Tom Chivers: UK publishing and intimate spots in urban landscapes

Based in London, UK, Tom Chivers is running a small publishing house called ‘Penned in the Margins’  which brings together a whole range of different activities under one roof, from book publishing to spoken word performances. Risky and venturous, the arts producer Tom Chivers shows what the future of publishing can look like – let me tell you, it is not in the digital world.

You call yourself an “arts producer”. I assume that this term encompasses the diversity of your many roles, that is, as a writer, poet, publisher, commissioner, editor, critic and journalist,  audiobook writer, performer… anything missing?

There are quite a few things I haven’t done yet but I am not a journalist nor a critic. I haven’t done audiobooks. But it is still true that I hold no particular interest in a special medium. As a publisher, I do as my work calls for.

Let me first address you as an arts producer. What kind of live events are you doing?

I run a small arts company called ‘Penned in the Margins’, based in east London. We’ve been running about ten years. We publish books, and produce a variety of live performance work spanning live literature, spoken word and experimental theatre. For instance, I’m currently touring Schlock! by writer and performer Hannah Silva – it’s a one-hour show entirely composed of speech from Fifty Shades of Grey and the works of punk playwright Kathy Acker. Hannah’s brilliant – her work is always uncompromising, thought-provoking and incredibly physical. I’m in the planning stages of four other projects, three of which will premiere in 2017, including a new play by Indian-born poet Siddhartha Bose, and another play set in a private military company.

Christine Bergvall @ Penned in the margins;
Christine Bergvall @ Penned in the margins;

What are your latest achievements?

My company has recently been awarded core-funding by ‘Arts Council England’, which is a big deal here. I’m currently trying to stabilise our finances and operations – it’s all boring but necessary back-office stuff. To me that’s a huge achievement, but it’s not exactly sexy. Without stability, we can’t take the kinds of risks that we do, such as publishing a seven-part series about death, literary criticism and London’s Victorian cemeteries (by Chris McCabe) or producing innovative literary club nights that bring together technology, writing and ghost voices (Electronic Voice Phenomena). So, yeah, for me that boring organisational work is vital.

May I address you as a poet then? I like what Ian Sinclair wrote about your poetry: ‘Dark London history, dredged and interrogated, spits and fizzes with corrosive wit. Tom Chivers understands the risks he risks, the play in a taught rope.’ There are morphic creatures that trudge through your poems in a dark shaded landscape. This is how you make a place. Do you understand your poems as being basically connected to a real geographical location, that is probably London? Is it an inspiration and so to say locus classicus in your work?

Yes, it is. I prefer to work with a particular and highly subjective approach. I do not try to capture any objectivity or truth of the space. That is why I am interested in maps as things that simulate objective reality but never ever achieve it. That is what my poems are doing, too. They are creating a completely idiosyncratic space of the city which is imbued with my own hang-ups, interests, problems or whatever.

On your website it says ‘psycho-geographical’.


One could say that your poems create individually and psychologically felt space. // What is your favorite place at the moment?

Well, it is a parcel of land which happens to be near my workplace in Aldgate – at the edge of Central London. Whilst London has just risen around us with huge skyscrapers, flats, shopping malls and stations, there is this small parcel of land that’s been derelict for at least ten or possibly more years. A piece of land that is forgotten. Now there are piles of garbage becoming small hills on this patch. The non-fiction book I am working on right now starts here – I call it ‘a hole in the city’. I have dug down into that land and researched its history as the site of a ruined Tube station and a sixteenth century playhouse, laying bare the historical strata of the hole. So that is my favourite place.

Regarding typology, which is indeed a recurring theme in your works, I would like to talk about another project of yours: the book Mount London which is about a fictive mountain growing in Britain’s capital. Why a mountain and what is it about?

The book is really using the idea of a “mountain” as a metaphor. May it be Paris, Berlin or elsewhere, we often navigate modern cities without thinking that they were and are landscapes, that have texture, have geography. For many centuries man has flattened out what were once wild places. Nonetheless, hills, plateaus, rivers, valleys, these belong to the topography of a city.

What is the contemporary literary scene in London like?

Concerning ‘Live Literature’, there were only 2 or 3 significant events in the city when I started out as an arts producer. Now it’s 20 to 30 events, so ten times as many. The scene is big and fragmented, by which I mean there are different scenes within the scene, microscenes that never come together, that never meet. Take for example the poetry slammer who does not go to more experimental events. I try to unite these audiences.

What do you have in mind when you hear the term “literary activist”?

It sounds busy but also constrained, by which I mean it implies a certain platform or position. I certainly won’t refer to myself as a “literary activist” because one of the things I try to pursue is to maintain a balance between certain kinds of positions. This notion also implies that literature is a kind of medicine that we have to give to people. If somebody wants to engage with a book or anything I am making that is fantastic, if they do not I am not going to judge them for it. If they prefer to watch ‘Netflix’, that is fine, so I would stay away from the word “activist” myself.

Tom Chivers is a writer, publisher and arts producer. Born 1983 in south London and educated at St Anne’s College, Oxford, he currently lives in Rotherhithe. His publications include the poetry collection How To Build A City (Salt Publishing, 2009), the pamphlets The Terrors (Nine Arches Press, 2009; shortlisted for the Michael Marks Award) and Flood Drain (Annexe Press, 2012), and, as editor, the anthologies Adventures in Form and Mount London: Ascents in the Vertical City (Penned in the Margins, 2012 & 2014).


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