Lydia Tomkiw

Algebra Suicide: 'In Bed with Boys', somewhere in America
Lydia at Covent Garden, 24 May 1991

Being an archivist is great. I like it when people ask ‘Yes, but what do you actually do?’ Well, right now I’m spending a lot of time linked up to a cassette-player and at least three pairs of headphones, digitising audio-recordings of Apples and Snakes’ shows from the 1980s and ‘90s.

And when I’m not tripping over leads or watching digitisation training videos on YouTube, I’m learning a huge amount about the history of spoken word. I thought I knew it all, but I’m discovering that I didn’t. There are so many poets I’ve never heard of before. Born ten years too late… There are some poets that I find have done vast numbers of gigs for us, and yet I’ve still never heard of them (Pitika Ntuli – if you’re out there, get in touch). And then there are the quirky one-offs that make me think ‘Where have you been all my life?’

It’s one of the latter that I’d like to share with you now. Lydia Tomkiw was a Chicago-based poet of Ukrainian heritage. She was active from the early 1980s onwards, initially as part of a cult music/poetry duo called Algebra Suicide. After their demise, she forged a solo career until her untimely death in 2007. This much one gleans from Wikipedia.

Transatlantic ripples of excitement

And there she was, at Covent Garden Community Centre on 24 May 1991, as part of a Small Presses night that we put on, focusing on some of the UK’s best independent poetry magazines. One of these was Joe Soap’s Canoe, which had a particular penchant for American writers, and had published Lydia a few times. Evidently her British fan base was in the house, as you can hear transatlantic ripples of excitement from the crowd – especially from one punter who sounds like they’re festooned from head to toe in jangly bangles. Ha – the early ‘90s, eh?

Anyway, we attach for your delectation a sound file of one of Lydia’s poems from that evening, plus a splendid clip of Algebra Suicide from a different time and place. That riff will be stuck in your head for the rest of the day, I promise you. (And Lydia observes that it was ‘doing real well in France’: they’d released it as a single). The person who uploaded the film mentions the twin influences of Laurie Anderson and the Velvet Underground, and, whilst there’s certainly something in that, it’s clear that Lydia had an idiosyncratic talent of her own and that her body of work is well worth seeking out and celebrating.

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