Sentinel Literary Quarterly

Vol.2 No.1, October 2008. ISSN 1753-6499 (Online). www.sentinelquarterly.com

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Esiaba Irobi
Nnorom Azuonye
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Wumi Raji
 

 

The Sentinel Literary Quarterly Interview with JIM BENNETT

 

by Nnorom Azuonye

 

 

 

 

 

JIM BENNETT

Author of 57 books including poetry, children's books for children, and technical training manuals, Bennett is the award-winning author of The Man Who tried to Hug the Clouds. He is also the Managing Editor of Poetry Kit – the foremost resource for poets online.

Jim's webpage

 

 

I first heard about you when you became Managing Editor of Poetry Kit following the death of Ted Slade in 2004. Tell me more about yourself.

 

JB:  I have been a writer and poet since the early 1960’s though at first I was too young to get into the bars where poetry was being performed around Liverpool.  From the mid 1960’s I was tall enough for the pub landlords to turn a blind eye and was able to perform in events with all of the Liverpool Poets of the time and of course the three that went on to have that name pinned on them.   Later in the 1970’s I started to perform wherever I could, I even busked at times.   I found that using music as part of my set gave me a broader appeal for promoters so I began to use the songs I had written as part of my performance and I was reasonably successful.  The main thing I suppose was that I was performing in folk clubs and jazz clubs and so was known by a different audience than those that went to the poetry nights.  I have been a full time writer for over 30 years and although better known as a performer I have had 57 books and a number of CD's published over the years.

 

How do you manage to run such a gigantic writers’ resource facility whilst keeping up with the business of writing and a rather busy performance life as well?

 

JB:  I have a lot of help.  The site is updated three times a week, which involve amending, rewriting, installing and uploading.  The update take two half days and one full day each week, and more when our magazines are being put online.  I manage to compartmentalise all that I need to do and I think of it as my “job” I am able to fit it all in somehow.

 

Ted Slade raised the bar quite high in the set-up of Poetry Kit. Have you made any improvements to the original ideas the resource was built on?

 

JB: Well as I worked with Ted on the original redesign of the site in 1999  and 2003 most of the changes I have made have been to add additional pages; festivals and calls for submission and other lists which dealt with a need, while blogs and audio visual lists, where added as these areas grew.  Poetry Kit has web identities with My Space, a blog, and comes out top or very near the top in all web searches relating to our named pages.   When Ted died the readership had been growing for some time and we were listed just in the top 1 million sites worldwide (out of 8 billion)   We are now in the top 100,000 sites with over half a million unique visitors each month. 

 

You are profiled more as a performer than a writer. Yet you first have to write in order to have fresh materials to perform. What excites you more, writing or performing?

 

JB:  Both really but at different times. First though, you have to realise that a lot of what I perform is spontaneous and much improvised and not recorded, though I am reducing this now.  While the poetry I write is published and often never performed.  So I get great satisfaction from both.   

 

You have performed your work internationally. Do you find your poetry and performance style warmly embraced everywhere you have performed?

 

JB: No, I have never done much in the UK.  My style is defiantly more suited to the American poetry, jazz and folk scene.

 

Before you ever wrote a line of poetry, who were the poets you read and what made them special for you?

 

JB: The poet I loved and who got me writing was John Betjeman other than him I didn’t read poetry, I listened and watched, Adrien Henri, Roger McGough, Allen Ginsberg.    Betjeman was special for me because of his language and his humour, he was also very visible because of his TV work.  I know if I read his poetry now I am more critical of some of the values he expresses but when I was a young person reading him for the first time, his language was free and lively, It opened the door to poetry being something much more than the technically good but archaic romanticism that was being taught in schools.  This exuberance of language and freedom to say whatever you wanted in poetry carried on with the other poets I was lucky enough to hear perform.

 

Over the years, (35 years?), of writing and performing, you have met, worked with, or otherwise interacted with several poets from across the world. Which poets have been unforgettable either for the depth of their writing, their performances or just for the way they are as human beings?

 

JB:  Adrien Henri was the best of the best in every way.  A fabulous poet, a near miraculous performer and a huge human being in every sense.  I performed in the same venues with him over the years and saw him performing with his group Liverpool Scene many times.   The Liverpool Scene where an amazing group fusing poetry and music in a way that was totally original and inspiring.  David Bateman, who is a truly fabulous poet and now very much an adopted Liverpool Poet in is probably my favourite poet today, although under represented in publications.    I also love  the work of both Chloe Poems and the great Rosie Lugosi.   Gill McEvoy, Liz Lockhead and Clare Kirwan are also very special.   

 

What is in your bookshelf these days?

 

JB:  Lots of books about weather, clouds, birds and trees which are my passions.  But I suppose you want to know about poetry.   These days I tend to read anthologies, and magazines to try and keep up with what is happening.  My favourite reads are Bukowski, anything about Bob Dylan.  Other poetry collections I am reading, “We are Poets!” Poems for Children by Helęn Thomas.  a wonderful book by a great poet.  A New Waste Land is Michael Horovitz's masterpiece, a book which when it becomes better known will I think be seen as a huge literary contribution to political poetics.  Glyn Hughes and Robert Sheppard is there also. 

 

What is the main thrust of the Creative Writing course you teach at University of Liverpool?

 

JB:  I run a number of different courses and some online through Poetry Kit also.  The courses are designed to meet the needs of the students.  The foundation poetry course is designed to get people writing, not to be too proscriptive or didactic but to allow students to explore poetry and to create the space and freedom for them to write and to enjoy doing it.   My Part 2 course is much higher level designed for those who have been writing for some time and who might want to find some challenges to push their ideas of what they can achieve.

