Tohm Bakelas is a social worker in a psychiatric hospital in New Jersey who took up writing poetry in 2018. More recently he set up a D.I.Y. small press start-up Between Shadows Press which in 2021 published an amazing 41 chapbooks- from such underground luminaries as Victor Clevenger, Pete Donohue, John Dorsey, Gwil James Thomas, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, John D. Robinson, Ashley L. Cooke, Paul Koniecki and a cast of others.
The title of his recent chapbook Punk Poets Are Pretentious Assholes is a play on the hardcore punk band Poison Idea’s 1984 record ‘Record Collectors Are Pretentious Assholes’. Bakelas candidly says of the title in the short interview which follows:
“I had been kicking around the chapbook title for two years before feeling as if it was right. The poems collected in it, at the time, I believed to be the best representation of my work. The title ‘Punk Poets Are Pretentious Assholes’ is definitely aggressive and abrasive and well deserved.
“In my travels, correspondence, and work with the press I’ve encountered so many entitled fucking pricks. It’s mind-numbing. Either people don’t know, don’t appreciate, don’t care about the work that an editor/press is undertaking. It’s more than just folding and stapling paper. It’s about formatting, making sure YOU didn’t fuck up your manuscript with typos, errors, etc. Out of all the writers I’ve worked with, there’s 19 I’ll never work with again.
“As for me being a pretentious asshole, if knowing what I like makes me a pretentious asshole, then I absolutely am one.”
Bakelas’s chapbook consists of 12 poems which reveal his punk credentials. He likes listening to heavy punk- Black Flag, Deep Wound, Oxbow and sees poetry as a form of subversion- where he & others, can distil “dangerous thoughts” of rebellion & anarchy:
a dangerous thought
“do you feel that
what you do is dangerous?”
“what, writing poetry?”
“no,” they said, “being
a social worker in
the most violent
state psychiatric hospital.”
i had to think
about that one
for a long time
because i believe
my first response
said it all.
(all poems republished with the permission of the artist)
His nascent poetry also examines his dissatisfaction with mainstream poetry (‘I went to a bookstore and bought nothing’), mainstream radio (‘the radio never played that rebel sound’, & his love of Bukowski & early punk.
In the poem ‘it shall begin again’ Bakelas questions why he got into the poetry game in the first place & seriously considers calling it quits:
it shall begin again
tom waits is on the stereo in the kitchen
and I’m trimming nose hairs
with dull scissors in the bathroom
no more sparrows weighted down
with rain-wet wings too tired to fly,
no more purple flowers frozen in snow,
no more moonlit bedroom floors to pace
upon like paths of twisted enlightenment,
no more metaphors and similies,
no more fragile faces like chipped stones,
no more nights of endless drinking
mutating into puzzle pieces mornings,
no more confused seasons of mangled horror,
no more guessing: what comes next?
No more poets, no more poems
Tonight the rebellion ends
and by tomorrow
or the next day,
when I become bored
or feel that burning light
ignite inside my head
it shall begin again.
As Bakelas has found out, like many of us, it’s difficult to maintain the rage amongst the domesticity of having to feed a young baby who wakes up every few hours, including in the middle of the night- screaming its head off & rattling your ear drums- demanding to be fed.
Also disillusioning for Bakelas & many of us in the small alternative press, are the self-indulgent hacks who expect the world, make many promises & give fuck-all back.
You really have to admire the bloke who is new to the industry and who has put his hard-earned into publishing the work of many others- perhaps at the sacrifice of his own development as a writer.
INTERVIEW WITH TOHM BAKELAS 21 OCTOBER 2021
Why did you decide to set up Between Shadows Press?
I started Between Shadows Press as a way to release my friends’ chapbooks of poetry who were either scared to submit or constantly being rejected. I think there’s a lot of writers out there who get overlooked because they don’t have any ‘writing credits’ to their name. I think that’s bullshit and believe if it’s good writing, it deserves a chance.
What was involved in putting it together?
Buying printers was the biggest obstacle. There’s so many options out there. I went with what I knew, which is inkjet, and it fucking burns through ink. One day I’ll upgrade. But aside from the mechanics, just learning how to navigate telling someone “Hey your manuscript smokes, but this poem sorta doesn’t fit.” That’s something I’m still learning how to express.
