CHASED) Art and People Berlin

People: Interview with poet Benedict Newbery

1 Dez

Interview with poet Benedict Newbery

by Bettina Henningsen

Benedict Newbery Foto (c) Fenris Oswin

Benedict Newbery Foto (c) Fenris Oswin

Benedict is a London-based poet and journalist. His poems were published in magazines throughout the UK, and his poetry films “Cul de Sac” and “The Royal Oak” were very successful at festivals around Europe, such as Purbeck Film Festival and ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival Berlin. He´s just been awarded a week’s Time and Space residency with METAL, which will take place in April 2015. I talked to Ben about the poetry scene in the UK, about the importance of people in his poems as well as his work with animator Sandra Salter.

Chased: Leonardo da Vinci said: “Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.”  Is he right?

B. N.: I suddenly feel as if I’m sitting my philosophy finals again. The short answer is, I’m not sure! Can’t remember. What’s a painting? Define poetry. I imagine there is an element of truth in this — Leonardo was a clever man.

Chased: When did you start writing poems and what was the trigger? Do you have a favourite poet or a model?

B. N.: I wrote my first poem in the summer of 2005. It was triggered by walking past a small car with lots of stickers on the windows — Save the Whale, Free Tibet etc. It was a short poem and it rhymed. After that the poems gradually got longer and stopped rhyming. Looking back, I guess the trigger for a lot of the earlier writing was a subconscious need to order my experiences of the world. Suddenly I’d found poetry. Quite exciting. It still is.
I don’t have a favourite poet. I studied English literature up to A-level but no further. The poets I read and enjoy now are the ones I’ve discovered over the last five years or so — including Cavafy, Larkin, Betjeman, Dylan Thomas, Seamus Heaney, Auden. A friend gave me a book of Dorset dialect poems by William Barnes which is brilliant. And there are a number of contemporary poets I enjoy reading — Martina Evans, Emily Berry, Hannah Lowe. I tend to gravitate towards less formal structures.  

Chased: What inspires you?

B. N.: Childhood. Childhood memories. Old age. My family. Seaside towns. The countryside. Sometimes the city. Overheard conversations. Cats and pubs.

Chased: In Germany poetry is one of the least popular kinds of art. There is always a lot of discussion going on about the different styles of poetry: the intellectual poetry or the mainstream poetry like poetry slams etc. Do you have the same discussion in England? And what is the current situation of the poetry scene in England?

B. N.: I’m sure those discussions go on — as they do around the world — but they don’t really interest me. If I like a poem, I like a poem. Written down, recited, performed, as a poetry film. 

I live in London and the poetry scene seems to be pretty healthy. I don’t have any point of reference from before 2006 — which is when I started performing/reading poetry. There’s at least one thing going on every night — sometimes several events around the city on a given evening — which cater for a variety of tastes. I’m starting to sound like a bad city guide to culture here. Slams aren’t really my thing but I’ve heard some amazing poems at slam nights. Some not-so-good ones as well. 
And regionally in England I think the poetry scene is fairly strong, with magazines like Acumen in Devon and Rialto in Norfolk providing a focus for events in their areas.

Chased: Earlier we talked about living in a big city and how it effects ones life. You live in London now, and you told me how much you miss the landscape where you grew up …. How important is your environment for your creativity and why?

B. N.: I think I inhabit the landscape where I grew up through the writing I do. That’s how I return to it. And that’s where most of my writing is set — Dorset, the seaside. I don’t find I’m moved to write about London as much. Which isn’t to say I don’t write about the city at all. 
I try to write for half an hour each lunchtime at work. In the park or a cafe. Having the time to be creative seems to be more important than the environment in which writing occurs. I can pretty much write anywhere!  

Chased: When I read your poems, f. e. “Time to find another pub”, I was under the impression that you like to study/observe people. Are people the primary topic of interest when you write? What makes them interesting for you?

