Poet and writer Jeremy Reed is not a fan of linear biography, “all that obviously contrived gratuitous attempt at self-justification, and cover-up, settling scores and the unilateral egomania of the narrating voice as undisputed solo.” Bandit Poet is far from that, and is instead a more experimental memoir of his life in London from the early ‘80s onwards (Reed is originally from Jersey in the Channel Islands).
More than anything though, this is a book about other people. If you judge a person by the company he or she keeps (although we don’t recommend this), Reed is an interesting character. The famous, infamous and unknown, dead and alive, are sketched out and vividly described. Reed recalls “publishing outlaw” Peter Owen as only being able to characterise his authors “other than anecdotally”, with no perception of the physical person. This is not the case in respect of Reed’s evocations; David Gascoyne (Surrealist poet) is a “pinstripe suited aesthete, who never dressed casual”, Francis Bacon (painter) was usually dressed in “sharply tailored, sober coloured double-breasted suits, YSL button-down collar shirts, and silk ties contributing a splash of patterned colour to his look. Bacon’s bohemian look was like the extension of his painting”.
Reed is aware that the idea of a writer is often “far more appealing that the reality of the work”, but he pays tribute to many fellow writers; “neural architect” J.G. Ballard, poet Lee Harwood, who filters the “influence of John Ashbery’s fractured allusive narratives, fingerprinted with abstract colour”, crime writer Jake Arnott, whose books read “like a euthanasiast having cocktails with Ian Fleming, while discussing the isotope composition of polonium.”
As a poet, Reed has “gone where others don’t”, “immersed in pop as a co-inspiration”, writing book length poems on Billie Holliday (Saint Billie), Elvis Presley (Heartbreak Hotel), Lou Reed (I Never Said I Was Nice), the Rolling Stones (Voodoo Excess), and ‘60s pop (Orange Sunshine) – he calls these “rogue works” ignored by the poetry institution. Reed has also written biographies on pop culture subjects (including The Life & Career of Lou Reed: Waiting for the Man; The King of Carnaby Street: The Life of John Stephens). Perhaps as a result Reed has become associated with rock music and the counterculture, and the memoir reflects his friendships with musicians; John Balance of Coil, Marc Almond (with whom he collaborates on album Against Nature), and Gerry McNee, aka Itchy Ear (together they perform and record “spoken word with electronic soundscapes” as Ginger Light). He becomes instant friends with Pete Doherty (Babyshambles/the Libertines), recognising a shared sense of style. Reed says “rock and pop are as important to me as insulin to a diabetic” (interestingly, Reed has an unpublished book, Dear Leonard Cohen, about the breakup of a relationship, and which lies “uncorrected and abandoned in six sun-faded green exercise books”). He tells us he has the Rolling Stones apocalyptic “Gimme Shelter” often playing in his head.
Space is also reserved for the less well known; often these are underworld characters: Reed finds sympathy for junkies, sex workers, shoplifters, characters who can be “as slippery as tap water”. As a result there are some close scrapes and dangerous situations not normally encountered by your average poet/writer, who is more likely to be safe at home.
Reed’s view on the British poetry scene is humorously scathing, and controversial to some; he sees it as a “microcosmic bubble” run by a few individuals. He rightly asks why poets take themselves so seriously, “when only a minority reads them? Isn’t it a bit like the luxury of using Turtle Wax polish on an already glossily waxed BMW?” He considers most influential “careerist” Brit poetry, “with its endemic conservatism” as written from an “academic” basis. Unsurprisingly perhaps he’s not a fan of Larkin, and suggests you can be a “Philip Larkin wannabe by putting on a putty-coloured flasher’s mac, as the look your poetry adopts, and hanging in on normal on normal.” In contrast, Reed shares an affinity with the poetry of John Wieners and John Ashbery, “and of course Frank O’Hara, whose gossipy urban poetry was the prototype of something so new you could smell the paint on it. I still feel I can spoon a Frank O’Hara poem over my cereal, or dissolve an abstract slab of Ashbery’s poetry like soluble Vitamin C in water.” Of his own poetry, Reed says he does not write for money, that it’s a given that the British don’t take poetry seriously as a full time occupation, and they see no reason why anyone should be paid to write it; there’s “no stock-price or market price on poetry, and it’s sadly an un-saleable commodity”.
