Deborah Tyler-Bennett. Lacing Words Together.
This is an interview I did with Deborah Tyler-Bennett at the Nottingham Festival of Words in February. I was particularly interested in what a writer in residence did and how a writer could become a writer in residence.
Tell me about yourself.
I’m a professional poet and short fiction writer. I originally come from Sutton-in- Ashfield, Nottinghamshire. I’ve written for as long as I can remember. A lot of my work is concerned with identity, and the way in which this is revealed through clothing and dress. The books I’ve had published have been full of poems exploring either different characters telling you their stories, or various types of relationships within a family or inside disparate cities. For example, I had a volume titled Pavilion (Smokestack, 2010), which was set in Brighton and looked at characters such as dandies. It’s hopefully a very varied type of narrative I write, but I think what really interests me is how writing can be used to express character.
Are you primarily a poet?
I am primarily a poet, but I’ve published quite a lot of short stories. I’ve just finished my first story collection, which is set in the music halls of the 1940s and is called Turned out Nice Again (forthcoming from King’s England, 2013). These stories were published individually in magazines and journals, but now I’ve produced a collection of them where they could be read almost like a novel, with one story leading to another.
Why do you have such a passion for poetry?
I think this might be to do with what gets read to you as a child. My Dad read to me and he always read poetry aloud as well as prose. I think from an early age, if you have a real love of reading and hearing words, rhythms stick with you. It’s the fact that you can experiment so much with poetry that I like. I love writing sonnets, ballads and free verse (although not liking the term, it’s never really ‘free’ of structure). I think poetry’s a fantastic medium. There’s so much choice with poetry, and I do think my love of it’s something to do with being read to from a very early age – being read to just gets poetry into your system.
Do you find that being a poet lends itself to short stories, rather than novel writing?
I think so, it’s that episodic nature of a story and a poem that links the two forms of story writing, but also the fact that when you’re writing poetry, you’re always cutting it down. You are always trying to be the most economical you can be with the words and attempt to get as much as you can into a small space. I also think that’s true of the short story.
I might be misquoting, but recall that the gist of what James Joyce said is that a novel is like having an overview of an entire city, whereas a short story is like looking through a lighted window or door. You just see a flash of what’s going on inside that house and then this impression’s gone when the door or curtain is closed. To me that’s a perfect definition of the novel and short story. The short fiction is just that little moment, but also, like poetry, the short story can leave something out for the reader’s imagination to work on, the way that maybe novels can’t.
You’re a poet and a writer. Not many writers are in a position where they can just write their own material at their leisure and make loads of money. So how did you get into the industry and how are you making a living from it?
Like most poets I do a variety of work. I do lots of workshops and I go into schools quite a bit. My particular forte is working with art galleries and museums, because I also love visual art and drawing. So I’ve just found that, for me, a really good way to work is to teach creative writing and take objects into schools, and that sort of thing. I also think that, as with many poets, I take on adult education tutoring and some work for universities and that’s a very inspiring way of working at what you love, which enables you to continue writing.
What you are also saying is that, no matter how much training you have, you really need to get out there and do it?
Yes. For example, you can be trained to do all sorts of stuff in teaching, but unless you actually go in front of a class and realise what this is physically like, you never know how these ideas will work. The more experience you have the better informed you are at teaching a craft like writing.
When you’re doing the workshops with children, what do you do? Is it purely how to write, or are you looking at aspects of research into writing?
It really depends on what the school wants, because obviously, now, when teachers are really pressed, work has to fit-in with their curriculum. But also, I think just giving children a sense that poetry is a really great thing to be able to do and you can have fun with it, is crucial. Added to this should be the impression that there is something very satisfying about reading something back that you have written and it working well with an audience.
Is every experience the same?
No, never. This is what most writers I know love about teaching the craft and reading to school groups. Even children at the same school and in the same age group (because you often do different workshops in one school on the same day) are always varied in their responses to poems and writing exercises.
What sort of distances do you have to travel as a professional writer?
I work all over the place. I’ve done things in Brighton, because my second book Pavilion was set there. I’ve done a few readings there, including at the tea rooms and on the balcony in the Royal Pavilion which was really fantastic. I’ve also been poet in residence at John Keats’ house in Hampstead. So I tend to travel all over the place to do workshops and readings. But that’s what I really enjoy.
How did you make your first connection with art galleries?
I started to do workshops for what was then Leicestershire’s Open Museum and after that found galleries tend to find out who’s interested in working with them and get in touch. So I think that museum and gallery work grows by word of mouth. I’ve been very lucky both in the places that I’ve done workshops for, but also with places I’ve been asked to read in.
What sort of research did you require for your second book that was set in Brighton?
Pavilion’s central idea was to replicate the sort of storytelling you get when you walk into bars or cafes and meet people who’d tell you their stories. I’d just begun visiting Brighton and it fascinated me, because there are so many interesting people there, who often do tell you tales. So the book was based around that.
What made you so interested in the Music Halls around the 1940s that made you want to write a book about them?
