Interview _ Deborah Tyler-Bennett

Deborah Tyler-Bennett’s forthcoming volume, Ken Dodd Takes a Holiday, is out from King’s England Press in 2019, and her first novel, Livin’ In a Great Big Way is in preparation for the same publisher. She also has two recent volumes from the same publisher – Mr Bowlly Regrets – Poems, and Brand New Beat: Linked Short Fictions Set in the 1960s (both 2017).

She’s had seven collections of poetry published, some previous volumes being Napoleon Solo Biscuits (King’s England, 2015), poems based on growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, and Kinda Keats (Shoestring, 2013), work deriving from a residency at Keats House, Hampstead.

Her first collection of linked, 1940s set, short stories, Turned Out Nice Again came out from King’s England in 2013, and a sequel, set in the 1950s, Mice that Roared was published in 2015, Brand New Beat, set in the 1960s, represents the final part of the trilogy.

In 2016, The Coffee House Anthology from Charnwood Arts marked the final volume of Coffee House magazine, which she edited for twenty-five issues over fifteen years (this was featured on the Poetry Society’s poetic map of England).

Translations and publications of her poems have appeared in Spain, Ireland, The US, Scotland, Austria, and Romania, where they were broadcast on Radio Bucharest. She’s also read in Belgium.

Deborah regularly reviews poetry and has written books and education packs on creative writing.

Recent poems have appeared in the anthologies Double Bill (Red Squirrel, 2014), Maps and Legends (Nine Arches, 2013), Strike Up the Band: Poems for John Lucas at Eighty (Plas Gwyn Books, 2017), and the Max Miller Society journal, who recently published the elegy for Ken Dodd that forms the title poem in her new book. New poems appear in Leicester 2084 AD (CivicLeicester, 2018).

She regularly performs her work and has appeared at many venues in Brighton, London, the East Midlands and nationally. She occasionally teams up with music hall expert Ann Featherstone to perform variety stories from her first two collections. She also does many workshops for adult and school groups, teaches writing classes for the WEA, and hosts workshops for national galleries and museums.

In 2018 one of her poems was displayed on the side of Leicester University Library, and one at its new digital resource centre, for International Women’s Day.

With Gillian Spraggs, she co-authored the Victoria and Albert Museum’s creative writing web pages. She’s also currently working on a new poetic sequence, The Ladies of Harris’s List set in the eighteenth-century, and a series of music hall poems with Andy Jackson.

In this interview, Deborah Tyler-Bennett talks about her writing:

When did you start writing?

I’ve been writing things down for as long as I can remember being able to write and recall composing poems and bits of stories from the age of about eight. I don’t think I started taking the writing seriously until I was in my early twenties. Then you realise you’re starting to have drawers and notebooks full of stuff and you need to do something creative with it. I don’t think I felt I’d earned being called a ‘writer’ until I’d had a significant amount of work published.

How did you decide you wanted to be a published writer?

I think the above realisation (that you have lots of work and unless someone else gets to read it, it’s a little pointless, and also you have no feedback on what others think of it) drives you to send work out. Personally, I began sending poems to little magazines and competitions. I felt that if I had a body of published work behind me, and people responded to it, then maybe I could send work away for consideration as a collection.

The more I had published in little magazines, the more I felt I was becoming part of a poetic community and, also, most crucially, the more I learned. Editors sending advice and encouragement was invaluable to me. I also considered the range of where I sent to – I had quite a few things published in Ireland and found the magazines there an aesthetic delight. To achieve publication takes a thick skin and the old cliché about all writers getting used to rejections is true – but these make the publications you do get, sweeter.

How would you describe the writing you are doing?

I think my writing has changed a lot over the years. At-the-moment, I’ve just finished my ninth volume of poetry and am working on new poems. I’m also writing my first novel. This comes after three volumes of linked short stories. It’s always hard to describe your own work but I think I’ve become fascinated by the lives of so-called ‘ordinary’ people – and have come to believe that no one has an ‘ordinary life.’

