Sentinel Literary Quarterly

Vol.2 No.4, July 2009. ISSN 1753-6499 (Online).

The Magazine of World Literature

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Bob Beagrie's publications include, Gothic Horror (Mudfog Press 1997), Masque: The Art of The Vampyre (Mudfog Press 2000), Huggin & Muninn (Biscuit 2003), Endeavour: Newfound Notes (Biscuit 2004), Perkele – a bi-lingual pamphlet with Kalle Niinikangas (Ek Zuban 2006), Yoik (Cinnamon Press 2008). Forthcoming collection The Seer Sung Husband (Smokestack Books 2010). His work has also appeared in various anthologies and journals. His poetry has been translated into Urdu, Dutch, Finnish, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish.


Bob Beagrie: The Sentinel Literary Quarterly Interview


By Nnorom Azuonye


Tell me a little about your years at Cleveland Arts as a Literature Development Officer.


I worked as the Literature Development Officer at Cleveland Arts for five years. It was a very exciting post that included helping to run the annual Writearound Festival, supporting some of the local independent presses, a regular programme of live literature events, writing workshops for adults and children and some very experimental projects such as Beyond Trainspotting and A Fortnight in Seaton Carew and The Undercover Artists. The former was a project delivered in partnership with Hartlepool and Stockton Library and Youth Services to encourage reading and break down some of the preconceptions around libraries. It involved writers and artists working with a number of targeted youth groups including a boxing club and young offenders. They developed installations for the libraries and then ran a series of themed events in them to showcase the work. These included a Boxing Day in which the art work and texts were displayed, the libraries displayed their book stock that related to the theme, we showed some movies, ran workshops with visiting authors, and had a boxing ring in the library with some of the lads sparing, followed by a poetry slam from the ring. One of the other events was all around Sci Fi, another one was gritty realism. The project brought people into the libraries that hadn't been since they were in primary school, but it also made a large impact upon the library staff.


A Fortnight in Seaton Carew was a project that involved 14 writers, each was commissioned to go on a day trip to the seaside town of Seaton Carew, take photos and write a poem or piece of prose in response to it, which we then published as a book.


The Undercover Artists was a group of young people from Stockton who worked with myself and artist Adrian Moule, who began to create public installation pieces, including objects and texts, performance art and spoken word, in odd places, town centres, car parks, railway stations etc. They wore white boiler suits and dust masks, documented the installations with photos and then mysteriously vanished. It was a great way of developing their self esteem, cultivating a group identity but also making them reconsider the urban environment in which they lived.


One of the most exciting things that emerged from the work at Cleveland Arts was The Verb Garden, a live literature cabaret which I co-ran with Dougy Pincott, and which was a fantastic amalgamation of live music, top notch visiting poets, local poets, visual art, film, open mic slots etc. It kind of paved the way for The Hydrogen Jukebox Cabaret of the Spoken Word which Andy Willoughby and Jo Colley founded in Darlington and our later KENAZ LIVE showcase events.


I really enjoyed the time at Cleveland Arts and it gave me a broad insight into the breadth of literature development within the different communities of Teesside. I was lucky enough to be able to have a very hands-on approach to the programme which kept me directly involved in most of the projects.


I am thrilled about your residency at Teesside, especially in the aspect of your work – helping members of the general public produce creative works. How successful has this been?


The residency at Teesside University was really valuable, Andy Willoughby and I shared the position and it allowed us to develop some of the foundations for KENAZ magazine, a Live Literature Society and the M.A. in Creative Writing. We held drop-in writing surgeries for the public and came across some very promising writers, some of whom have gone on to be published, others to become very strong performers. We mentored a few individuals and ran workshops for students and the general public. It was an important stepping stone in bringing lots of our disparate activities together under the focus of the University.


Are mentoring schemes for young writers something you strongly believe in?


Yes, mentoring gives promising writers the opportunity for some intensive one to one learning which is tailored precisely to their own particular needs. It creates a reciprocal, flexible working relationship between mentor and mentee that you can't get through set classes, courses or workshops. I think it's vital for new writers to see themselves as part of a scene or a writing community, and mentoring programmes need to be a part of this along with live events, publishing programmes and workshops.


How did you come about having your texts incorporated into artworks and sculptures in the Tees Valley area?


Mainly through a series of commissions, which involved working with a group or a targeted community, to explore the local community and personal histories of the sites and produce a poem for the sculpture or signage. So some of the pieces are my own interpretations drawn from the research, but others are more collaboratively written pieces that I arranged and edited from the writings of a particular group.


Do you recall your earliest encounter with poetry in general and when you actually confronted the poetic spirit within you?


I didn't study any poetry at school. I was far from being an achiever at school so I didn't do English Literature. However I always wrote stories as a kid. It wasn't until I went to University to study creative writing that I really encountered poetry. I remember us looking at Buffalo Bills by E.E. Cummings and feeling like doors in my mind were suddenly being flung wide open. I realised poetry wasn't what I'd thought it was and I fell in love with it and all of its possibilities. 


What and what are your major influences as a writer?


That’s a very tough question and I could go on for ages listing a whole host of writers but a few world famous poets would be Derek Walcott, Tony Harrison, Seamus Heaney, Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, Sharon Olds, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan has got to be in there too. There are a lot of poets from the North East who have also had a big impact on me such as Basil Bunting, S.J. Litherland, Andy Croft, Paul Summers, Julia Darling and Andy Willoughby.