 

If I was to put it into a simple phrase I would say that I try to create a space and conditions for people to explore their creativity.

 

What do you look out for in prospective students – a natural ability and flair for writing or a capability to learn and be technically accurate?

 

JB:  Neither, I look for a desire which is only filled by writing poetry.

Has any of your past students gone on to do something in the literary world that has made you a very proud man?

 

JB:  The problem I have with this is that someone who wins a small local prize in a poetry competition gives me as much pleasure as someone who has won a major international award or published a major collection.  I have had students that have gone on to do all three.   I am proud of all my past students who have gone on to improve as poets.  Five or six times a year I get books in the post from students who have gone on to achieve what they hoped for.  

 

How did writing and performing all begin for you then?

 

JB:  I found reading a fascinating experience and as soon as I discovered that I wanted to write, I gravitated towards poetry.   I came from a working class background and my dad worked on the docks and in shipbuilding so a career in writing was not an obvious choice.  When I was about 8 I told my dad that I wanted to write as a career and instead of just patronising me he tried to point me in the right direction and was continually supportive all his life. 

 

What is the purpose of poetry?

 

JB:  That is a bit like asking what is the purpose of a painting; it can be purely decorative, or it may be a remembrance, or a way to conjure up the past or the future or some distant place.  It may be a political comment or purely subjective piece of catharsis. In very rare examples it can be life changing.  

 

Poetry is also all of those things and I think that it adds the dimension to life which allows us to express our humanity and our understanding of the world.  There are other ways this can be done but for me it is through reading and writing poetry.  

 

Give me a little insight into your writing habits, especially, on how quickly you can convert an inspiration into verse on page.

 

JB:   Well I just finished in 60 days writing 56 poems for a series which was autobiographical.   I wanted to write and edit it quickly in order to maintain a certain idea throughout the whole series.    Some poems I make up on the spot but these tend to be flippant while those I try to rewrite and edit obviously take longer.  One poem I started writing as a notebook entry in 1984 and only finished it in 2001.  From these examples you might understand that I don’t always write in the same way, in fact the only regular thing I do is to start writing a poem in pencil on pieces of folded A4 paper.  

 

Why do you hardly punctuate your poems?

 

JB:  I never use standard punctuation in any of my poems.   But it is wrong to say that I don’t use punctuation as all my poems are written to obey their own “rules” and the lines and breaks I use are the internal punctuation that allows the poem to be read.

 

Poetry for me is a living medium which should flow with the energy of the spoken word.  By recording the text of a poem in the way I do I am trying to put it down in the way a choreographer would record dance movements.   I want to make the point that this is not prose but a different use of language, a more expressive and magical form. 

 

A poem about love, a poem about war, a poem about flying machines or a poem about nature, what are you most likely to be caught reading and why?

 

JB:   All of them at different times.  For me it is about the way words are used and I like to be surprised and entertained by great use of language.

 

Offer a comment on the state of poetry in the United Kingdom today

 

JB:  There is an awful lot of poetry about today.  A lot of performance poetry is agenda-driven and a lot of innovative poetry is so obscure as to be unfathomable.  Having said that I think the real middle ground of poetry is still strong and the small magazines are as usual being left to carry the flag.  

 

I believe that the funding culture that permeates the arts is not good as organisations are forced to compete against each other.  However I am not sure what the answer is apart from more commercial sponsorship and advertising.   Some of my events are supported by commercial sponsorship and others by ticket sales, some by the generosity of venues and audience, some have no financial support at all.

 

The major influence on poetry is the internet and changing publication methods.   One of the major problems is that quality assessment applied by editors who have committed time and money to producing a printed magazine and who have to please their customers is not always there on line.  There are some very good quality magazines on the internet, but equally anyone can set up and apply their own standard, or none, and although few, other than the people published on the site, will ever read it, there is no loss to the editor and they can carry on producing their webzine for as long as they want to pay the small costs involved.    I think this egalitarian approach is interesting, but it makes the quantity of poetry available immense and the quality is so mixed that you have to read a mountain of uninspiring poetry before you reach anything worthwhile.

 

From an insider’s point of view, predict how British poetry will change over the next fifty years.

 

More from my own point of view rather than as any sort of establishment figure, because I have always been someone who went my own way.  But I think we will see the return of prescriptive formulaic poetry and perhaps more integration of older traditional forms and those which are from other cultures.   

 

Personally I enjoyed the intertextuality of post modernism, but I think it is already turning into something else and the fusion we are seeing in music will break down the barriers.  Fifty years ago we saw the publication of Howl, and we can see the effect that had.  Over the next 50 years things will change but they will also remain the same.  I am just waiting for the next Howl, perhaps it will be an artwork which uses text as one of its mediums, perhaps it will be a musical style.  Maybe it will be a poem being written right now in someone's bedroom. 

  

Is there anything I ought to, but have not asked you?

  

JB:   The same problems of copyright that effect music today will effect poets and writers in the very near future and long term may make affect the value of publication.   The collection which so many aspire to may eventually have little meaning and the downloaded e-book or small pamphlet may be produced for specific events, festivals or readings. In that sort of economy the thing of value will be the reading or performance and not the printed word. SLQ

 

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Nnorom Azuonye is the author of The Bridge Selection: Poems for the Road. He is the Founder/Administrator of Sentinel Poetry Movement and is editor, Sentinel Literary Quarterly and Nollywood Focus magazines.