Twitter, TS Eliot and Tea: an interview with Brian Bilston
you are so groovet,
I'd like to stay under you
all of Tuesdet.
It might only be 14 words long, but Brian Bilston’s ‘Duvet’ was funny enough to make me snort very loudly (an unfortunate affliction of mine) upon reading it. It was my first introduction to the ‘poet laureate of Twitter’ and I was completely captivated. The poem struck me as being not only funny, but wonderfully and importantly refreshing in the increasingly gloomy world of social media poetry.
I am clearly not alone, Bilston’s writing is much adored. He has amassed an enormous following (59.5k on Twitter, 21k on Facebook and 17.1k on Instagram, last I checked), his book ‘You Took The Last Bus Home’ was entirely crowdfunded within a mere three days, and my Dad, ever since I suggested he read Bilston’s work, likes every single one of his instagrams without fail. I know you can’t really measure success but that strikes me as fairly conclusive evidence. I can also (happily) confirm: he is very nice. Maybe this is unsurprising - I was always going to sympathise with a man who has written 12 poems lamenting the existence of Jeremy Clarkson. He kindly took some time to answer Idle Chit Chat’s most burning questions; read below to hear his musings on poetry, pasta and Prufrock.
Maddy Fletcher: Firstly, thank you so much for speaking to us, we are really really excited! I thought I’d start by asking if you had ever read Jennifer Egan’s ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’. I only ask because in it, there is a chapter which is entirely written via a powerpoint presentation. It strikes me as something you might have been inspired by, and if not, might enjoy reading!
Brian Bilston: I have read (and enjoyed) that book. I’m not sure whether it directly inspired some of my poems but having worked in an office until recently, I would spend a lot of time in PowerPoint, Excel etc. I went through a whole period of work-related poems. I think it was a form of therapy.
MF: Forgive me, because I know this is probably a really tedious and obvious question but I am so intrigued to hear answer. If you had to recommend five poems to a stranger what would they be? I think this is, altogether, marginally more interesting than asking what your favourite poem or poet is because it also suggests the sort of light you want people to see you in. Not that you actually asked me (or probably care!) but mine would be: Faith Healing (Philip Larkin), The Orange (Wendy Cope), The Mower (Larkin AGAIN), Adlestrop (Edward Thomas), To his Lost Lover (Simon Armitage).
BB: That’s a good question – and I really like your choices, too. On any given day, I might have plumped for 3 or 4 of your selections myself. I would have ‘Adlestrop’ in there; it has a quiet brilliance about it, every word is as it should be. I’m also a fan of Larkin, Cope and Thomas. I’d almost certainly have a Larkin poem in there. ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ is a poem I keep coming back to. The rhythm, the eye for detail, and the shift from the pedestrian to the profound is astonishing. By way of contrast to the subtlety of ‘Adlestrop’ I might select something which is more immediate and direct; I do like poems which have something powerful or political to say. Adrian Mitchell’s ‘To Whom it May Concern (Tell Me Lies about Vietnam)’ does the business for me. The simplicity and originality of Emily Dickinson’s poetry appeals to me greatly so I’ll lob ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’ in there, too. Finally, I’m going to pick Frank O’Hara’s ‘Lana Turner Has Collapsed’ because I can’t help but smile when I read it.
But ask me this question tomorrow and I’d likely give you five different poems.
MF: I might have to reread ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ as I sometimes think I read a lot of Larkin very quickly and overlooked some hidden treasures. I also worry occasionally, that casually talking about Larkin makes me sound unbearably smug.
In a similar vein: do you think the fact that Stephen Fry said he would take the complete works of T.S. Eliot as his only book on his desert island discs, makes him unequivocally the most pretentious man on earth, because eliot is frankly impenetrable. Or, do you think I have an unnecessary vendetta against Stephen Fry (and possibly Eliot)? Equally, if you don’t really want to express an opinion on Stephen Fry, I suppose what I’m trying to ask is: which poets do you find absolutely impossible? Is there even such a thing as an ‘impossible’ poet?! Are all poems accessible if you try hard enough?
BB: I don’t think all of Eliot is impenetrable – The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, for instance, could easily have ended up in my top five poems on another day – but some of it does hurt my head. I suppose the advantage of having it with you on a desert island is that you might actually have some time to figure out all those unfathomable parts of The Wasteland.
I’m not sure I find certain poets ‘impossible’ but there are some (not naming names!) I find so difficult that I give up through boredom or lack of time. Some poetry, I think, seems written purely for a readership of fellow poets or English literature graduates. This can be a missed opportunity, I think, when the ideas within may be so powerful.
But neither am I wedded to poetry being ‘one thing’ or having ‘one approach’. It strikes me that there’s plenty of room under that heading for all kinds of stuff: ‘difficult’ poetry, spoken word, rap, limericks, rhymed verse, free verse, haiku etc. Some of these will, by their very nature, be more popular than others. Different kinds of poetry appeal to different audiences. Some people like a bit of everything. In that regard, I think it’s like music. All those genres - classical, pop, rock, jazz, folk, techno etc – some of them speak to us, and provoke an emotional or physical response within us, and some of them may not. But regardless, it’s still all music.