With book titles like Gothic Horror, and Masque: The Art of the Vampyre. I would like to know if you are drawn to or excited by the supernatural.


Yes I guess I am. 'Huggin & Munnin', my first full collection was named after Odin's two ravens, which translate as 'thought & memory'. My last collection 'Yoik' is named after the Sami practice of sacred song in which the spirit of a person, creature or feature of the land is evoked through chanting. There are a lot of poems in that collection which draw upon paganism and shamanism. My next book, which will be released in February 2010 by Smokestack Books is called 'The Seer Sung Husband' and it is an epic poem telling the story of Tobias Shipton, the husband of the Yorkshire witch and prophetess Old Mother Shipton in the 16th Century, so again a sense of magic and the supernatural runs through it. Don't get me wrong, I have written lots of poems that don't touch on magic and the supernatural but it is definitely a recurring theme in a lot of my work. I guess growing up somewhere as 'uncompromisingly real' as industrial Middlesbrough in the 70s and 80s you need to cultivate a sense of the 'otherness' to survive.


Do you write anything that is not poetry?


I've written a few short stories over the past few years and Andy and I have collaborated on a few community/educational plays around specific issues, and I enjoy writing in other forms, but poetry is my real passion.


You have obviously run several creative writing workshops. What is the most important gift your workshop participants take away that will always help them in their creative pursuits?


Another tricky question, Nnorom. I've run more writing workshops than you can shake a stick at. Each group needs different things but I guess my answer would be inspiration, recognition of their own writing habits and a broadening of awareness regarding the possible approaches to writing. I remember the doors being flung open for me when I started exploring poetry and experimental prose like Kurt Vonnegut's 'Slaughter House 5' and Italo Calvino's 'If On A Winter's Night A Traveller' and I think participants of my workshops often go away with a similar kind of realisation.


The interesting thing about you is that you are not only a writer, but a consummate performer, teacher and publisher. That is serious multi-tasking. How do you deal with the different facets of your work? Do you deem yourself a master of any?


It's difficult to juggle all of these things on a freelance basis and sometimes it feels like too much. There are plenty of nights when I can't sleep and when my own writing has to be shelved for a while to deal with the teaching, promoting, organising, editing etc. However, working in partnership with Andy Willoughby helps immensely. We seem to be able to support each other well and calm each other down when things start to feel unmanageable. Andy says we are Ronin of the pen and its a pretty good description of how we work. And no I don't deem myself as a master of any.


Talking about performance. What is the Sampo? You are taking it on a national tour, correct?


Bob: Sampo is a mythical object from the Finnish myth cycle 'Kalevala'. It's kind of like the Holy Grail. During the eight years we've been working with Finnish poets and visiting Finland we've become fascinated by the Kalevala. In the last year Andy and I have collaboratively written a joint collection of poems called 'Sampo: Heading Further North' which is inspired by and retells parts of the first 10 books of the epic, but recontextuialises it in contemporary settings and situations. We have worked with two musicians Kevin Howard and Milo Thelwall to set 18 of the poems to music which we recorded for a c.d. And we've toured the show around the North East and in North Yorkshire. We are working at the moment on setting up the national tour so we can get it out to wider audiences and take it back to Finland. Its a very exciting, entertaining and challenging show, in which we do a lot of multi-vocal effects and perform the poems together, and with the array of musical instruments from guitar, slide guitar, double bass, fiddle, singing bowls, birembau, dordeseal, bodhran  and throat singing from Kev and Milo it really is a spellbinding shamanic voyage from Northern England to Finland and back.


Every time I read something about you, or Andy Willoughby, your names always roll out together. I find myself thinking you’ve got a partnership like Walther Mathau and Jack Lemmon did. How did this partnership begin and in what special areas are you working together now or plan to work together in the future?


I'm not sure which one of us is Walter and which one is Jack. I often think we are more like Laurel & Hardy, but now and then we are Butch & Sundance. I've known Andy for 20 years or so, but we didn't hang around together when we were younger, though we had a few mutual friends. It was when Andy came back to Teesside from living in London and I was working at Cleveland Arts and running the Verb Garden that we met up again. Andy performed a few times at The Verb Garden and then I went to some of The Hydrogen Jukebox events. Our working relationship started really when we set up the first leg of the Anglo-Finnish Writing Exchange Project where six poets from England went to Finland to work with six Finnish poets and then the Finns came to England. After that we got the residency at Teesside University and we've been working in partnership ever since. I must stress though that we are not joined at the hip and we do individual projects as well, but it is a very productive partnership. There is no way we could do as much individually as we do together.


100 years from now, students of poetry, especially in the Middlesbrough area will keep running into you in one way or another. What would you like them to find as your most outstanding contribution to poetry and learning in the area?


Wow, that's a really tough one. I reckon it would have to be that other people have written and become successful writers due to my encouragement. In terms of my poems I'd hope people might recognise a sense of authenticity which transcends time.


By the way, thank you for working with Andy Willoughby in judging the Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition (July 2009). Your report is pretty comprehensive. Is there anything you might want to add?


Just to reiterate the fact that the entries were of an exceptionally high standard and it was really difficult to narrow the shortlist down to the three winning poems. However, it was a real pleasure reading them all.


Thank you very much for your time, Bob.


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The Sentinel Literary Quarterly Poetry Competition (October 2009) is now open for entries.

Bobby Parker will judge. Learn more>>

Sentinel Literary Quarterly

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Editor: Nnorom Azuonye

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