I think writing is a great way of conveying past and present – and have noticed two things, recently, in commentaries on my work. Firstly, people comment on my use of Nottinghamshire dialect, as if it’s something unusual to use. Secondly, people often think I’ve invented elements that come from my own background and family history. I feel as if we’re living at a cultural time where, if we’re not careful, and despite the success of writers like Sally Wainwright and Andrew Graves on the script writing and poetry scenes, we’ll be going back to the idea of the arts as a preserve of the privileged and socially connected.

I realise what’s not unusual for me, seems unusual to some, and that there are many assumptions made about writing from ‘ordinary’ life.

I’m also using a lot of images and characters from music hall in my poetry (my new book’s titled Ken Dodd Takes a Holiday) as I do think that this reflects a type of history that often gets ignored, sidelined, or damned with the loaded phrase ‘popular culture.’

I’ve also started to take my painting more seriously and exhibit work and suspect that the colours and textures I use in visual art creep into my poems and stories.

Who is your target audience?

This question is interesting. When I started, I don’t think I thought in terms of a ‘target audience.’ Most poets I know are just glad to get an audience. But I do think over time I’ve become aware that with poetry in particular - I want my work to be accessible to the widest possible audience. I don’t really want someone to leave a reading of mine saying: “I didn’t get it.” Or “I think that was aimed at a poetry or literary-critical group.”

The same is also true of fiction. I like it when an audience laughs, holds its breath, or even joins-in. Maybe that’s the music hall influence again. I like it even more when someone approaches me after a reading to say that they didn’t think poetry was for them, but they enjoyed what I did and would go to a reading again. I try my stories out on local audiences, or reading them aloud at home, and hope that anyone who wanted to read something could do so without fear of being either talked at, down to, or addressed in a jargon clearly meant for a specific crowd.

In the writing you are doing, which authors influenced you most?

Like most writers, I love so many authors (both classic and contemporary) that it’s hard to narrow it down. I think the biggest influence on my poetry and storytelling has been the Orkney writer George Mackay Brown. He wrote novels, stories, poems, a column for his local paper, libretti, dramas and work for festivals. He could catch how people spoke, vibrant imagery of time and place and was fascinated by blurring boundaries between chronological periods. And his images are so vital, instead of saying someone was hungover he describes them as having a mouth ‘full of ashes’, lipstick imprinting a man’s cheek becomes ‘red birds’ – magic!

There are so many contemporary poets I admire, and I like those such as Emma Lee and Andrew Graves who are always experimenting and pushing the boundaries of what they do. Simon Armitage, Mark Goodwin, and John Hegley make me question how I write and what I can learn from people experimenting with language. Carol Leeming makes me think of how I perform and how I can do more, as do Ian Macmillan, Benjamin Zephaniah, and others. John Cooper Clarke, obviously, has an unmatchable status as performer and writer, I’ve always loved watching, hearing and reading him. I think it was Mark E. Smith of The Fall who said he didn’t wholly trust people who didn’t like John Cooper Clarke, and I think that’s sound (oh, that, and Elvis, too).

In prose, I’m still a huge fan of Dickens, as I think he tells such memorable stories full of such vibrant oddities. I did a PhD thesis on Djuna Barnes, and still find her work extraordinary. One book that I’ve found my most re-read is an anthology by John Sampson called The Wind on the Heath, about gypsies and published in the nineteen twenties. The stories and poems in it sing.

Likewise, I write a lot of ghost stories and am a huge fan of the form, loving E. Nesbit, Mary E. Braddon, Dickens, M.R. James, Ian Blake, and Susan Hill. Stars all. I think ghost stories are hard but worth it and reading around the genre helps you know your way around the structures of it. I swap ghost stories with Scottish writer, Ian Blake, and we enjoy a correspondence over the genre.

Sally Evans who edited Poetry Scotland has been a huge influence on my work, reading techniques, and has inspired me as a poet. Her poems do so much within economic lines and lingering images and I’ve never met anyone so welcoming and generous to her fellow poets. For years she and Ian King ran the Callander Poetry Weekend and it was a joy to attend and perform at that.

