Interview - Jamie Lee
London based method writer Jamie Lee talks about his processes and influences.
Do your songs start life as poems?
Like any writing, you plagiarise yourself. Notes, old poems, phrases, images from stories arrive when necessary into new work. Inevitably, the songs are affected by this. A new song ‘All the mad poets aren’t alone on valentines Eve’ is actually a title of a story I wrote about being in Manchester around Valentines Day with three other writers. We were all sat at the bar ‘like a band of scarecrows’ drooped over it complaining about the girls we had just lost. It was really quite funny actually. As the day progressed and we kept drinking there were tears and laughter, but we managed to make it through.
Writing is a terribly fragmented and exhausting craft. I see it as a kind of terminal illness. 90 percent of the work goes unseen and you're constantly wandering around blindly through the various texts and ideas. You write something good; you worry it won’t come back. There’s a doubt season. You write nothing; you beat yourself up about it and wonder what all this toil is worth. Whether it’s ruining your life. And the mad script thats running through your head all hours of the day and night is a weighty loneliness to drag around through life. Your mind is always ‘on’. You could say writers are scavengers.
Who were the first poets you got into and who are you currently enjoying?
If I’m honest I did enjoy some of the stuff that I was taught at school. It’s interesting to ask where that first acknowledgement of the power of language comes from. I had a friend when I was young who had Aspergers. He used all these words like ‘crap’, everything to him was ‘crap’. The word evoked such a visceral disgust in me (the image of stinking cat-shit) and the way that he used it, spittle coming from his lips when he did that I broke down. I began shouting ‘crap, crap, CRAP! CRAP!’ back at him in a rage. Tears were streaming down my face. I think it quite disturbed my mum. She had to soothe me. And send the boy home.
But when it came to reading for myself. Obviously the Americans of the last century were instantly appealing. They had a right to deny a long tradition of English poetry writing, a new nation, they created a new art. I read a lot of poetry and so I pick out bits from everywhere. But mainly I like things that are clearly human and felt. Billy Collins, Bukowski (four years ago) , Robert Lowell (bits of). But I also like Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and have recently been enjoying Adrienne Rich’s ‘Twenty-one Love Poems’. I like things that are accessible but visionary. That is what I try to do in my writing. And also with a deep compassion for others. I might go as far as to say I see it as a kind of activism. To represent the unrepresented in a kind light. And so encourage others to do the same.
What motivates you to write?
I started to write feverishly when I became aware that we were all going to die. And I wanted as little to be lost as possible. I’m well aware that I’ve set myself a task that is impossible to complete.
Do you use music and poetry in the same way?
Music is a way to soothe myself. But writing is a way to discover something more truthful that’s buried in the subject. I seek to understand the things I write about. And by doing so do them justice or overcome the pain they’ve caused. I have recently lost someone who I loved very deeply and so I’m writing a lot about that. I’m wavering between hatred and understanding. And I have an unhealthy obsession with telling the truth. That if you were to touch on it it might provide the world with an antidote to it’s inherent confusion and duplicity. But secretly I know this is pointless and it will never happen.
Who do you think, aside from the obvious Beck, Dylan, Waits, Nick Cave etc, uses music effectively to put lyrics through?
Someone introduced me to Vic Chesnutt recently who I think is a great songwriter and polemicist.
What do you think of the current landscape of literary musicians - Sleaford Mods, Cabbage, Fat White Family, Shame etc?
Sleaford Mods are obviously brilliant. You hear these things and wonder why someone hadn't done it before. You have to appreciate the courage of what they do. And I like that FWF line ‘hell hath no wrath like a failed artist’. I can certainly relate to that. But obviously, I don’t relate to Hitler.
I see making art as going though a series of breakdowns. Wiping away to see what’s underneath. Who you are. What you want. How you experience love, the street, fear, desire. A series of rigorous, and therefore painful, questioning.
Also thought I’d note I’m starting a poetry night in Nunhead near Peckham under the name PARIAH. We’ll be putting on all sorts of poets from around the UK on a monthly basis. It’s going to be at The Ivory House. Londoner’s come down!