‘I’ve loved being out and about’: why poetry’s mystery man Brian Bilston decided to take to the stage and meet his audience
Back in 2016, Write Out Loud interviewed the ‘poet laureate of Twitter’ Brian Bilston about his astounding success. In a wide-ranging interview we touched on why, at that time, he preferred to shroud his identity in a fog of pipesmoke. This year Brian has thrown caution aside and taken to the stage, up and down the country, to meet his enthusiastic audience. In a new email interview with Write Out Loud he explains what brought this on, how much he still uses Twitter, and whether his poems perhaps appeal to parts that other poetry doesn’t reach.
You began several years ago posting poems on Twitter by identifying as a man of mystery who avoided publicity. Now you’re in the middle of a nationwide reading tour this year, with more dates planned next year. What’s changed?
The rather dull answer is that it stems from a need to pay energy bills. And my council tax, the mortgage etc.
Back in those early days of Twitter, writing poems was a hobby, a distraction. I had a proper job and a regular salary and the poetry was just something I did in my spare time, for my own amusement. But – after what I now recognise as some kind of midlife crisis – when I decided to get out of the industry in which I’d worked in for so long and try to make a career as a writer, I needed to find ways of making money out of what I was doing. Poetry, of course, is not the most lucrative career on which to embark. Publishing books helps, but the events provide more regular income – and, of course, also help to spark more book sales.
How has it been, going on the road? What are the audiences like? How was it the night you read in the West Midlands town of Bilston itself?
Although it was born out of necessity, I’ve loved being out and about. I’m rather shy and introverted, so it’s a big deal for me to get up on stage and read poems, but the audiences have been fabulous. I’m in the lucky position of having audiences who have, for some strange reason, deliberately wanted to come and see me, and so they’ve made things much easier for me than they might have been. I get very nervous beforehand but settle down quickly on stage. And I’ve loved chatting with people afterwards at the book signings. Bilston Town Hall was a great night. To my shame, I’d never been to Bilston before but somehow it still felt like I was coming home.
Any funny ha-ha or funny peculiar experiences on the poetry reading circuit that you’d like to share? What has been the night you enjoyed the best so far?
I remember being on stage in Edinburgh and telling the story of someone on Facebook who had messaged me to say that she’d been intending to buy one of my books but having read my poem Frisbee (a poem she thought somewhat cruel and heartless), she was no longer going to do so. Anyway, a woman came up to me after the event and told me that person was her. Fortunately, she had since reconsidered her position and asked me to sign to her book.
In terms of the night I’ve enjoyed best so far, it’s really hard to single one out. The Stand Club in Newcastle back in March was a good night, though. That was the first time I’ve ever done two sets, so felt even more nervous about how it was all going to hang together. But it went down well, I think, and that forms the basis of all the shows I’m doing this autumn.
How would you describe the poems that you write? And how often do you post them?
I try to use humour wherever possible. I’m a big fan of silliness and surrealism with a few puns thrown in. Occasionally, I’m more reflective. I do tend to write quite directly, though, often about topical issues, which is why I think some of my poems have been shared a lot on social media. I post a lot less than I used to – maybe one new poem a week (tops!) but re-share older poems from time to time. It was far easier sharing a new poem on social media back when I had 20 people following me than it is now.
In the past you were described as the ‘poet laureate of Twitter’ because of your many thousands of followers there (currently more than 130,000). Given Twitter’s current problems, do you post there just as often as you used to do? Do you post your poems elsewhere on social media as well?
I’m less reliant on Twitter than I used to be. It’s changed a lot. I keep hoping things are going to get better on there – although that seems unlikely while Elon Musk is in charge. So these days I’m on Facebook and Instagram, too. Last year I also joined Mastodon as a possible Twitter alternative and I signed up to Threads last week. I’d rather not have to spread myself like this, but I would like to find a platform where I can interact with an audience, be inspired by others’ posts and not have to contend with trolls or far-right propagandists.
Do you generally avoid politics in your poetry, if you can? Or are there some occasions and subjects where the ‘political’ becomes unavoidable?
I feel like I write a lot of poetry which could be deemed political in some way. I think it’s important that poets do engage with politics, whether directly or more obliquely. Back on the subject of Twitter, there can be times when it gets too much. I remember a few years ago looking back at the previous ten poems I’d written and shared on there and it went something like: Brexit poem; Trump poem; Trump again; Brexit; missing bin collection; Johnson; Brexit; Trump; Johnson; Brexit.
One thing that Brian has made clear – he’s not a fan of the Daily Mail. Can you elaborate on that?
Put it this way, I’d rather scratch a blackboard with a fingernail than read one page of the Daily Mail.
What are Brian’s plans for the future? A verse-play, or maybe a tilt at the Forward or TS Eliot prizes?
Ha! I have no interest in prizes (and I suspect they have no interest in me). On the writing front, I’m working on a couple of children’s poetry projects right now, and figuring out what a follow-up to my last book Days Like These might look like. On the performance front, I’m really excited to be off on tour next year with Henry Normal. I’ve always been a big fan of his and I’m just looking forward to hanging out with him more generally (not least because he’s promised to give me a lift to most of the venues so I don’t have to rely on the vagaries of Network Rail).
A well-known spoken word night used to describe its target audience as ‘people who don’t like poetry’. Would you say that applies to you, in any way? Or maybe you appeal to parts that other poems don’t reach?
I suspect it does. I do get people who tell me that they were put off poetry at secondary school but, to their surprise, they’ve found themselves enjoying mine. I love that. So much of written poetry seems aimed at other poets; to me, that seems like a wasted opportunity.
Taking this a stage further, in the introduction to your first collection, Taking the Last Bus Home, you explained that some of your poems rhyme, some of them don’t, and many ‘do not follow standard poetry forms and structures’, partly because ‘I don’t know what rules I am breaking’. And I treasure your final sentence: ‘There is poetry to be found in anything if you look hard enough.’ I’m sure that I’m speaking for many thousands when I say thank-you for your poetry, Brian Bilston.
Ah, thanks very much, Greg. You’ve made me blush now.
TODAY'S CLIMATE FORECAST
by Brian Bilston
And onto today’s climate forecast,
where we can expect to see a prolonged spell of inaction,
interspersed with patches of hazy promises
across many areas.
Over Westminster and other centres of government,
a build-up of hot air will cause inactivity
to soar to record levels over the coming days,
in spite of the high pressure.
Elsewhere, a front of chronic misinformation
will sweep in from the east,
bringing with it a band of climate change deniers
and the chance of scattered falsehoods,
while powerful gusts of idiocy and ignorance
look set to blow across social media.
Outbreaks of ‘We just got on with it in 1976,’
and ‘It’s called the British summer, mate’ are likely.
In summary: unsettling.
A distant shot of Brian performing at the iconic Bilston Town Hall, a photograph which somehow preserves a little of his 'mystery man' persona