Eithne Cullen, Write On! Thoughtful Tuesday Editor interviews Poet Brian Bilston
I wonder if many people reading this discovered Brian Bilston’s poetry like I did – scrolling through Twitter and Facebook in the early morning. If this was you, you’ll share my enthusiasm for his topical references, witty wordplay and ability to make a little bit of fun of people (including poets) who take themselves too seriously. I’d been reading his poems for quite a while when I saw the opportunity to hear Brian read at a local venue. Funny and engaging from the outset, it was absolutely packed. I found the warmth of the audience’s response to Brian’s reading astounding (I’ve also been known to read poetry at venues, so know what I am talking about!) and the queue to buy signed copies of his work was also awe-inspiring.
I bought two books and asked Brian to sign them, mentioning my own writing in the process. Then, as a good and loyal member of the Write On! team, I also shared a bit about our magazine, telling him I’d be in touch. As you can see, I was true to my word. So today, I’m delighted to be chatting, via Zoom, to the writing phenomenon that is Brian Bilston.
I wasn’t able to elicit a full image from him (hence one of me with two of his books). I start by wondering whether it’s shyness or simply something he quite likes now: being the voice without the face on social media, who posts his poetry so widely that he’s known as The Twitter Poet? Brian responds to my musings around this seeming contradiction with an immediate honesty:
“I’m quite shy, It must be said, and it’s a constant source of bemusement to me, that I’m now going out and about …When I first started sharing poems, I loved to hide behind this cloak of anonymity. Having that pseudonym to hide behind was a big help to someone who is under-confident.”
As with his writing, there is a warmth to Brian’s voice and his quietly comical style reels me in further. I ask what gives him confidence to post his poetry so publicly. He tells me that, because he was not so well-known at the start, he built up the confidence, thinking no one was ever going to follow him:
“I was almost doing it for my own benefit and pleasure, writing something and feeling I could publish it.”
He shares that, in an odd way, the fact people are following him and he’s reaching a wider audience actually makes him feel slightly less confident. There’s always the worry people will find and point out a typo, or react if they have some kind of problem with what he’s saying. He also likes to interact with people online and, now his following is growing, he can’t always respond to what people are saying to him. I’ve noticed this on his posts recently; humble apologies for not being able to answer every comment.
Though he’s never been a member of a poetry group (if you’ve read Diary Of A Somebody, you’ll be surprised, as the poetry group is an important feature of the narrator’s life), he understands the different kinds of poets who are out there and is receptive to all kinds of poetry, which he reads widely: from high lyricism, to abstract poetry and all sorts of rap and lyrics. Brian confides he doesn’t get hung up on what makes a poem a poem.
His own poems often deal with current issues, big questions and moral concerns. Says Brian:
“The bigger ideas need more playing around. I don’t sit down and say I’ll write a … (particular form).”
He works on the structure and form to make his ideas coalesce. As well as writing in the more conventional forms, Brian shares he’s equally proud of poems that take the shape of Venn diagrams or Excel spreadsheets!
We go on to talk about agents and how they started approaching him following his burgeoning online presence. It’s interesting to hear how both books of poetry were shaped by the format they’d suggested to him. For example, Days Like These presented him with a poem for every day of the year. Sometimes these are easy to categorise – but particular dates or events, like Penguin Awareness Day, for example – are more random. In any case, he’s happy to tell me how useful those external prompts were in terms of helping him choose the topic to write about.
We move onto his debut novel, Diary Of A Somebody, which was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award. I chuckle when Brian starts to tell me about it:
“The protagonist, a chap called Brian Bilston – no relation, of course – sets himself the challenge of writing a poem a day for the year. His lack of self awareness causes a lot of the humour of the book.”
When I chime in to say it’s a bit like Mr Pooter in Diary Of A Nobody, Brian is quick to tell me that, though, he’d not read this before writing his own novel, it really resonated with him when he read it later.
We move on to Alexa, What Is There To Know About Love? and one of the things I love about Brian’s poetry: his curiosity. He explores anything and everything, from the mundane to the bizarre. His response, therefore, doesn’t really surprise me:
“I write to explore and Alexa, What Is There To Know About Love? has allowed me to look at love in its many forms: time, history, platonic love and romance, to name but a few.”
I do want to find about more about how it all began, so we move on from books to process. Brian tells me he started writing in his spare time, in what he calls, “Stolen moments… for my own amusement, really.” And then, one or two years after he’d joined Twitter, he realised he could incorporate his bad jokes and poems into his posts.
In terms of where he gets his ideas, prompts come to him from lots of different places:
“I love being out and about in the world, interacting with people. I’m at my most productive when I have a kind of scheme in mind.”
He goes on to describe how, in Days Like These, the structure of there being a poem for every day of the year, gave him a core of things to write about, which was important:
“It’s difficult going to my desk each day without an idea.”
Brian casts his mind back even further to when he joined Twitter and how he’d look at things that were trending or in the news, sharing how important this input was for his writing:
“I find external stimuli so valuable. Twitter was perfect for me.”
I love his next point as well: how he likes to end the day with an idea so that he can start the next one with an idea in his head. A really good tip for all writers, methinks!
I want to know about his forthcoming tour and manage to slide in an aside around how, for someone who describe himself a shy man, the sheer number of dates he has scheduled are surprising. Almost enough to rival Springsteen, in fact. He chuckles, telling me about the many positives there are around being on the road. Some less expected: for example, the sheer scale and number of events taking the pressure off his writing. Some more so: here, he cites his enjoyment of the audience response; an audience who in the main hasn’t seen him perform before, which makes his jokes fresh and the responses real. He loves the fact that people who come really want to be there:
“Though my audiences are full of all ages and types, what they all have in common is that they come for the poetry. They like that kind of stuff.”
That’s a good way to end our conversation, thinking about the hours he has ahead of him, travelling around the country, quietly and unassumingly engaging with the people who do like that kind of stuff. Luckily there really are a lot of us!
I hope Brian’s tour is the success it deserves to be.
You might enjoy his growing collections of poetry and his first novel. His poetry books are: You Took The Last Bus Home, Refugees, 50 Ways To Score A Goal and Alexa, What Is There To Know About Love?
Diary Of A Somebody is a novel, in the form of a diary, about a complete loser called Brian Bilston (no relation). It also contains over 100 poems and is shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award.
You can read Brian’s poems on Facebook: www.facebook.com/BrianBilston, Twitter: @Brian_bilston and Instagram: @brian_bilston
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Though my audiences are full of all ages and types, what they all have in common is that they come for the poetry. They like that kind of stuff.