B. N.: Yes, absolutely. People — the places they inhabit, where they live, where they work, the pubs they go to, how they play. How they carry on while things around them change. What they do to keep afloat when things aren’t going well.
At the moment I find it difficult to write about landscapes, buildings, cities, without people in them. I guess that might change but that’s how it’s been since I started writing. Metaphysical poetry or writing that self-consciously explores form and language doesn’t interest me at the moment.

Chased: You produced some wonderful and very successful poetry animations together with Sandra Salter – “Cul de Sac” and “The Royal Oak”, which were part of the film programme at the ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival in Berlin. Is making poetry films something you always wanted to do?

B. N.: I fell into poetry film quite by happy accident and had never thought of making one until I was contacted by Sandra in early 2008. We’d met very briefly a couple of years before through a mutual friend. She saw a call for submissions for the 2008 ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival in Berlin, remembered she’d met someone who’d just started writing poetry (me)and emailed me. Did I want to make a film of one of my poems? Of course! I replied.
I enjoy film and am interested in how film works. I did a short introductory course on animation a few years ago and would like to make some films on my own. But working full time and writing when I can doesn’t leave an awful lot of room for developing that side of things. I’m happy to let Sandra take care of that side of things for now!

Chased: How did the co-operation of the two of you work exactly?

B. N.: Our first film Cul de sac was a pretty rushed job and we were both improvising quite a bit. Sandra works with watercolours and sent me a few images to start with. So I got a feel for the sort of thing she was looking to develop. After a couple of meetings it was obvious we were running out of time so we agreed that I’d storyboard the film — something I’d never done before but which I really enjoyed. From the storyboards, Sandra painted sequences of animation, each one very small — 5 x 4cm. She then scanned the images, reassembled them, placed them in sequences and then added my voice recording and Paul Murphy’s music. The animation process was done very quickly — there was no registration of images etc. But it worked! And we were shortlisted for the ZEBRA competition that year.

The Royal Oak was a bit more stop-start over a few years. We had met a few times to discuss storyboards and the general direction of the film but with no funding it was proving difficult with jobs and family commitments. Then Channel 4 got in touch with Sandra and asked her to make a pitch for its Random Acts series. The pitch was successful and suddenly we had the funding we needed. By this time we lived quite a distance from each other so we weren’t able to meet up so easily. But we’d email and chat on the phone. And in the end Sandra produced a fantastic film!  

Chased: Is the film version of a poem an extension of the poem to you, or an addition?

B. N.: When I drew storyboards for both poems, I was illustrating the narrative flow as I’d realised it in the writing of the poems. I think left to my own devices in the first couple of films, less-interesting films would have emerged. Perhaps just a visual addition.

This was the key with collaborating with someone like Sandra. She’s a very talented film maker. And she also gets what it is that I’m talking about in the poetry. Through her animations she extends the poem into something new, substantive, with its own interpretation of the narrative. She has the skill and ability to take it somewhere else, and surprise me with her take on what is important — or how a particular aspect of the work needs to be given salience. Even though she followed the storyboards for Cul de sac she still brought in her own ideas that lifted the words elsewhere. And in animating The Royal Oak, she worked away from the original storyboards — to brilliant effect. 

I think perhaps an OK or average film of a poem adds to the poem, if it’s lucky. A good film will extend it. 

Chased: What is your next project?

B. N.: Sandra and I are looking to make our third film together — hopefully in 2015. We already know which poem we’re going to use — exploring the darker, seedier side of the English seaside town. It will see a continuation of Sandra’s style of watercolour transitions. 

Chased: What are your plans and wishes for the future?

B. N.: I want to work towards producing a first collection/pamphlet. And I’d like to make more poetry films. I’ve been awarded a week’s Time and Space residency with METAL which is taking place next April, and I’m looking forward to using that to develop more work on the English seaside town theme. I’ve just started doing some copy editing for South Bank Poetry magazine. I’m really enjoying that — and getting interesting insights into how poetry magazines are put together. That’s something I want to do more of.

But most of all, I want to keep writing poetry. And to get better at it.

The Royal Oak from Sandra Salter on Vimeo.



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