Simon Jenner

Simon Jenner’s collections include About Bloody Time (2006), Wrong Evenings (2011), Two for Joy (2013). Perdika/Poet in the City launched Pessoa (2009), Propertius translations Elegies,Agenda Airs to Another Planet (2021) initially 2 volumes: early and contemporary music. Gerard Winstanley launched Barbican October 2018. For Simon Moorhead 3 monologues included in The Other 1% (2019). Won LPW playwriting competition.

Poet in the City Residency, Hackney, 2014. Commended National Poetry Comeptition, 2016. Biography of Lionel Johnson forthcoming, and doctoral study of 1940s Oxford poetry and first volume of reviews on the Globe’s performative Read Not Dead series. Reviews too much on FringeReview. 

TO1%: How did you first get into writing?
SJ: As a poet though quite late at 21, just a powerful expressive urge, very tight imagistic poems fanned by reading T E Hulme and the imagists. ‘Most unusually you knew what poetry would cost you’ said poet and critic Martin Seymour-Smith. A romantic reading. I’ve been good at promoting others’ poetry  – 130 titles at Waterloo from 1998, and as director of Survivors’ Poetry a national Arts Council-funded organisation from 2003. So I’ve been a Resident at Poet in the City after my volume Pessoa was launched by them at the Portuguese Embassy in 2010, and in 2013 got this Poet in the City residency in Dalston Library. It changed my life. Not just because Arcola Theatre’s next door, but because the archive I was pushed to by Librarian Liz Green – thanks Liz – was of a young womens refuge from 1804 onwards, and it brought dramatic poems that turned into a play. Now 3 of my plays are based in Dalston! Including two on Group 43.  

(Poetry? OK I’m a recipient of Royal Literary Fund Grants Fellowships – at UEL and Chichester, taught at other universities. But editors pushed me and I won e.g. a National Poetry Competition prize in 2016, and had volumes out, one a Guardian Readers’ Book of the Year. I’ve stalled on 3 more since 2015. Because of all my theatre reviewing and now playwriting. It pisses my editors off. Anyway you’re not here to read about poetry are you?) 

Drama So Poet in the City co-ordinator Gabby Meadows and my partner Carole were convinced I had to write a play from these poems, launched at the BL. The Weird Sisters Theatre Group developed the play but it was too large-scaled. Gabby also wanted me to write a play about genetic sexual attraction and that became the basis for my next play. I’ve written several now, including one about Gerrard Winstanley which Carole had also dramaturged, but also about discovery of paternity, and the obsession of one person born the same day as a famous person and stalking them. 

Simon has developed my Group 43 play On Guard with me over 2020, and I’ve recently won – it’s just up on Youtube – a London Playwrights Workshop competition for a play based on What’s App-themed play by Jasmine Lee Jones seven methods of killing kylie jenner. So when I was reviewing that at the Court on a non-press night it caused confusion; I was asked my own name three times and the new FOH kept saying ‘yes but what’s your name?’ Finally I said ‘I’m Simon f-ing Jenner come to kill Kylie f-ing Jenner’ and she realised, just as a person in the queue next to me jumped away in fright. It’s a terrific play and I was delighted when it came up as a template to riff off. It uses the what’s App format based on the Labour leaks revealed in April last year, just when the play was written, all on What’s App. A gift. 

TO1%: What was your first published works?
SJ: Poetry, and translation of a sonnet by – of all people – Erik Satie, satirising his friend Debussy. April 1984, in ADAM Magazine edited by Miron Grindea. I was very young and it got noted in the Telegraph by bemused music critic Martin Cooper. 

TO1%: Do you read your writing dialogue aloud to yourself?
SJ: Yes, sometimes. It’s a great idea to do it in the tube or on public transport and then people realize you’re not on the phone and move away. Mostly I admit in my head. Good to try it out on exasperated friends or partners who start shouting at you. 

TO1%: Do you think writers get the recognition they deserve?
SJ: Have a look at TV credits, it’s somewhere a third of the way in, ‘by’ etc. So under the title it’s drowning….. But you know you’re essential. We’re not in it for recognition. Poetry’s the most writer-directed form, novels next (people begin to forget the author for a famed title sometimes) and lastly drama. Stage credits best, then TV and by films you’re somewhere deep in a credits crevice. Some places like the Royal Court recognize writers as key, and Michael Billington’s right about the primacy of writers to make the real difference. When everything recedes, the play novel and poem are still there. The real living work gets revived. 

