From the Wandering Word tent at Shambala Festival to the Royal Albert Hall (at home) and beyond, Toby Thompson’s poetry connects hearts, encompassing the everyday and the absurd with profundity and poignancy. It’s hard to imagine how such poems are written, but in this interview, he discusses his unique creative process as well as his one-man show and the meaning of life.
Your career started at just 15 when you were commissioned to write a poem expressing your feelings about how Shakespeare was taught in schools. Can you tell us a bit more about your journey?
I started writing poetry (or rhyming stuff) when I was 14 or 15. Around that time, I got commissioned to do that poem. I performed it at this amazing event that also had Dizraeli, an artist who’s become a great friend and a huge influence. Kate Tempest was there too. It was so exciting as a 15-year-old!
Dizraeli was the one who got me a gig at Shambala. So I went along as a 17-year-old and found the spoken word community there. At Shambala, you just make friends with everyone. Then suddenly, I would be offered gigs. I’ve never been hugely ambitious with self-promotion, I’m quite ambivalent about that, but things ticked along and one thing led to another.
Did that tendency to rhyme stuff come naturally?
Yeah, I’ve always been big into language. It’s funny because I feel like my relationship to language and poetry and communication, all of that stuff, is my greatest strength and the thing that lights me up the most, but it’s also the source of my greatest anxieties and where I feel my lack the most. It’s a double-edged sword, and you can’t have one without the other.
I’ve read that your writing style was born of a love affair you had with hip-hop. Could you tell us a bit more about that relationship?
It was really when I got into hip-hop that I started wanting to write, which has kind of fallen away since then. But that was my in. I think there was something about the physicality of rhyme, the musicality. That’s what I’ve always most enjoyed about writing – the musicality of words. It’s the reason I’ve never published anything up until now; it’s always been to perform.
So, when you write, is it with performance in mind? What’s the difference to you between reading and hearing a poem?
Actually, most of the stuff that I do perform was never written down during the writing process. It’s all written standing up listening to music, just walking around talking. Writing has always been something that happens for me within the voice and within the body as a form of direct communication to someone. So doing it in a space with an audience makes sense to me. I’ve always been amazed by writing for the page but I’ve never found a way into that side of things.
Could you tell us more about this creative process?
The process is to find a piece of music that makes me feel something good or something poignant. It’s very hard to do actually, finding a song that makes me feel like, ‘ok, I could listen to that a thousand times on loop and not get bored.’ I snip off the beginning and end and loop it. Then, each writing session is kind of like sinking into a trance.
To begin with, I feel locked out of it. Then, it’s a lot of looking into the middle distance, making sounds and noises. The music keeps my thought processes and emotions all channelled in the same direction. And then there’s the rhyming aspect of it. I find really complex rhyme schemes very satisfying. I don’t know what it is that it does to human beings, rhyme. I’m not as geeky about it anymore. I used to want to push it as far as possible and have really complex structures of corresponding syllables in different lines. Now I’m more fluid about it. For every line, it’s about how many reasons it has for being that line. What’s its purpose as a spoken sentence? It can be because it’s beautiful or true or confusing. You can have all of those things in there, and then if on top of that every single syllable hits the same rhyme, I find something about that all feels so…
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What about when you are working on a commissioned piece? Is the process any different?
Well, that’s the thing about this writing out loud thing. I can’t go back and change things. It takes forever for me to decide ‘that’s how it’s going to be.’ But if I’ve written the first minute, and I’m on the third minute, there’s no going back to the first minute. Whereas if I’m writing for a commission, I can’t do that. If it’s a theatre piece and you’ve got a story that needs to be told over a long period, then chances are you’re going to have to go back and make changes. So then I find it useful to have a computer to highlight, copy, cut, edit, which feels highly futuristic after only using my own brain.
Do you have to keep your brain in good shape to be able to do that? 
I do. I used to have loads of exercises I’d do for rhyming. It’s also all the general health stuff I’m learning, like getting enough sleep. I can’t write if I’m full or tired. In the past, I would override how I was feeling with smoking. But I haven’t been smoking this year, and that’s been huge, trying to reestablish a creative process from scratch, one that isn’t piggybacking on an addiction. I could write a lot more before, but it’s a short-term method.
When I was smoking, I was more productive in a small-minded way. I could work more hours in a day and ignore the fact that I felt run down or whatever. But the thing about removing an addiction from the scene is that your emotions become so much more poignant, which is a huge thing if you’re trying to write poetry. In a way, it’s the only thing.
Your friend Dizraeli said, “Who knows what primal wellspring he’s pulling all this inspiration from, but anyway, world –- take notice.” To answer him, what inspires you?
I tend to go into the writing process not knowing what I’m going to write about. I’m basically searching for anything to say that feels worth saying. And normally it’s very difficult to find something where my soul is like, ‘Yes! Say that!’ I guess the recurring themes are to do with a sort of existential bafflement, bewilderment fading into astonishment and gladness and awe and then moving into bewilderment again. It’s different for me at different times. It’s to do with beauty and wander and, I don’t know, the confusing-ness of everything, of existing.
I guess there’s a lot of visual beauty in nature that I find very enjoyable to write about. Then there was loads of stuff to do with like romance in my young twenties. But mostly fantasy; I’ve hardly ever written about a relationship that I’ve actually been in because I feel like I wouldn’t be able to do it justice. Those poems mostly come from a place of yearning or longing.
