It’s hard to think of a more obscure art form than poetry. In sporting terms, it would be something like crown green bowls, or curling – practised fairly widely but rarely drawn to the nation’s consciousness. When I tell people that I’m a poet, they’re either mildly interested or totally at a loss for anything to say. I think many people have a difficulty with poetry in that they can’t see where it might fit into their lives, but I am a strong believer that somewhere out there is a poem for everyone.
As Brian Bilston, himself a poet whose witty and satirical work is often shared far and wide on social media said, “I think that there can be a certain self-importance that comes with defining oneself as a poet. I hold the view that too much poetry seems to be written with an audience of fellow poets in mind.”
I wouldn’t say that I ever write with a specific audience in mind, although I always attempt to make a connection with the reader, often by observing and documenting something about the world we share. But poetry being the poor relation means that such opportunities to get an instant honest reaction are few and far between, apart from at readings.
Recently I had a message from a producer who works on BBC Radio Bristol’s Upload show, asking me to send them some recordings of my poems. I knew of the show because friends have been featured on it, but it took me a few weeks (including shaking off a cold) to get around to it. I chose three poems which I thought might work well on air, shut myself away in the spare room with my phone and got to work.
A few days after uploading my poems I received an email saying that one of my recordings, of “Argus Fish Bar, Bedminster”, would be broadcast later that evening. We poured a drinks each and tuned in.
The poem, is, as the title suggests, about a chip shop. I like writing about the ordinary details of life, and I think it was probably inspired by Geoff Hattersley’s “The Only Son at the Fish ‘n’ Chip Shop”, which is one of those deceptively simple poems which covers an enormous amount of ground in just a few lines. I’ve written in the past about pubs, shopping centres, the everyday lives we lead, so it made sense to base one on my favourite chippy. I think I was also daydreaming about one day attending “Word Club: Poetry wi’Chips”, which is a regular reading event hosted by Gill Lambert and Mark Connors at the Chemic Tavern in Leeds, where punters bring food in from the chippy next door. Sounds like my kind of gig!
I used to visit The Argus most weeks when we lived in Bedminster, a working class suburb of Bristol. It’s run by Jim Marriott, whose dad Wally owned it in the 1950s. There’s always a nice atmosphere in there and the staff are very friendly and always up for a chat and a bit of a laugh. Jim himself has a little catchphrase, “All the best!” which he calls after each customer as they leave. And of course, the food is to die for, which means it’s always winning awards. Because it’s not far from Ashton Gate stadium, you often see Bristol City footballers in there on a Saturday night after the match, picking up their fish suppers (or “cod lots” as Bristolians say).
A year or so after I became a regular in there, I crashed my car coming out of the junction next to the shop and Jim very kindly came out to see that I was alright – I was. He knew my name after that, and greeted me with a friendly “Evening, Ben” when I came in, which of course made other customers think that I was perhaps more of a frequent flyer than I really was!
One night in 2008 I popped in and Jim was proudly holding up a copy of a newspaper. It turned out that Martin Parr, a brilliant photographer who lives in Bristol and who captures the kinds of everyday detail that I strive to put into my writing, had been in one lunchtime. He took a couple of quick shots of Jim and his customers and the next thing Jim knew was that the photo was in a supplement in The Guardian as part of Martin Parr’s Cities Project!
We moved to Portishead, which is about ten miles from Bristol, in 2012 when our twins were babies but the chippies here just don’t have the same atmosphere. I wrote the poem in a fit of nostalgia and tried to put in as much detail as possible. A few drafts later I sent it off with a few other poems to Atrium, which is one of my favourite journals, and I was delighted when Claire Walker and Holly Magill accepted it for publication. It seemed to go down quite well when it appeared on the site and I will be including it in Hi-Viz (due out from YAFFLE in Spring 2021). You can read the poem here.
When I got the message from BBC Radio Bristol asking for some poems, this one was an obvious choice with its local connection. What I wasn’t expecting was that the presenter began the segment by interviewing one of the staff members, Christine, on the phone live from the Argus! They chatted for a while about the shop and then played my poem. Afterwards they came back to Christine for her reaction and she was very complimentary, picking up on some of the details in the poem, such as the friendly atmosphere, the fact that customers frequently queue out of the door on busy nights and even the mushy pea fritters which I so enjoyed!
In a lot of ways, this feels like the nicest reaction I’ve ever had to a poem. What a feeling! Admittedly, I’d had a couple of cans of Ghost Ship by that point which contributed to the warm glow, but even so it got me thinking. How do we go about making those connections more often? That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? I think anyone who shares their work hopes that it will stop a reader in their tracks and put them in that time or place where the poem was written. Perhaps the subject matter that we choose isn’t always the most arresting. Can there ever be too many poems on a certain subject? Do we need to focus on the areas of life, the workplaces, pubs, restaurants and so on that we know well, so that we hold a mirror up to them? Or maybe it’s the language that we choose in our work which puts a barrier between us and the reader.
Recently a friend invited me to join a private poetry group on Facebook. The group aims to share poems of all kinds to help pass the time while the pubs are shut – a noble aim and no mistake. A few others joined at the same time, including one person who said that they would give it a try but they worried that they never seemed to understand contemporary poetry and thought this might be because they weren’t intelligent enough. That’s a real shame, and I pointed out to her that if she didn’t get a poem then the fault lay not with her but with the poet for not expressing themselves clearly enough. Perhaps that’s something to bear in mind.
Anyway, must dash – off to collect my chippy tea!