It appears you publish mainly poetry. Do you publish short fiction as well?
I’d say the press is mainly poetry, but I have published a few chapbooks of short stories.
On the BSP Facebook homepage you write "We know what we like". What are you looking for in publishable material?
There’s nothing particular I look for in writers that I have published or plan to publish. I try to look for those who have never been published as well as those who are seasoned in publishing. To me it doesn’t matter. It just needs to real and have passion. I want the outcasts, the underdogs, the ones hanging on by thread fibers, the junkies, the drunks, the fuckups, those completely swooning in the throes of love, those completely content with their lives, and those with stories to tell about the hell they’ve seen and the hell they’re in. I want it all. I want poetry to remain dangerous. The motto of the press is: “we know what we like” and that couldn’t be truer.
Who have you published in 2021?
Since January 2021, I’ve pressed 63 chapbooks, 1 journal, and 5 minibroadsides. The writers published by Between Shadows Press include: Ryan King, Luke Young, Eric Keegan, Victor Clevenger, Christopher Miguel Flakus, myself, Niklas Stephenson, Wesley Cain, John Dorsey, Melissa Taylor, Heidi Anne, Ashley L. Cooke, Cody Taylor, Pete Donohue, Mark Anthony Pearce, Victoria Elena, Linnet Phoenix, Gwil James Thomas, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, John D. Robinson, Danny D. Ford, Claire Richardson, James Norman, Steve Zmijewski, Kevin Tosca, Glen Binger, Tim Heerdink, Joey Camello, Richard Cabut, Lilyth Coglan, Chris Flynn, Scott McConnell, Ford Dagenham, Paul Koniecki, Damian Rucci, Katie Doherty, Rob Plath, Jessica Lee, Kent Taylor, Heather Parker, Kevin Ridgeway, Joseph Fulkerson, Lindsey Heatherly, Jason Love, T..J. McGowan, A. Lynn Blumer, Jonathan Terranova, Vater Boris, Shawn Evan Holmes, Matthew Wallenstein, Drew Campbell, and Alex Gildzen
Wow Tohm, that’s an impressive list! Turning to your own writing, when did you first decide to get it down on the page and send it off?
Prior to poetry I was in bands. When they all died I turned to poetry. Sometime around 2018 I’d say.
Who are some of your early influences?
My early influences are: Charles Bukowski, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Dylan Thomas, Stephen King, Li Po, and Du Fu.
I note that you are a social worker in a psychiatric hospital. How has this line of work shaped your work?
It’s definitely shaped my work. I get a lot of influence from day to day interactions I have with patients as well as just what I observe in the hospital.
Do you often write about your patients or are you bound by confidentiality agreements?
Absolutely. Confidentiality in my line of work is critical. If I write about a specific encounter with a patient, I’ll change their name. It’s the safest way to ensure confidentiality while still painting the picture of the encounter.
The title Punk Poets Are Pretentious Assholes appears to be an in your face, ironic title. Are you a "pretentious asshole"?
The title is a play on Poison Idea’s 1984 record “Record Collectors Are Pretentious Assholes.” I had been kicking around the chapbook title for two years before feeling as if it was right. The poems collected in it, at the time, I believed to be the best representation of my work. The title “Punk Poets Are Pretentious Assholes” is definitely aggressive and abrasive and well deserved. In my travels, correspondence, and work with the press I’ve encountered so many entitled fucking pricks. It’s mind-numbing. Either people don’t know, don’t appreciate, don’t care about the work that an editor/press is undertaking. It’s more than just folding and stapling paper. It’s about formatting, making sure YOU didn’t fuck up your manuscript with typos, errors, etc. Out of all the writers I’ve worked with, there’s 19 I’ll never work with again. As for me being a pretentious asshole, if knowing what I like makes me a pretentious asshole, then I absolutely am one.
What's next for you?
The plan is to put the press into hibernation from October to March/April. I have some personal projects I need to focus on for various presses and I can’t do that if I’m putting everything into pumping out books for others. And even though the press is hibernating, I’m still working on some secret projects. I’m currently investigating copyrights on two dead poets to see if I can press them without being sued. Time will tell George, time will tell!
Thanks Tohm for taking the time to talk to me.