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Poets who do art: interview with Tim Turnbull

A chicken or the egg question, were you a poet first and an artist next, or vice versa?

That’s a rather long and complicated story. When I was a kid I drew a lot. I liked comics and cartoons of all kinds. I reached the point that as a teenager that I was telling all my friends that I was going to be an artist. There was a parents evening at our school to discuss subject choices in 1975. My mum and dad went and the next morning I discovered I’d been bumped out of doing the ‘O’ level art class and into technical drawing – and that was that. In the eighties, I played and sang in bands. I wrote the songs. Come the nineties, I mostly packed the bands up and started on the live poetry scene. I never stopped doodling and scribbling. I took my writing seriously and by 2009 all my income was from freelance poetry/writing/publishing related work, then the financial crash wiped all the work out. I managed to get a funded PhD, though, and found myself writing and researching full time. That meant I had free evenings and I started taking oil painting night classes. It felt like I’d come home. The last decade I’ve been playing catch up


How do you work with both? Do you allocate specific time or do you find they manifest themselves to you?

The last year has been different, but as a rule I try and start something – be it a poem, a short story or a piece of art – schedule time for it and stick to that project until it’s more or less finished, or an end’s in sight and inevitable. Everything needs resting, so I make sure I’ve broken it’s back and then allocate time for a revisitation. That’s the theory. I’m not sure it always works out exactly like that. I scribble and sketch the whole time, doing drawings on the sofa at night while the telly’s on. I try to use breaks at work to scratch ideas down for poetry or fiction.


Who are your influences today, have they radically changed over time?

As far as poetry goes, it used to be the case that I saw a lot of it live and was probably mostly influenced by those poets who were also doing the rounds, Tim Wells, Patience Agbabi, Claire Pollard, John Cooper Clarke, Francesca Beard et al. Patricia Smith made a big impact but my writing’s nothing like hers. Tony Harrison and Auden came after, but equally Byron and Pope and assorted music hall artistes, and I read avant-gardistes as well. These days, having entered a reclusive phase, I sketch out a project, work out who I might usefully read and immerse myself their work. It’s been a bit Noo York School lately. I think I’m working up to something. Artwise, as a youth, I loved Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby’s Marvel comics and cartoonists like Carl Giles, Ray Lowry, Steve Bell (later), and a lot of contributors to Punch and Titbits magazines. When I discovered art art, via punk, I was taken with the Dadaists and Futurists and such, thence to the Neue Sachlichkeit, especially Dix and Beckman, and the Camden Town Group, particularly Sickert. There’s, I suppose, a distinction to made between artists you just like and one’s you’d like to emulate or imitate. I love Leonora Carrington, Hogarth and Breughel the Elder, but I don’t want to paint that way, even supposing I could – set yourself lofty goals and fail incrementally towards them. Last year I started a studio practise course with Matt Storrstein and that’s opened my eyes to the work of abstract expressionists among much else. I’ve been looking at a lot of Munch especially the various iterations of The Wedding of the Bohemian.


Let's talk about the, for want of a better term, "covid era". It seems to have made some people super creative & productive and others less so - how has it impacted on your own work?

In January things were looking very exciting and optimistic. I went down to London and did some recording for a vinyl release and filmed a video with Culture Recordings; and to Scarborough to do some filming for a documentary about the band Grandads Don’t Indicate and the eighties provincial music scene. Then came lockdown and everything was put on hold. Most of the year thereafter’s been devoted to painting and drawing. I’ve been lucky enough to work from home three days a week, but since I haven’t been able to go anywhere much I spent the first part of the year painting landscapes of the fields below our village, trying to find a language for an agricultural rather than a picturesque landscape. That’s an ongoing project. The second half of the year I started the course with Matt and began to explore memory and experiment with very swiftly executed paintings of memories of bedsit culture in Yorkshire in the eighties. These connected to the above projects. The starting point’s a poem called Labyrinth that appears in my collection Avanti! https://www.redsquirrelpress.com/product-page/avanti-tim-turnbull I’ve hardly written anything but I put that down to paralysing fear of rising fascism rather than COVID. I managed a bilious outpouring for New Years Day so hopefully that represents an unblockage of sorts.


Do you listen to music when you create? Which type?

When I’m painting, I sometimes have Radio 6 Music on, or Radio 3 if the wittering gets too much, but often in the studio I like silence. When I’m writing poetry I go for silence, but for prose I’ll often find some music that suits the atmosphere. For ‘An Account found in the Daybook of a Leather Merchant of Montaubon’, set in the 16th century, (in Silence and other stories) I listened to nothing but Michael Praetorius dances. Often it’s something gothic like Sisters of Mercy or Alien Sex Fiend, but I listen to quite lot of German post-punk so I don’t get distracted by the words – to my shame, despite several false starts, I’ve never managed to learn German.

What can you tell me about the artwork you shared - how did it come about?

This is Is anybody there?, one of the Labyrinth paintings, which I’ve made since starting the studio practise class. I do preliminary sketches, and for building interiors floor plans, sketch maps for street scenes, until I’m sure I know approximately where things, objects, or bodies should be, then I lay in without too much thought. They’re all oil on gessoed paper, using very thin paint and generally finished in one visit and probably less than an hour and a half. They are all painted from memory, and faulty memory at that. It’s Scarborough in the 1980s seen through a dream filter. This comes directly out of the Culture Recordings session and the Grandads documentary. I’ve noticed there is a lot of nostalgia about that time, understandably, given the ages of folks involved, but I wanted to capture the disjointedness of cultural life in the provinces and the undercurrent of violence that was, in my memory, ubiquitous. In this instance, it’s the landing of my first bedsit. A workmate annoyed the landlord by turning up for a bed after night drinking and, finding me out, kipped on the landing floor. Some of the others, which may seem innocuous, relate to violent incidents and even murder. I was aiming to make them a little ambiguous, so that you can’t tell which ones are Dionysian abandon and which savagery, not that those things aren't intimately connected.


What are you working on next?

I’m on furlough now, so I’ve taken the chance to work out a way of making prints and setting up an online shop. I have a some papers primed to make a series of rapid paintings of the landscapes around our house that I’ve been documenting over the past year. Also, there are a couple of short stories that have been on hold.


About Tim Turnbull

Tim Turnbull is a writer and artist based in Highland Perthshire. He is originally from North Yorkshire.


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