Lastly, I love European writing, and have always considered myself blessed as a writer to be part of Europe. The culture which includes writers as diverse as Balzac, Marco Vici, Hugo and Colette is an ever self-enriching one, and we have been fortunate indeed to be part of that.

How have your own personal experiences influenced your writing?

I think even if your telling of a certain story doesn’t seem connected to your own life experience, that experience will be embedded in this somewhere. Sometimes stories come directly from my family history, places travelled or lived in, or people met. Other stories might seem removed from the above, but actually- have elements of my experience in them.

Occasionally I write from a current event, and it’s true that living in ‘interesting times’ (a polite way of saying that you turn the news on every night wondering what on earth could have happened today) these ‘event’ based poems grow in number. Over the past year I’ve written poems as responses to the disaster of Brexit and about how lack of empathy leads people to disregard what’s happening to fellow human beings in front of their noses.

Even a poem based in the nineteenth century (‘The Boy Acrobat’s Villanelle’ published in Leicester 2084 AD) ended with an image of twenty-first century child migrants, children whose Dickensian plight can only be ignored via a spectacular lack of empathy.

What are your main concerns as a writer? 

Like most writers, I want to tell a story (whether in poetry or prose) well, and make the reader feel that the read was worth it. I also like putting people and places before the reader that come from my own growing-up, family stories, and local legends. I became aware in my late teens that my Grandma’s language, her bit of Nottinghamshire, and the world she grew up in, was vanishing. Like George Mackay Brown’s Orkney, I wanted to get some of it down before it went all together.

When I was writing my three volumes of stories set in variety, I had a desire to make the reader’s emotional response to the short fictions similar to those they’d get in a theatre – a story might bring a lump to your throat one minute and make you laugh in the next.

As with all such techniques and concerns, writers just have-to keep going, and I know whatever I’ve planned the story might well have other ideas. During the variety stories, an old lady, Grandwem (a cross between my Grandma and Great Aunt, plus some others) was going to be a minor character. She had other ideas and became the mainstay of all three books, the glue holding the family together.

In my current novel, the plan I’d made crashed and burned as a minor character did something awful as I wrote, and I had to go back and revise the whole first part of the book! Like painting, I love the unknown element that creeps in when you write, making me think of the old blues adage: ‘Make God laugh, tell him all your plans.”

What are the biggest challenges that you face? And, how do you deal with them?

I think for writers, challenges can be divided into practical working challenges, and aesthetic challenges.

The second category includes the obvious thing of being true to your ‘voice’ and the stories and poetic narratives you want to tell. In other words, it’s easy to become distracted from your purpose, think there are more fashionable things you could be writing, or forget why you wanted to tell a certain story in the first place. I’ve found it very useful to stop from time-to-time and ask: ‘why did you want to write this?’ I also find Robert Graves idea of ‘the reader over your shoulder’ very useful. Imagine someone looking at your work ‘over your shoulder’ – ask ‘what will they get out of it?’ If the answer is ‘not enough’ then that’s the time for a re-write or re-vision.

The first category I mentioned - the practical working challenge - may cover several bases. How much money do you need to earn to keep writing? Where does funding come from? How much time a week do you spend actually-writing? Is this time enough?

Due to current events, arts funding is going to become tighter, outreach for writers lessening as they are excluded from European opportunities, and I foresee writers who flourish will be previously established, have to work many more hours to stay afloat, or have private incomes and connections.

Reading information from literary bodies already indicates as much. I hope I’m wrong, and that writers beginning as I did from ordinary schools and backgrounds will have opportunities similar to mine. But I think most writers from state schools will struggle more, and that all writers will face challenges we couldn’t have seen prior to 2017. The challenge is (to mis-quote a US President) to do it because it is hard, to do it because it is there – to do it because that’s what you do. And (to misquote a US boxing legend) if you do what you love, strive to be the best at it you can be.


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