) you refer to.

INDEX by Sophie Herxheimer: collage poems presented as a deck of prophetic cards
INDEX by Sophie Herxheimer

As an ‘After Tom Jenks / zimZalla’, we’re brainstorming some literary objects for your Christmas present. Which one would you like Santa to bring? A letter to an agony aunt from a futuristic robot with low self-esteem, a gold-plated name necklace of the word ‘Admin’, or tarot cards that give inane readings regarding household tasks and shopping lists.

The robot sounds too emotionally complex for me. I think it would depend on what the robot’s problems were. I’d need more information. I’m covered for tarot cards. Picasso used to do his every day, apparently, although I don’t know whether he applied them to a big shop at Aldi. The gold-plated necklace sounds tempting. I’m very much one of life’s admins.

What are you currently working on?

Next up for me is a pangrammatic novel, written with Catherine Vidler, entitled Pack my Box with Five-Dozen Liquor Jugs. It’s twenty-six chapters, each of twenty-six sentences, with each sentence containing every letter of the alphabet. It’s coming out on Penteract Press later this year.  

After buying a beer and some prawn cocktail crisps (a mistake?), you’ve only got enough change for 3 songs on the jukebox – what do you pick?

Difficult one. Today, I’d pick

‘Season of the Witch’ by Donovan
‘Paper Planes’ by M.I.A.
‘Take My Breath Away’ by Berlin

I’d be impressed by any jukebox that had all three. 

As for the prawn cocktail, Freud said there’s no such thing as a mistake, although he favoured cheese and onion, according to reputable sources.

Poem text: They put a toaster on Mars. It was all going great until they realised they'd forgotten to send up any bread. 'Who was on bread?' demanded the mission controller, tugging furiously at his epaulettes. No-one answered. All they could do was watch the little handle go down and then pop up again. Also, the camera was really blurred. You could only just make out the words 'Morphy Richards' on 200% zoom.
A poem by Tom Jenks from his @zimZalla Twitter page

Find Tom Jenks via his website: zshboo.org

And follow him on Twitter @zimZalla and Instagram @zapnuby

© 2021 the6ress