The Poetry Kit
Ben Barton Interview
by Jim Bennett
Poems by Ben Barton
- To me poetry is instinctive. I really don’t feel I have much choice in the matter… I guess because I have always read poetry, and always enjoyed it, it just seems natural for me to write it.
- Ben Barton is the author of the "The Red Book" which was reviewed in the last edition of Poetry Kit Magazine. We were so impressed with it as a debut that we made it the Poetry Kit - Book of the Month, and set out to track him down and find out more. Ben agreed to answer some of our questions below and has allowed us to publish some of his poems from an exciting collaborative exhibition called PROSPECT.
What is your background.
My parents had me young, very young, though they were married. My mother got pregnant at seventeen, a blushing teenage bride. They divorced before I was two.
As for school: I attended the local comprehensive before winning a scholarship to a good public school. I left after a year – being a teenager bursting at the seams with hormones, while being gay, didn’t really sit well with the school’s 400-year-old rigmarole.
Instead I studied drama for two years at a college here in Folkestone, then went to Canterbury University to study film. Since then I have worked as a media analyst, before side-stepping into my current career as a copywriter.
I’ve been with my partner, Scott, for five years.
Do you find your career as a copywriter conflicting with writing poetry?
To be honest I find it hard to get my own writing done following a full day writing in the office. But I still do. It’s a passion. But that said, I just couldn’t see me doing any other job other than writing. So I guess until I get that book deal I’m in a catch-22.
Is there any literary history in your family?
I couldn’t really say there is any literary history in my family, not that I’m aware of anyway. Although my grandmother wrote a book – an autobiography, and then destroyed it. I think she burnt it. It was all very dramatic.
What first impelled you to write?
It sounds so tedious, but I always have done. Or I’ve always been a storyteller at least. I have always wanted to perform, to show off. I remember writing lots of short stories as a kid, and I’d bore anyone and everyone with them. In my teens I wrote a couple of novels – which thankfully I have under lock and key – and from then on the poetry just sort of took over.
What do you think of as the natural medium for your poetry?
I have done readings – I became addicted to them. After I won an Ottakar’s/Faber poetry competition I did a number of readings in their bookshops, and from there went on to do festivals, pubs, cafes, societies, libraries, schools – anything. I really needed the money at the time.
The past few years though I have gradually done less and less readings. I didn’t need the money so much, but the truth is I just stopped finding them rewarding, and almost a chore. For me they are always quite hit and miss anyway – and after ten years of those glum faces, stifled yawns and crossed arms in the front row, I just thought ‘fuck this’, and walked out. However, I do have a few coming up soon!
So all that said, I guess the natural medium for my current work is the page.
As for audience, I wouldn’t hazard a guess, although I do get quite a lot of emails from gay teens, who say that they enjoy my work, and it makes them happy to read that someone else has gone through the same experiences as them. I never aimed for that, but it’s great anyway.
Is there anywhere you fell more able to write?
I write in my study, which is at the back of my little farm labourer’s cottage, here in Folkestone. But before I lived in an assortment of bedsits and garrets. So I’m no snob. I can write anywhere – I get quite a lot done on the bus.
When did you start writing poetry? And why poetry?
To me poetry is instinctive. I really don’t feel I have much choice in the matter… I guess because I have always read poetry, and always enjoyed it, it just seems natural for me to write it.
As I said before, I work for a holiday company as a writer, so I do flex my writing muscles on a daily basis in many other ways. It creates discipline: writing quickly and under pressure, to deadlines. I’m also lucky in that I get the chance to see the world from time to time and write travel articles. But that is my bread and butter. To me poetry is just another of my bad habits.
How would you describe the poetry that you write?
That is so difficult. Of course it is mainly free verse, but how else do I pin it down? You know I didn’t really think about it until my work started getting reviewed. Some said “funny yet sad” or something similar – and I hated that at first. It’s only when I read my work back afterwards that I realised they may have a point.
But I never wanted my work to be tragicomedy or anything like that. I write about what I know, and that’s my life. Unfortunately that’s the one thing I have very little control of.
As a poet with experience, what piece of great advice do you wish you had been given when you started out,, which has taken you some time to learn for yourself?
Don’t rush! Give your poems time to relax before sending them out ! So many times when I was just starting out I would write a poem really quickly, fall in love with it, and then dash off a copy to a poetry magazine – only to re-read the poem the next day and immediately see all the flaws that needed changing. Of course they were always rejected.
If you put a poem aside and then come back it to later – preferably months later – it is like you are reading it for the first time. This disconnection is so valuable for editing, and improving your poems.
Your recent publication "The Red Book" was a wonderful introduction to your work, and was a Poetry Kit Book of the Month. But now I believe you are working on a new project, PROSPECT, a collaboration between a photographer, Jennifer Harris, and yourself. Could you tell us something about that?
PROSPECT started off as an art installation – I wrote poems and Jen took the photographs. It is based around Dungeness in Kent – Jen and I both grew up on the Romney Marsh and if I walk behind the woods in my back garden I can see Dungeness. So I still feel this strong connection to the place. I have always been a huge admirer of Derek Jarman – his films, poetry and garden – so that pulls me there too.
Together Jen and I make these pilgrimages there. Of course Jen always has something tangible to show for the day – photographs. Some of the images she has captured are just stunning. They really show what a unique place it is, so unlike anywhere else in this country. I on the other hand have something less tangible – I take home ideas and feelings, as well as the odd jotting in my workbook. It is then up to me to make something real out of it – ink on paper.
The first few times we went we really didn’t know what we were doing. We had in mind some form of exhibition, but it was all quite vague! Thankfully the Arts Department at our local council found out about the project, and commissioned us for a show in one of the council’s galleries. After we actually had something to work towards, things got serious. That first show was great – we got to show off what we had achieved so far, and we got a great reaction. But for us the project was just beginning. We are continuing to work on PROSPECT, and soon we hope to reach the final stage. This will be an art book of the project – a profile of the poems and photographs created in response to the location. We also hope to launch the book with a final exhibition.
You can find out more about the project is here: http://benbarton.co.uk/prospect.htm
A sample of the poetry and photography from the PROSPECT exhibition can be found here