Thomas Wolfe is a 25 year old spoken word poet from London. Thomas shares his journey into writing and performing poetry and the influence that experiencing depression has had on his work.
How long have you been writing poetry?
About 10 years. I started out writing hip-hop and then moved onto poetry when I was 15.
How did you get into writing?
Through hip-hop, mostly. We did a lot of rap battling on the bus. A lot of my friends would write them down in lessons and then recite it and have their battle on the bus, but I was always too lazy to do the actual writing so I used to just freestyle it. I think I can be naturally quite funny – or at least, I was at high school – so I was quite good at making my lines punchy and work. Then from that, I developed it.
When did you start performing?
I started performing when I was 18. When I first got to Brighton, I found an open mic night by mistake. I stumbled on it. It was that night and it was about an hour I had to wait, so I chilled down the road for a bit and then came back an hour later and I sat there. I wasn’t going to perform, I was just going to see the kind of stuff that it was. I felt that everyone was at the same level as where I was currently working at, so I started then. Then I did the open mic circuit for about 3 years.
Were there any key influences on your writing?
I was really into Tupac – I think everyone of a certain age was – and I remember I bought a book of his from Waterstones, called The Rose that Grew From Concrete. I bought it because it had his picture on it and I wanted to read about it, but it was actually a poetry book. I think everyone should read it. It shows you a glimpse into what he was going through, outside the glamorous rap he was doing. For me, it opened up a whole other world of what you could do.
Thoughts of a Dying Youth follows your journey from adolescence into adulthood. When you were putting the book together, were there any changes stood out to you in your writing?
It wasn’t supposed to be a book at first. It was just a collection. I always called everything Thoughts of a Dying Youth because it’s a very angsty title, and with my mental health I always felt one second from death – either at my own hand, or some other way – so everything was always labelled Thoughts of a Dying Youth.
It was just a collection of however many bits of work, then when I wrote Adult, which is the second to last poem in the book, that’s when I snapped out of the Thoughts of a Dying Youth mindset I was in. So there wasn’t huge amounts of change, it’s quite similar. I think stylistically there’s a lot of change. The thematic is very similar, but it just gets better as you go on because I become more well-rounded and I actually learn how to use punctuation and assonance.
I left [the poems] as they were. That’s why there are a couple in the book that have weird little illustrations, and that’s very much stolen from the Tupac book, because that’s what he did. I think it’s another hip-hop thing, imitation is so rife and I was just doing the same.
When did you first start experiencing depression?
Very young, I think. I think the precursors are there if you’re going to have depression, which I think only a select few people who have mental health problems understand. I was having weird thoughts that maybe I didn’t quite comprehend. But it got really bad when I was about 19, at uni, through a mixture of things – mostly alcohol abuse, and general situations in my life, just the deterioration.
I think writing was my escape. That was the best part in that. A lot of [my poems] are mental health inspired – they take the thoughts I was having and exacerbate them and accentuate them. So they’re massively exaggerated, which is helpful because it creates this fantasy a bit, when you look at it and it’s way more dramatic. It’s quite funny to look back on now, to think I knew where I was at when I was writing that, but it seems so much more intense.
What impact have your experiences mental illness had on your writing?
It’s made it very honest. That was something that it lacked in the early stages: I wasn’t being honest and I wasn’t talking. That’s why people now relate to my work so much, because they see how honest it is. People will sit through a half hour set of what is essentially mental health led material because they know it’s coming from me, and they can see me stood there, and they can see the journey – if they’ve read the book, especially.
People can pull their own experiences out of it and think: “That relates to me and he’s not talking about a sunflower in the garden and I don’t understand what he’s going on about. He’s talking about stuff we all go through.” That is what Thoughts of a Dying Youth essentially is – it’s a journal of adolescence and that journey through it.
What would you say to someone who is creative and struggling with depression?
Reach out to people. I think that’s the most important part. Creativity is so important. I think when you put all that frustration that you’re feeling into your work, you can produce really good work, but I think you have to reach out to people as well. There are people I have reached out to that I didn’t even know were going through my stuff. There are other creative people I reached out to that came back to me, and that really helped me to find out that other people were going through similar things – especially people I admired in the creative arts, and people I thought were putting out really good work. When someone puts out really good work, you tend to think that they must have their shit in order, because how can you produce such good work? But then historically we know that’s not true, when you look at Van Gough and other people like that.
Reach out to people in the creative industry and talk about your experiences – and write that shit on paper because you might get a kick ass book out of it.