Do things that you didn’t know you were thinking come up in your poetry?
All the time. And I think that’s a really important thing, to have faith that you don’t have to know what you’re going to write before you write it. That’s the thing about having a process: you can turn up and go on that adventure into what you want to say rather than turning up and trying to fit a brief or having to know beforehand that the time that you spent will be well spent. It has to be a voyage into the unknown.
Your one-man show, I Wish I was a Mountain, is an adaptation of Hermann Hesse’s Faldum, and you wrote it for children aged 6 and older. How was that experience?
That was the first thing that I’d written for children. It’s something I’ve fallen into a little bit but I’ve really enjoyed performing to families. I Wish I was a Mountain was such an experiment, I had no idea that my writing could work for a child audience. I take so much enjoyment from making the words as dense and complicated as possible, so it was an interesting challenge trying to tell a story to children. But it seems to have been a successful experiment.
Faldum is a really weird, mystical story that doesn’t follow any of the established Disney beats but was nonetheless very satisfying for some reason. Having not dumbed it down or made it wantonly complicated, parents and kids seem to have had this nice experience where the parents aren’t bored on their phones while the kids look at this noisy colourful thing. Everyone’s engaging with it on different levels. So that’s been really interesting to do. We had a whole world tour booked, we were going to the US and Canada for six weeks and talking about China, New Zealand, Australia and Ireland in 2021/22. Now it’s all slightly up in the air.
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With the nature of your work relying on venues, how are you coping with theatres and other art facilities/centres being closed at the moment?
I’ve been very fortunate during this time because I’m a bit of a recluse. My existence has always been quite hermitic and not really that secure, anyway. I’m trying to figure out why I’m here, why I’m alive, why I turned up here, what I have to offer to the world… in the most clichéd sentence possible. I find that the problems and the good things, but just the situation of life, the world and humanity are so unbelievably complicated, entangled and just mental, that at the moment, I want to think about it as carefully as possible for as long as possible and then make decisions about what to do. Anything I choose to do is going to be guesswork. It feels like such a shit show, in some ways.
In other ways, there are beautiful things happening. I feel like now is a moment for trying to find, from somewhere, some level of baseline clarity. The world is so crazy, our history is so crazy, and that’s what we’ve grown out of; we are it, we’re not inseparable from it. I could think of things for another ten lifetimes and then maybe feel ready to participate a bit more. It’s all very confusing.
A lot of your poems question the meaning of life. Are you a spiritual person?
Yes. Increasingly, that’s the place I want anything I create to come from, speaking to the spirit in others from the spirit in me. I’m incredibly privileged in a lot of ways, but my spirituality feels like poverty to a certain extent. At the moment, it feels like I’m re-sensitising to the world because for quite a while, I felt dead to the issues that we face – climate change, for example. Like numb. They were rational things, so I was like, ‘that’s really fucked up,’ but it was only in my head, I couldn’t feel it.
Now I think what spirituality means to me is becoming more sensitised and I’m increasingly becoming affected by things that are happening in the world that used to only affect me in my brain. At the moment, I’m moved to tears most days, which is very different from how the last three years have been. My hope is to get thin skin. If I can shed a few layers of thick skin, I’ll be able to act from a place of ‘I feel this needs to be done, so I’m going to do it.’
With society as it is, there’s so much to numb us from every angle. Whatever particular thing that will soothe you or distract you, there’s a million options being advertised for. Sensitivity is key. Some days, I feel like I’m on a path to spiritual fulfilment and like I have a spiritual purpose here, and I want to live that out into the world and help. And other days, I just feel afraid and bewildered and confused by why there’s so much terrible stuff in existence. It’s strange.
Your poetry deals simultaneously with big, profound ideas like love, and the mundane or the everyday, like the “chunks of celery wedged in your teeth.” How do these things come together for you?
I think noticing beauty and profundity and being moved wherever you can is vital. That’s the stuff that life is made of, and it’s one of the points, one of the many points. In some ways, poetry feels like a sanctuary from that question, that lurking fear of futility. Because in those writing processes, I find something that feels true. Often, those poems take two hundred hours, and then at the end of it, I’m left with six minutes of the best moments of those two hundred hours, the moments of thinking, ‘that’s true!’
I know you perform at festivals and do gigs and shows, but there are also a number of performances available to watch online. For instance, during lockdown, you recorded a whole show for the Royal Albert Home. How do you feel about performing to a camera instead of a room or tent of people? What are the differences and similarities, or pros and cons?
I definitely prefer performing to people; that’s what it’s all about. It frightens me beforehand, but when it works, which it mostly does, it’s like hearts connecting. It’s so intimate to have spent all of that time alone trying to tunnel my way to something that in the innermost depths of my heart feels like I can say, ‘yeah, I believe that’ to then stand in front of some people while they all sit in silence and listen. Every person is this complete miracle of existence. Billions of years of evolution or however you want to look at it. It’s amazing that human beings exist. So even if fifty of them sit in front of you, just listening to you, is an amazing experience.
To quote you one last time, “I guess I just wish I had a plan, I good one.” Do you have any plans for the near future? What are you working on currently?
I’ve got a commission on at the moment for a very confusing project. This country mansion in Leeds called Harewood House is doing an immersive Christmas experience where people walk through the house and I’m writing poetry in the voice of the house, which will be playing through speakers in different rooms. So the story will be told through the house, who’s this eccentric, bumbling, friendly figure. So yeah, just trying to write that at the moment.