A rising star in the world of words, 2019 sees Ben Norris make his debut appearance at StAnza Poetry Festival…
Hello Ben, so where are you from & where are you at at, geographically speaking?
I’m from Nottingham. I currently live in London but I’m back in Notts more and more these days, as I’ve just started working more closely with the Playhouse there, and with Nottinghamshire Libraries as their poet-in-residence, which is lovely.
When did you realise you were a poet?
I started to dabble in sixth form (in secret of course – the shame!), but it was when I got to university that I really knew I had the bug. I went to university in Birmingham, which has an incredibly vital poetry and spoken-word scene both on campus and in the city as a whole, so it was really fecund ground to develop as a writer and performer. It’s impossible to overstate what an impact that place, and those people, had on me.
You’ve won the national poetry slam TWICE. How did you pull that off & did you have to write a whole new set for the second event?
Poetry slams in this country are a bit like boxing titles, in that there can be several champions at once, because there are quite a few different events! My two national titles came from two different slams (the UK All-Stars in 2013 and the BBC Slam in 2017), and because they were 4 years apart, thankfully I had written some new poems in that time, yes!
I ran to the bay
hard and long-spined
like someone was watching
a keen blade
through the beetroot streets
of a new place
hit the rails at the end of the fishing pier
did my best Titanic
eyes shut arms wide the figurehead
at the prow of the city
remembered my granddad
his sleepwalk down
to the sea one night
How he loosened a boat from the bayside
eased like the too-tight knot of a tie
from its moorings
rowed out into
a patient dawn his craft a finger
lightly pressed on the creaseless shirt
of the water
I imagined him coming to oddly calm
his hydrophobia a distant second to his reason
smiling the smile my mum sometimes says I have
noticing his raincoat buttoned perfectly
over his long johns and night vest
realising how little choice he had
to resurface there
I sucked back the Severn salt
drug for an inland man
tipped a wide-brimmed windswept smile downstream
gazed out towards Weston-super-Mare
ten miles to the south east
Latin America just a little beyond it
if I’d my father’s wrist for skimming stones
if I’d my mother’s hope
I thought and felt
my anchor fall
What does Ben Norris like to do when he’s not being, well, poetic?
I was a very keen long-distance runner when I was in my teens, and over the last year or so I’ve found myself getting back into that, which has been great. It’s not just a fitness thing for me, but a mindfulness practice too. So an ideal Sunday would probably involve at least 14 miles of gallivanting through some muddy fields!
Can you tell us about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Family?
It was my debut show, a one-man performance about me and my dad. I hitchhiked to everywhere he ever lived when he was growing up (he was born in Brixton and every time he moved house he moved north, and roughly in line with the M1, so that provided a convenient geographical structure!). I started in Nottingham and hitchhiked south, going backwards through his life. I wanted to learn more about his past in the hope I would get to know him better in the present. I hoped to discover some cataclysmic event that explained away our differences (me the millennial who, I thought, was good at opening up, and he the typically taciturn male baby-boomer), but I quickly realised the irony of my going on this hugely convoluted journey rather than just ringing him up and asking him about his childhood(!), so the show became a lot more about me and my own reservations, and masculinity in general, and all the hang-ups that remain. It went to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015 where it won the IdeasTap Underbelly Award before touring the UK and then Australia.
How did you find yourself a part of the international institution that is The Archers, & how is it all going?
I was invited to audition, I believe, on the recommendation of my radio teacher at my old drama school, and was lucky enough to be offered the job. Relatively normal process really! It’s going well; everyone there is so lovely, they’ve made me feel very welcome, and it’s a real honour to be part of such an institution.
As a writer yourself, do you get to tweak the script?
Not really, and I wouldn’t really want to either, because I know how annoying it is when other people mess with your work! Occasionally if we need to lose a bit of time on an episode we might suggest small cuts but the director leads on that. Those who know their characters better than me might feel a bit more qualified to tweak things (if they’ve been playing them for several decades!) but I’m still getting to know Ben Archer…
Which poets inspired you, both old skool & of today?
There are so many, far too numerous to list. But these people have all been hugely influential to me, some of whom are friends, some of whom are long dead. Some aren’t even really ‘poets’ by popular consensus, but I think their writing could easily be classified as such.
Bohdan Piasecki, Liz Berry, Caroline Bird, Claudia Rankine,
Richard Scott, Sean Colletti, Sharon Olds, Andrew McMillan,
Dizraeli, Loyle Carner, Joni Mitchell, Anthony Anaxagorou,
Melissa Lozada-Oliva, Jo Bell, Helen Mort, Maria Ferguson,
Geoff Hattersley, Sylvia Plath … I mean, I could go on, but I shouldn’t…
When do you know you have just composed a decent poem?
When you finish it and feel a sense of relief, having purged something, or captured something that you feared might elude you. If you’ve done justice to the idea that inspired you to start writing. Even if it’s shifted as you wrote it. The hypothetical poem in your head will always be better before it exists than once it’s written, but a good poem is one that is closest to the hypothetical ‘perfect’ poem that inspired the actual poem into life. If you finish it and still feel an itch that hasn’t been scratched, or if you immediately want to start hacking it up, then it probably isn’t great.
This year you have a pamphlet of poems forthcoming from Verve Poetry Press, can we see a couple?
It’s difficult for children to pinpoint the exact moment they realise that
nothing lasts forever, but rather it slides into view, like the silver wink
of the sea as the family Astra rounds the bend of a Lincolnshire hill
Of course I wasn’t to know
as Jason Leathen and I
pretended at playing snooker
on a full size table
as dad shuffled Clare and me
round the go-kart track
if only to get our money’s worth
as grey day turned to grey night
and the adults all drank
and nobody thought to lament
the fact that the mums and dads
of Netherfield Colts FC (under 15s)
couldn’t afford to go abroad
as our static caravan
chicken nugget weekend
trundled on like
a 70s fairground ride
that no one found exciting even then
as Butlins spluttered into Monday
of course I wasn’t to know
that you were setting yourself on fire
letting yourself love him
for the first time
You probably had brunch
probably held hands
with February lips
like a torn calendar
I wasn’t to know
that one day this would find itself
in a happy poem
What is it about performing your poetry you love the most?
The relationship with the audience. The fact you’re all in a room together, you’ve all agreed that that’s a nice way to spend your time. The mutual vulnerability and investment involved is genuinely beautiful. As much as I love performing on radio or to camera, nothing compares to the experience of live performance.
You are about to perform at this year’s StAnza. What are your former experiences of the Festival?
It’s my first time there!
What have you got in store for us?
Because I have a pamphlet coming out, and I had a pretty seismic 2018 personally speaking, there are a lot of new poems I’m looking to give a first read to at StAnza.
What will you be doing for the rest of 2019?
Writing more, both poetry and theatre. I’m looking to further develop a new show about long-distance running, inspired by my teenage obsession with it. I’d also like to go on holiday. Maybe. Probably not.
The StAnza Slam / Sat 9th March
With MC Ben Norris
The Byre Theatre, Abbey Street, Auditorium