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JOHN THOMAS, LUMMOX OF THE YEAR
“John Thomas drives the getaway car when the Earth intends to roll over and squash you... John Thomas, finally, is a poet, teacher, dancer, singer, and a human being. You know what they are, human beings. They are hard to find sometimes, but you are finding one right now in this collection of visions, in this dancefloor of sounds, in this inner ear of hearing. John Thomas invented bop, taught the cops how to keep back... and when you get back from this little journey, see how younger you've gotten. John Thomas is a noun. Hey hey hey hey...” (from Scott Wannberg’s introduction to FEEDING THE ANIMAL by John Thomas)
(Editor’s note: last month, not only was John “inducted” into the Lummox hall of heroes, at his publication reading held at Dutton’s in Brentwood, but some of his poetry was immortalized on Venice Beach’s famed Boardwalk... I can just see John skulking around with a spray paint can. But no! This was officially sanctioned by the City of Los Angeles. The Beats go on.)
RD: Tell me a little about yourself.
JT: I was born on December 31, 1930 (the same day as Bo Didley). I had a wretched childhood and youth – but didn’t most of us? Probably even Bo Diddley. So why go into it? Maybe someday I’ll bite into my personal madeleine and my past will come flowering on the page, recaptured. Marcel and I don’t you know...
RD: What inspired you to become a writer?
JT: I got started as a writer (this embarrasses me, Raindog) by reading Hemingway and that godawful Thomas Wolfe. I, too, was going to be a great novelist – great, maybe, immortal, “the artist as tragic hero,” see. The usual pathetic chest-pounding ambitions. The result? Three terrible novels. Three huge garbage manuscripts, thrown away, now landfill somewhere – and rightly so, my man. Fact is, fact was, I am not a novelist, but a poet.
RD: Was there a single point or event that inspired you or was it a slow process of transition?
JT: Ezra Pound inspired me. Back in the early fifties, during the Korean war, lying on a bunk in an Air Force barracks outside San Antonio [Texas], I read PERSONAE, CATHAY, some of the CANTOS. Blew me away, as they say. Pound was then confined at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital (the government bughouse in Washington), under indictment for treason. Pronounced insane (which he wasn’t), so not yet to be tried – and perhaps electrocuted – for “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” He had broadcast on Rome Radio during World War Two, praising Mussolini, firing salvos at Roosevelt and Churchill and the international bankers. None of which interested me. But his poetry...yes, he inspired me.
Well, trembling, I wrote Ezra a letter and he responded, invited me to visit him. Which I did, often. And corresponded with him. This cost me my Air Force security clearance. Can’t have your cryptography people huddling with Fascist traitors, right? So I finished my four-year hitch processing prisoners into the base stockade. But I had found my man. And my vocation. RD: You have “documented” via audio recordings, conversations with at least one writer that I know of. Are there others? What prompted you to start this project?
RD: How did you arrive at the work you're doing now? Evolution? Inspiration? Dumb Luck?
JT: How did arrive at the work I’m doing? I don’t know, Raindog. I can name some “influences” for you. Aside from Pound: Charles Olsen, Philip Whalen, Baudelaire, Gottfried Benn, Wang Wei, Paul Valáry, Sextus Propertius, Wallace Stevens, Kenneth Patchen, Fernando Pessoa, Philomene Long. How miscellaneous can one get?
“Dumb luck”? Philomene was dumb luck on me. Before we came together, I had been silent (at least in poetry) for fifteen years. When we joined, I burst forth, as it were, and there have followed eighteen years of poetic voice. Dumb luck at least for me.
RD: You have “documented” via audio recordings, conversations with at least one writer that I know of. Are there others? What prompted you to start this project?
JT: In the mid-Sixties I began to mess about with tape recording. The original idea (it never came to much) was to create “heard” poetry from real sounds. I was soon taping everything and everyone. My recorder ran much of everyday. If there were people there, the tape rolled. It simply happened that in those years Charles Bukowski came by constantly. We would sit around and talk and talk, through long evenings. Recording Hank and me wasn’t, in itself, a “project,” but I’ve kept many hours of it on old reel-to-reel tape.
RD: I’ve always had a fascination with the way an idea becomes a reality, even if only on paper... tell me about your own creative process. Does it ever surprise you? Do you find that it’s easier or harder to "seize the moment" when creativity strikes? How do you capture and retain these inspirations?
JT: For me. poems rarely spring out whole. But there is always a yellow pad beside me and it fills up with thoughts, images, feelings, sensory material, memories, and fragments of what I’m reading (I read a ferocious lot). When the (ahem) “fine frenzy” shows signals of onset (as do migraines or a sneeze), I page back through my yellow pad. Things connect and the poem begins to take shape. This is about all I can tell you. Underneath, though, all is mystery.
RD: Since most of the people I interview exist in a sort of “fringe” area of the arts, how does being identified with the “fringe” affect what you create? Does living with another creative soul (Philomene) help to keep the “fires burning”, or is it by necessity, a lonely path?
JT: Yeah, the fringe. And yeah, I’m on it. Matters not, really. As far as I can tell, it neither helps nor hinders the process. Does living with Philomene help? As I said above...
More Lummox PagesDUFUS: Poetry from the Lummox Journal - Online
The CrossRoads: Gateway to the Lummox Empire
RD "Raindog" Armstrong