WRITING POETRY Q&A with Brian Bilston

Welcome to our new series on children's poetry. We all celebrated National Poetry Day on 6 October. The motto was 'it just takes one poem…', I couldn’t agree more. It took one poem on Facebook for me to be hooked on Brian Bilston’s poems. Having discovered his children’s poetry book Ways to Score a Goal, he immediately became a family favourite.


Gulfem Wormald talks to Brian Bilston about all things poetry.


Everyone knows that you are the Poet Laureate of Twitter. We can find out a bit more about you online but the mystery is certainly there. Please tell us something about yourself that readers would hear from here for the first time!


I like to keep myself in the background as much as possible but I will divulge this: I once made a century break in snooker.


You often say that you never intended to become a poet, not on this scale anyway. If that is true, what was plan A?


It is true but that’s not to say I had a plan A. I’m frequently in awe of anyone who knows what they want to do in life. But I stumbled into a career – and a very pleasant one at that – in academic publishing. The industry was interesting, the jobs I did were always rewarding and I was surrounded by colleagues who were clever, creative and fun. But then came restructurings and redundancies and I took the opportunity to give full-time writing a go as that had begun to take off quietly in the background.


Your work is available freely on social media. Whilst it must be rewarding to be so accessible, is it? Does it have a negative impact on making money from selling your books?


I was sharing poems before I had any notion that any kind of career might come from it and I’ve not retreated from doing that just because I now have books out there. In fact, I think it has helped me sell books: I’ve developed an audience who seemed more than prepared to go out and buy one of my books in print having enjoyed the poems I’ve posted on social media.


Do you think the children find the mystery around you intriguing? Speaking of intrigue, in your experience, what do you think grabs the attention of children in regards to reading?

One of the drawbacks in surrounding yourself in mystery, (such as it is), is that you don’t get to hear what people think of you; so, in all honesty, I have no idea what children might think of me. In terms of what has grabbed their attention in my case, I think it often comes down to form and humour. Some of my poems have non-traditional forms eg in Venn diagrams, on scrabble boards, shape poems, reversible poems etc, which I think hold some appeal. And humour can really help too, particularly at secondary school level where a lot of the poets the students have to wrestle with can be seen as ‘difficult’ or less obviously approachable.


What is the difference between writing for kids and grown-ups? Have you got any rules, no-no's, special considerations...?


I’m not a big one for rules – or for overthinking what I do. I’m not convinced there’s a huge amount of difference in writing poetry for children versus grown-ups. In fact, a lot of the poems I have written, which I know kids have enjoyed, were originally aimed at an older audience. My own writing tends to be quite direct and accessible so it’s generally not a question of understanding, more about themes and content. But I think what is important when writing for children is being able to retain some semblance of what it is to be a child yourself and to see the world – and all of its ludicrousness – through a child’s eyes.


How are the children as live audience? Please tell us some of your experience of receiving feedback from children on your work.


I’m not your typical children’s author. To my shame, I haven’t been into a school to read my poems or performed at festivals in front of children. That’s what comes of hiding behind a pseudonym and AVI on social media. But it’s something I’m definitely thinking about in the future.


Where do you get your inspiration, especially for poems for children?


I draw inspiration from all sorts of things. It could be a joke I’ve heard, a news item, a peculiar phrase or expression which has stuck in my head. Or it could be that there’s a poem lurking out there in the real world, which just needs some shape brought to it. I like to have fun in terms of how I construct poems and that can then be passed onto children too. I know a number of teachers, for instance, who have re-used the technique I employed in my poem Love in the Age of Google, (constructing a ’found’ poem out of Google user-generated searches), with their students to great effect.


Photo credit: Brian Bilston

Why did you choose football as the main theme of your first children's poetry book?


It was an easy topic for me as I’m something of a football nut. I feel like a ten year old kid when I go to a football game even now. Out of all the books I’ve written the ideas came to me the quickest; it was also the most fun I’ve had in writing a book.


Are you planning to publish more books aimed at children? If so when and what themes?


Absolutely! Having enjoyed writing the football poems so much, I’m thinking of a collection about the Olympics. I’m also considering writing a book of very short and silly accessible poems which I think might work across the adult/child divide.


What made you start writing? I am assuming it is your calling? If so, when did you realise that it was?


I’ve always written – or wanted to write – but it was only when I joined social media that I ever thought about sharing some of my poems and other pieces. I didn’t really see it as a calling, more of something I just liked to do. It came as a complete surprise to me that anyone liked what I was doing.


Who are your favourite authors and poets?


I love the work of Roger McGough, Ivor Cutler and Jon Hegley; all three are brilliant at bridging that divide between writing for adults and for children. I’m also a big fan of Carol Ann Duffy, Stevie Smith, Philip Larkin, Benjamin Zephaniah, Ian McMillan, Sue Hardy-Dawson, Nikita Gill, Brian Moses, Coral Rumble. I could go on!


How did you find literacy in education when you were growing up? What would you like to see change or never change?


It feels like a long time ago now! I’m not sure I can remember much about it all. I think there’s still a lot of emphasis placed on the formalities of grammar but not enough on creativity and letting children express themselves freely. Rules are important but so is the rule that rules should sometimes be broken.


Photo credit: Brian Bilston

Your work could be sad, happy, funny, silly, provocative, in protest, political.... no matter what, your voice and sense of humour is always there. How do you do it?


Ha! Most of what I write, I write for myself more than anyone. Sometimes it’s a way of trying to make sense of the world or diffusing my own anger or frustration with humour. It can be very cathartic in that sense. Whenever I’ve tried to write poems without that humour it always rings false somehow; I guess it’s part of me.


Have you got any advice for poets considering to write for children?


Never underestimate children nor what it means to write for them. By which I mean don't dumb down, or imagine for one moment that writing for children is an easy thing to do.


Do you have a process or ritual when writing?


No – but I should do. The days when I’m most productive are when I start early, switch off my phone, shove the rest of life to one side and don’t re-emerge until I’ve got something down. It’s all very well knowing the theory, though…


What do you always think journalists/people should ask you but they never do? Have you got a great answer for a question annoyingly no one ever asks?


I suppose it would be something like ‘To what degree do you ascribe your success as a poet to your modesty, wit, charm, intellectual rigour and rugged good looks?’


To which, my answer would be ‘a bit’.

* Header image by Tita Berredo. 


Frequently described as the 'Poet Laureate of Twitter', Brian Bilston is a poet clouded in the pipe smoke of mystery. Very little is known about him other than the fragments of information revealed on social media: his penchant for tank tops, his enjoyment of Vimto, his dislike of Jeremy Clarkson.


You can find Brian most days on Twitter (@brian_bilston) and also on Facebook (www.facebook.com/BrianBilston/).




Gulfem Wormald is the Editor of Words & Pictures. Contact: editor@britishscbwi.org Twitter: @GulfemWormald

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