Out for Air: Olly Todd, Penned in the Margins
What do poetry and skateboarding have in common? The answer might well be Olly Todd. Former professional skateboarder turned poet, Todd now lives in East Sussex. His poems have appeared in Ambit, The Rialto, Vice, Prototype, Five Dials and the Clinic anthologies, and his collection Odeum Spotlights (Rough Trade Books, 2018) was longlisted for the Michael Marks pamphlets awards.
Few (if any) collections of poetry begin with a sheep counting system traditionally used by northern shepherds but Yan tyan tethera is Todd’s homage to the north-west of England. By the time we read the first poem, however, we have already crossed the Atlantic and are on the west coast of America. Four words in to the poem, Todd’s inventive use of the Spanish term ‘embarcadero’ from ‘embarcar’, ‘to embark’ is the giveaway (think of the award-winning Embarcadero Center spanning four blocks in downtown San Francisco) and marvel at Todd’s phrasing: “A man so Embarcadero as to be emanating bridges. / The big red one." Enter the skateboarding:
For one skater in the backseat of his future
to travel safely across.
For another fishing out a windcheater in the rucksack
of his ambition
to shelter under.
As we follow the skateboarder negotiating the steep gradients of the city, “blissing out calves, quads, glutes”, Todd’s lines become electrifying, fresh and exciting. We are in the territory of daredevil phrasing and Todd is a master at bringing this off.
The collection switches backwards and forwards between the US (New York and the Pacific coast) and the UK (London and the north-west of England) with consummate ease. Each poem encapsulates the thrill of movement and the joy of being present in a particular location. Todd is essentially an urban poet and the air he breathes is that of the built environment.
Skateboarding is never far from these poems. There is one about a skateboarding video, another about skating the vert ramp at a leisure centre and a whole poem, ‘Low Tops’ which mentions skateboarding terms such as “enigmas” (a type of skate shoe); “fastplanting” (a move in skateboarding) and ‘Rip Grip’ (a protective skateboarding accessory). In ‘Tilia’ there is a reference to Daubeney Fields, aka Hackney Marsh Adventure Playground, where there is an area set aside for skateboarding. ‘Memories of a Sponge’ mentions the Palace Wayward Boys’ Choir (PWBC), a moniker dreamt up by a group of skateboarders in south London to counteract American aspirations permeating the UK skate community at the time.
Some years after being introduced to skateboarding by his older brother and some friends, Todd turned pro for a company called Landscape Skateboards in 2003 after moving to London. He then moved to the US, riding for Stereo Skateboards in Los Angeles, before returning to the UK to ride for Palace Skateboards in London. He retired from skateboarding in 2018. Judging by this collection, skateboarding will always be in his blood.
When he is not writing about skateboarding, Todd addresses other subjects that are not often included in the standard repertoire of poetry today. In ‘Two Thoughts on a Hartlepool Sound Mirror’, for example, we enter the world of parabolic acoustic mirrors which were originally used as early warning devices by military air defence forces to detect incoming enemy aircraft by listening for the sound of their engines. In other poems he addresses more familiar subjects in an unfamiliar way including coffee shops, a London restaurant with “chequered vinyl tablecloths; / an old ray telly armed above the till / showing soft focus Spanish soaps” and train, air and bus travel (“the FlyAway / from Union Station to LAX” pitched somewhat incongruously against travelling “an hour plus / on a hot day in a cramped bus”).
His cityscapes are convincing. He can turn “a tired wonderland” into poetry of the highest order by observing “the overfull bus stop bin; the unresponsive taxi app.; the four a.m. chill… the U-turning taxi with the road to itself”.
Pitched between continents, bridges, roads and flight paths, Todd’s poems are full of movement. Like skateboarding, they take risks and are full of surprises, from one line to the next.
Olly Todd, Out for Air, Penned in the Margins, £9.99
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