What will be of particular interest to writers and readers is Reed’s descriptions of his own approach to writing. He advocates a direct link between poetry and sex, and admits he is a “poet with zero interest in conventional literature”. He ensures his artistic legacy through a lack of compromise, unwilling to “network” and “bored with any book that doesn’t burn its tyre treads like a tattoo across my face.” Using “neural” language, he writes obsessively without break, day in, day out, as “compulsive attack”; the method is “hyper-immediate”. Perhaps for creative growth, he attempts to “disown” everything he writes. He finds purpose in writing poetry out of what “you shouldn’t. In other words finding detail in everything from an aqua Okamoto 002 condom, to a pharma logo, the contents of a pop song, a Smoothie barcode, what people tell me about their flipsides, my addictions, obsessions, pick-ups, B-sides rather than A, and ramped up moment by moment living in the capital.” He uses real people as his subject. This is clearly evident in his well-researched biographies, but in his poetry those close to him “appear filtered through my imaginative perception”.
Unusually Reed likes to write in public places, and notes that it can attract the deviant – usually not tied to regular employment. He has a “mobile workspace” in which he can create his own reality, with “desk poets” a defunct species who live in the shadow of the past. Although he says we all carry “tech studios in our pockets like jetpack aviation”, he writes longhand in colourful ink with Pentel pens.
Reed’s status as an outsider drives his literary ambition; if “you’re nothing, you’re free to write what you like, and you’re toxic if you’re discovered doing it in ways the mainstream don’t like. I believe in bandit poetry – you stick up the reader or audience by fucking with their accepted view of reality.” His upbringing on a small island also explains the urgency he feels to write, as though he started out “ten years too late, because of the cultural limitations of my offshore birthplace” – initially behind, “airport-fogged into delay, and late for departures.”
Bandit Poet is particularly strong in its descriptions of London. On moving to the capital, Reed quickly finds out that “nobody belongs to London, not even indigenous Londoners; the city resists bonding with anyone. London is a planet as hostile to humans as the moon”. He claims that in London “you meet the best and worst of yourself all the time, as there is equal potential for both.“ Fans of literary counterculture may recognise some of Reed’s favourite places – Compendium and Red Snapper bookshops are significant to his story, but unfortunately no longer in existence. Reed also recounts a series of photo shoots with photographer Gregory Hesse at Ham Yard before it was re-developed, explaining that London geography got “built into his life”. Inciting applause from onlookers, Reed and Hesse “hit the sessions hard” and with a “compressed curve” (the photos are now published in Ham Yard: The Last Stand); Reed likens this shoot to his poetry reading, which is often a dramatic performance with a physical and visual aspect.
As one would hope for a memoir, Bandit Poet is brimming with the writer’s personality. He admits that he can maintain layers of “impenetrable defence” when talking about himself in the first-person in company, “quickly generalising the topic to include others” when asked anything he finds too personal. He suggests that any arrogance may be down to attitude as opposed to being intentionally abrasive, that “arrogance as my unlikeable characteristic is rarely evaluated for what it sometimes represents, loneliness turned in on disillusionment.” In a deeply personal part of the book, he talks about a period of therapy sessions. He artfully describes friendship boundaries as well as instantly picking up with old friends after a break in a relationship – “Five minutes and five years are the same with us, as they are with all real friends.”
The book also pays tribute to those Reed has worked with over the years as well as many of his friends. He describes James Williamson of Creation Books as a “brilliantly adventurous pioneering entrepreneur”. Anarchic writer and anthologist Rolf Vaseralli is “someone who never questioned the extreme edge as the basis for our sort of creative expression”. We’re told Reed now possesses photographer friend Martyn Sinnot’s purple velvet shirt, which Sinnot wore distinctively in his last few weeks before death in an attempt to keep up style in the face of the “guerrilla warfare in his cells” (Reed wears it for some poetry performances to remind him of its origins and intends to wear it for his own death).
With its energetic, sparkling writing, Bandit Poet is a stimulating, engaging, at times controversial read for those interested in a modern poet’s life in London. Artfully designed and typeset by Jan-Marco Schmitz, this is an impressive trip into the world of a true individual, and an incredible writer.
Publisher: ZAGAVA Books
Publication Date: 23 JUN 2020