MF: On an entirely separate note: your pasta poem was so brilliant that I felt compelled to put it as my Instagram story. I think my death row meal would be pasta fyi. As a fellow pasta passionate, I’m dying to know your favourite variety of the majestic carb.
BB: Shape-wise, I like to keep it simple. Penne’s from heaven, as far as I’m concerned. The spaghetti-like shapes taste wonderful but have the potential to cause embarrassment when consumed in public places. In terms of accompaniment, I am very keen on spinach, feta and pine kernels (with a little parmesan on top, too).
MF: Agreed re: penne, although I think I would have more than just ‘a little’ parmesan. I am very conflicted on the rise of the ‘instapoet’, the Charly Cox, Rupi Kaur breed. A part of me thinks that simply getting poetry back into the ‘millennial’ mainstream is generally speaking, brilliant. I should also stress that I really enjoy reading this sort of poetry, and acknowledge that I am in no way WHATSOEVER superior to it.
However, I cannot escape the nagging feeling that this sort of poetry appeals to a slightly, for lack of a better word, embarrassing side to myself. It indulges the character of the overly emotional, heartbroken woman. It’s almost like a form of false empowerment and on top of that it seems to me, at least, that there is an increasingly fixed form of ‘insta-friendly’ poetry (short verses, metaphors about women being empty like vases but hopeful for water and flowers to fill them etc) I think, one of the reasons I love your work so much, is that it is considerably more funny and less pretentious than most of the stuff I read on social media. Is this an intentional effort from you to defy being branded an ‘instapoet’ or to combat the swathes of gloomy verse that inundate social media? I’d love to know your thoughts on the concept of the ’instapoet’ more generally?
BB: I regard ‘instapoet’ in the same way I think of ‘difficult’ poets. There’s a place for everyone under the big banner of ‘poetry’ – and there’s neither a right or wrong way to go about it all, either for the writer or the reader. I don’t really know that ‘instapoet’ world very well – and I suspect much of it isn’t aimed at such a cynic like me. But I like what it’s doing to make poetry reach wider – and younger - audiences. I ‘grew up’ on Twitter, which is probably still far more suited to my poetry than Instagram is, generally. I don’t think I’ll ever be posting up poems on Instagram set against a background of a rippling cornfield or a mighty ocean wave: it’s not really me.
I tend to write poetry with the intention of being humorous, because it comes far more naturally to me than being serious. At the same time, I think there can be some ‘humorous’ verse that can be really powerful, too, and pack a punch; gloomy topics shouldn’t be off the table and I try to address real world issues in my poetry, too.
MF: Speaking of real world issues, one of my favourite poems of yours is ‘Not Her Cup of Tea’, and I quite agree, milk in the teacup first is an act strictly reserved for anarchists/all round weirdos. I know you make an enormous effort to conceal your identity, and this is an incredibly exposing question, but the poem does beg for an answer: how do you take yours?
BB: I am an anarchist / all round weirdo. Moving swiftly on ...
MF: Well, to avoid ending an otherwise very pleasant chat on a concerning note such as that, I have one final question for you. I’m intrigued to know if you ever feel self conscious about your poetry? I only wonder, firstly because of the pseudonym (although is this just an attempt to retain some anonymity when social media is such a brilliant, yet horribly un-mysterious, platform), but also because of my own experiences. Do you find writing about ‘serious’ subjects more exposing, or does comedy feel equally nerve-wracking? Above all, do you have any advice to combat feeling self-conscious about your own work?
(As an aside, which I likely won’t include in the final interview, I am desperately worried about releasing our first newsletter to the world, even though I am aware hardly anyone will read it, it still feels very daunting! I’d love to know if you had any strategies to stop worrying quite so much.)
BB: Yes, all the time. It’s a large part of why I write behind a pseudonym or have done very little in terms of standing up in front of audiences, forcing them to listen to my poetry. I still find the notion of being described as a ‘poet’, fairly ludicrous. I’m just someone who writes some poems. I feel particularly self-conscious when writing more serious stuff – and steered clear of that on social media for a while. The ‘comedy’ is far less scary for me; I basically take the view that if I write something that makes me smile, then that’s good enough. Whether others choose to do so or not is entirely up to them.
In terms of giving advice about all this, I’m probably the least-equipped human on the planet to do this. The only thing I would say is that I’ve seen the confidence of many people grow – especially on Twitter – as they begin to share their talents with the wider world. I don’t just mean poetry but other writing, jokes, cartoons, paintings, music, all sorts of things. And often, such as in my case, it starts in small ways: a poem getting retweeted, an encouraging comment from a stranger. Social media gets a bad press sometimes – and I have many issues with it, too – but it can be a real force for good.
More than anything it has really illustrated how talented – funny, clever, creative - people can be. To think of all those bushels that are out there, stingily hiding all that light.
- Maddy Fletcher