Poetry's man of mystery Brian Bilston reveals (nearly) all to Write Out Loud
At a recent poetry event Write Out Loud came face to face with the man behind poetry’s “man of mystery” Brian Bilston, whose fans include plumbers and police officers, dancers and dentists, and people at the World Economic Forum and the BBC. We promised to allow him to retain his cloak of anonymity – and he agreed to arrange for us to interview “the poet laureate of Twitter”, Brian himself.
You have been dubbed the “poet laureate of Twitter”. How often do you post your poetry there, and why did you choose social media as the medium to share it?
Twitter is “home” for my poetry, although I also share some poems, too, on Facebook and Instagram, plus my own blog. I try to write something new every day – even if it is just designed to squeeze within 140 characters. A number of poems I’ve written have been responses to particular events in the news, so the immediacy of social media – and Twitter, in particular, suits that well. It was never a conscious decision to choose social media as a platform for sharing my poetry. It feels more like that social media chose me. I had no intentions of sharing my poems on Twitter or Facebook when I signed up; it was something that developed over time.
Your poetry has even been commissioned by the World Economic Forum, and as a result was featured on Radio 4’s Today programme. How did the commission come about?
It all comes back to social media. After a while, I found myself with an increasingly large and diverse group of followers taking an interest in what I was writing. Amongst them were plumbers and police officers, dancers and dentists, students and studio executives, and people who worked for the World Economic Forum and the BBC. And as these things often go, a commission from one high-profile organisation leads to interest from others.
How long on average does it take you to complete a poem, and what is the kind of thing that provokes you to write?
The answer to that - as to most things - is “it depends”. For short Twitter poems inspired by real world events, timeliness is important. So it could be 10 minutes, it could be an hour or more. But I feel the pressure of the clock ticking and the need to get something out quickly. That partly explains the typos. But I write longer, less reactive poems, too – and keep a list of poem “topics” (sometimes a thought or a title or phrase or format) that I add to as I go along. These may lie unwritten for weeks or months but I’ll be chipping away at them mentally over that time. The actual writing process is much longer, too.
Would you agree that, to borrow a phrase, your poetry appeals to people who normally think they don’t like poetry?
Yes, I suspect it does. I think that’s probably explained by the kind of topics I’ve written about – whether that’s the stuff of everyday life, such as bin collections and the problems of folding fitted sheets, or bigger real world events and trends, such as Brexit and the refugee crisis. But I imagine the style of my writing – which is quite direct and uses humour to talk about difficult things – also contributes. And, of course, sharing it on social media means that you encounter a much, much broader audience than publishing in a poetry magazine, for instance.
What is your view of contemporary poetry?
I think poetry is more vibrant and diverse today than it ever has been. The rise of spoken word poetry is significant, I think – not least because the stars in that world have the iconoclasm of youth and have something to say about Important Things. They also represent and give voice to a far wider range of ethnic and socio-cultural groups, whose words have often been sidelined or unheard until recent times. At the same time, local poetry groups and events seem to be thriving up and down the country, along with poetry workshops in schools and colleges. There seems to be a lot “happening” generally.
But there are problems. There are fewer mainstream publishers interested in poetry – it just doesn’t sell well enough in book form. Bookshops reflect this; poetry gets squeezed as shelf space is taken by other more lucrative areas. So there seems to be a gap between the continued growth of “live” and “grassroots” poetry and the shrinking world of poetry on a page.
Did you write poetry before Brian Bilston took over as your poetic alter ago? If so, was it the same kind of poetry, or different? How long has Brian been in charge of the writing?
Yes, but I always kept it to myself, constrained to bedrooms and hotel rooms. I’d write at work – in my lunch hours or after hours, or when traveling. But I’d never have considered myself as a “poet”. Nor was I interested in getting up in front of a microphone and performing it. I suspect that supreme under-confidence is the reason for that. That’s why social media – and the character of Brian himself – is such a good screen for real-life awkwardness. Pre-Brian, though, I was still largely writing with the same kind of approach and style – Brian is about 97.5% me and 2.5% added pipe smoke.
Brian Bilston seems an equable sort of bloke, although he does have certain betes noires, including Jeremy Clarkson and the Daily Mail. He also retains a strange fondness for broken-limbed Subbuteo players. Do you agree with this analysis?
Yes. There is very little to Brian beyond that.
Have you ever given a live performance of your poetry? If not, have you any plans to do so?
Once. I was allowed five minutes on stage. People didn’t seem too bored. Or angry. Any longer and I think they may been. I have committed to doing one performance at a festival next spring. Not sure why. I now need to figure out how to make a public appearance and still retain my aura of mystery and sexual magnetism.
One of your talents seems to be finding something poetic in the everyday. Is it true to say that you often write about subjects that other poets might scorn?
Yes, probably. Although I would pay good money to read an anthology that featured Plath writing about loo seats, Eliot on estimating quantities of spaghetti, Yeats on toasters. Such wasted talent.
You project yourself as a pipe-smoking codger of uncertain age, yet you chose to publish your first collection via crowdfunding. Why made you choose this route? Does it just show how up to date Brian Bilston is?
The crowdfunding route seemed to be the way to go given the genesis of Brian on social media. There were hundreds of relationships and thousands of interactions that Brian had had with followers on Twitter and Facebook – and so there was already a pre-existing market building up for it. There’s a kind of natural affinity there – and so when the project was announced, it got funded within three days. That fact still astounds me.
Who are Brian’s favourite poets, living or dead?
In no particular order: Philip Larkin, Roger McGough, Stevie Smith, TS Eliot, Simon Armitage, Emily Dickinson, Ivor Cutler, Kate Tempest, Adrian Mitchell, Gil Scott-Heron, Shel Silverstein, Ian McMillan, Wendy Cope, Ogden Nash, John Hegley.
The comedy that is often present in your poetry reminds me of Monty Python. As Brian was growing up, were the Pythons a big influence in his life. Any other comic heroes?
Yes, absolutely. I loved them – particularly the films – and could probably still repeat large sections from them, ex-parrot fashion. I am a big fan of the surreal and the absurd. And those are qualities I absolutely love in Ivor Cutler, too. He’s a real hero of mine. Such an interesting assembler of words and lines and poems and songs, and a world-view that is uniquely his own. And I also sometimes wonder whether Brian Bilston is to poetry what Alan Partridge is to broadcasting.
Why do you need an alias? What motivates you to write? And how did you come up with the name Brian Bilston?
To this day, I’m not quite sure how I found myself publishing a book of poetry under a pseudonym. None of this was ever pre-meditated. The name “Brian Bilston” was one I used to use when writing light-hearted football reports for a works team I once played for. It seemed the kind of name a football journalist might have. He even had a fictional newspaper, the Dudley Echo. I just adopted that name when I joined Twitter and I’ve been stuck with it since. But I like it. It gives me someone to hide behind. I enjoy the fact that there are people who I know in the “real world” who have absolutely no idea of this shady other life that I have.
Does Brian have any future plans? Perhaps teaching creative writing somewhere, or seeking a poet in residence post?
I haven’t had any plans thus far and I haven’t made any for the future, other than to carry on what I’ve been doing until either I – or my readers – get bored with it all. So that probably gives me about another three weeks.
Brian Bilston's first collection of poetry, You Took The Last Bus Home, is availabe from Unbound Books