How did you get involved with The Other 1%.
SJ: Sheer cheek. Simon came in 2018 to talk to Sussex Playwrights Club about The Other 1% specifically Protect and Survive and I’m at SPC as the critic, but was beginning to feel this prick of chutzpah that like Shelagh Delaney watching a 3-act play ’I can do this’, so went up to Simon and said ‘can I have a shot?’ Simon said one writer got a piece back to him in 5 days. I think I managed 2 in 4. 

I’ve always written dialogue but felt I couldn’t do plot, but have been wanting to for ages. By 2018 I’d written several full-lengths that have got far in competitions, but working with Simon in genre and for radio/podcast gave me far more skill sets. 

TO1%: What’s your favourite book to screen adaptation?
SJ: Chimes at Midnight (well that’s not a book). Several plays. Love Andrea Camilleri’s Montalbano series – you realise how good both novel and adaptation are. Of  screenplays not made into films: Pinter’s A La Reserché du Temps Perdu might be a favourite. I’ve still not read The Unbearable Lightness of Being so can’t comment on that. WarhorseClockwork OrangeDoctor Zhivago as a pure screen phenomenon, not decided about Les Miserables

So mainstream sunniest is Forster’s A Room With a View. 1940s Raymond Chandler sequence are terrific. A travesty of genius is Buchan’s Thirty-Nine Steps by Hitchock in 1935, which Buchan loved. The original isn’t Buchan’s best (very best Sick Heart River 1941, his last, The Mantle of the Dark from 1931 and from 1926,  Witchwood), and best Hannay The Three Hostages (1924). In fairness Andrew Davis’ adaptation of Pride and Prejudice of 1995 is a real evergreen, catches spirit as well as plot. In TV terms Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is hard to beat. 

TO1%: And your least?
SJ: Davis had a total screw-up with Austen’s Sanditon though. Lost opportunity: Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time on channel 4 in 1997 started well but scrunched up, you can’t compress 12 novels into four episodes. 6 might have managed it; end was botched. Austen’s The Watsons is out there still – Laura Wade’s postmodern stage version leaves room for a proper screen version. Like Sanditon it’s unfinished but the storyline’s known. So shout out for that.

TO1%: Do you listen to music when you write?
SJ: Am now. Sometimes complete traversals of composers, Radio 3. Etc. But you realise you’ve not listen properly and play again. Which can stop you writing….

TO1%: Do you have a writing schedule? (mornings/nighttime)
SJ: Aspire to morning, end at night. Varies

TO1%: Do your characters take over your life? Do you worry about them?
SJ: Take over my consciousness, not life, they’re autonomous and start talking to you ‘this is how it is!’ and when you feel the kick – that’s it, they’re alive, telling you what they’re doing, so you better listen up. Outside that, no, they’re not interested in me. I still worry over them, I feel responsible, sometimes as if I really should contribute to their household expenses. 

TO1%: What do you write on? Laptop? Pen and paper? Quill?
SJ: Pen and paper for poems, Mac for everything else.

TO1%: Do you ever write in cafes? Or does that make you feel uncomfortable?
SJ: Often written in trains, plots have come to me crucially back from reviewing, or walking. Written in cafes, even years back waiting to sign on – some of my best poems in fact. Mostly at home though. Rosemary Tonks’ 1963 collection Notes on Cafes and Bedrooms says it all about poets’ habits.

TO1%: How do you read? (books? Kindle? Audio?)
SJ: Physically.  I have Verso e-books delivered per month but I read so many articles on my phone that I can’t read many books there so end up buying the ones I really want to read because there’s only so much screen you can take. I’ve edited a book on my phone, a very fine novel for someone. And a second novel by a dramatist beckons to be edited in the same way.

TO1%: What’s your favourite writing snack?
SJ: Something terrifying from a tin microwaved…. Soup often.

TO1%: What’s the last meal you cooked?
SJ: Fish and baked potatoes, two nights in a row (that’s lockdown)

TO1%: What’s the last (non-food) thing you bought?
SJ: Owen Hatherley’s Red Metropolis about Socialist London

TO1%: Who is your favourite writer?
SJ: Hart Crane (poet)

TO1%: What’s your desert Island book?
SJ: Should be A la Reserche…. Apart from a huge anthology of poems (Harold Bloom’s) maybe Martin Seymour-Smith’s Guide to 20th Century World Literature 3rd Edition 1985, almost as long as Proust and lots of quotes to start me writing. I’m even in the Acknowledgments come to think of it!

TO1%: What’s your best procrastination tactic?
SJ: Sleep

TO1%: If you were given a million pounds in cash, with the proviso that you could never write again, would you take it?
SJ: No. Only the ungrateful dead want to do that, and you can’t spend in a city of the dead

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