Other than writing, is there anything that has helped you through depression? Was there a turning point?
I got fed up with taking pills, basically. I saw myself getting worse, and that was what made me change. When I first went to get my medication, it was fairly standard: they gave me [the antidepressants], you get 20 milligrams of it, then that doesn’t make you better, so they give you 40 milligrams of it, and that doesn’t make you better, so they give you 60 milligrams of it. I was two years into taking however many it was and I was very much abusing the system in that sometimes I was taking six or seven a day and going back and they were just giving me three months more. It wasn’t really very well monitored for me. I think that was because it was going through the university.
But I got really sick of it and one day I just threw them. Maybe I knew that I was better, maybe something changed and clicked. But I just decided that I was going to stop taking my pills and I did, and it worked.
Where do you see spoken word taking you in the future?
It’s quite an exciting time for me in terms of where it’s going. It’s growing, and it’s growing so fast. There are so many good events happening out there, we just need to keep pushing it into the mainstream. I hope I can keep performing and hope I can go professional and just do the poetry side of things.
What’s the best performing experience you’ve had?
The Isle of Wight Festival, just gone. That was very good, more because of the type of audience that was there. It was people who had gone to a music gig and people who weren’t into spoken word poetry and happened to be walking past the tent I was in at the time, and they sat down and listened to me for the whole time. It’s always good when people come up to you and say: “I don’t like poetry, but…” and you feel like you’ve opened the door to them, and maybe they will go and look at some of the other great artists out there.
Otherwise, the Komedia [Brighton, 2017] show with Neil Hilborn was great, because of the crowd. It was the biggest crowd I’d done, it was about 400 people and that was a poetry crowd and it went down very well.
Who is your favourite poet?
I really like Benjamin Zephaniah. Everything about him is good. There are some really good poets out there, but poets are small and short lived and a lot of them are reactionary to their times, so you produce a lot of content. I think you can find a lot of good work from some people and a lot of awful work from some people. There are some really good young poets, but I think Benjamin Zephaniah, for me, is my favourite. He puts some real, real good stuff out there.
And, aforementioned, Tupac with The Rose That Grew From Concrete, because that is really what ignited the interest. But I think Benjamin Zephaniah’s work is just a developed form of that – it’s just more literary and less in the hip-hop side of things. But he also writes sick plays as well.
What’s your favourite poem?
Not my favourite poem, but a bit of work that has shifted the change from now, because poetry is poetry, and spoken word has become its own beast. I think Europe is Lost [Kate Tempest] is what caused that. Europe is Lost is such a good poem, and it’s such a frustrating poem because you look at it and there’s nothing massively clever about it, it’s just Kate Tempest talking about what she sees around her, but it is so incredibly powerful. It just captures Britain at that time, but you can listen to it now and it is still so relevant. It signifies that turning point of “Wow, that was a poem” or, “What the fuck was that?” It’s just fantastic. I think that’s got to be, at the moment, one of the best poems I’ve ever experienced. Her performance live of it is a killer. She’s brilliant.
What’s your favourite poem of your own?
Controversial, but I love Egg. It’s got these dark themes; it uses an egg, which is comical; it’s got a nursery-rhyme rhyme scheme; it’s got nursery rhyme references. I just absolutely love it. I think it’s fantastic. I wrote it on a receipt when I was working in an ice cream shop as a joke, and it just transformed into this great thing.
People like a lot of different ones. Because of where they come from and because they’re so personal, everyone has a different [favourite], so I wouldn’t be able to pull out anything where I think I very much excelled in that – except for Egg.
Are you working on any projects currently?
I’m working on my second book. I released a spoken word album with seven other poets from around the UK, it’s called Words w/Friends Vol. III, put together by Billy Pilgrim with the Heartsease Kid – they’re a Norwich-based spoken word collective. We’re taking that on tour.
Where can people find your work?
Words w/Friends Vol III
10th July: Inn Deep, Glasgow, 8pm
11th July: The Outhouse, Edinburgh, 8pm
12th July: New Observatory, Leeds, 8pm
13th July: Gulliver’s, Manchester, 8pm
17th July: The Hatchet, Bristol, 8pm
18th July: Amersham Arms, London, 8pm
19th July: Cellar Bar, Bournemouth, 8pm
20th July: Artista Cafe & Gallery, Brighton, 8pm
21st July: The Shed, Leicester, 8pm
22nd July: Rumsey Wells, Norwich, 8pm
Thomas’ Q&A is part of the “Conversations with…” series.
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