I think it’s the fact that my parents’ generation always went to the Music Hall. My Mum went a great deal when she was a child. She told me about acts like Max Miller, and the Crazy Gang. As I got older I began to realise this really was in danger of becoming a vanished world and that it was really fascinating. One of the things that struck me was the precariousness of life on the halls – the person who gets to the top of the tree might be really worried about keeping their place. There are all these quotes from people like Arthur Askey who said on interview, ‘You know I always felt I was 10 minutes away from the poor house.’ If you think he was top of the bill and he felt like that, then what did somebody near the bill of the bottom feel like?
When I was a child in the 1960s and early 1970s, my grandparents’ generation still sang or whistled musical hall songs, when they were doing the gardening, or washing-up. There was still that link to the halls as a living entity. I feel very glad I grew up knowing about that, and hope that the tradition does continue, I just joined the Max Miller Appreciation Society who published some of my poems in their magazine.
So this atmosphere is what you’ve built into the book?
The atmosphere you mention is really why I wanted to write Turned out Nice Again. It’s just a feeling that stage variety was a wonderful thing, but when television came in and variety acts were put on air, it became a case of, ‘We’ve seen them all on TV.’ So if you were going to travel to see an act there was no novelty left to make you go, so exposure on TV kind of killed the live experience. It fascinates me that there are people still performing variety routines and still trying to keep traditions alive.
What sort of research did you do for the music hall book?
I read loads of books, and listened to recordings. I read books on variety and the halls anyway. The best one is Roy Hudd’s Encyclopaedia of Variety Acts, which is just brilliant. The problem is, it does lose loads of writing time, because I look something up and three hours later I’m still reading it, thinking about strange novelty acts.
But then, there’s no writing that doesn’t require some sort of research; even if it’s just, ‘Can a character get from A to B?’
With your interest in relationships, how do you weave something like those into a poem, or a short story?
It might be just a simple small image that does this, like a snapshot of somebody that does the work for you in a poem. I wrote one poem in Pavilion called ‘Jimmy and Steph’ which was about a couple walking down the seafront, who looked like an older version of the young couple in Quadrophenia. I tried to tell the story of what had happened to the couple in the time between their teenage years and their next meeting as older people.
It might be that a snapshot such as Jimmy and Steph’s takes up a whole poem and therefore dictates the narrative. You can do the same thing in a short story, but by using dialogue to do much of the work for you.
Why this interest in relationships?
I don’t think I write exclusively about relationships. I think, inevitably, I’m really interested in what makes people tick and why somebody makes one choice and someone else makes another. I’m also interested in how poems can express those ideas. My other images come from an interest in clothing. I look at images of how people wear things, and what this says about them. Here, again, you can get descriptions of clothing to do work for you when writing about character.
In a way clothing and relationships are all about identity, because you have talked about identity here.
Yes, such images are fascinating – for example, today in the workshop we’ve been looking at textiles and how lace is made. The difference in image can be that between a person who models lace and the person who makes it. The person who makes lace might wear lace-collar for best, but it’s unlikely she is going to wear a lace dress that makes her look like a mannequin.
Tell me about the work you’ve done for the Victoria and Albert Museum (V and A).
The V & A have a creative writing web package which I co-wrote with Gillian Spraggs and which was aimed at adult education. You can go online and play writing games to do with objects in the V & A’s collection. I also wrote two poems for their website inspired by two items from their collection which I chose. That wasn’t easy because the collection is vast.
In the end I picked an etching by the Austrian artist Käthe Kollwitz called ‘Portrait of a Working-class Woman’. This was from the 1900s and it reminded me so much of my great-grandmother that I thought it was an ideal image for me to work from.
The other object was rather sad. It was a small pottery figure made in the Seventeenth-century by John Dwight who ran the Fulham Pottery. His little girl died when she was six, and it’s called ‘Lydia Dwight Dead’. It looks like a real child with closed eyes who is clutching a bunch of flowers, one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. The thing that made me choose the figure was that everything in the cabinet where she’s kept was really brightly coloured, then in the centre was this stone-white figure.
I wrote a sonnet about her, because ‘sonnet’ supposedly comes from the phrase ‘little song’ (in Italian) and I thought that was the right sort of medium to express her small form.
What specifically are you doing as Writer in Residence for Nottingham Festival of Words?
I’ve actually been writing in the Lace Archive at Nottingham Trent University, which has fantastic photographs, objects and samples of lace. I’ve been writing poems using that as inspiration. I’ve also done a reading at Debbie Bryan’s shop on Friday night, which was absolutely lovely and where I was surrounded by all the wonderful artefacts she sells.
Here in the Newton building at NTU, I’ve brought in images from the archive as well as items of vintage clothing that I’ve collected. I’ve also brought in a frilly 1950s hat and a photo of my parents’ wedding, as well as hankies from the First World War that my great-uncle sent to my great-aunt. I’ve been using these as a starting point for people’s imaginations.
Were you creating your own writing while you were in the archive?
The first thing I was commissioned to write was a poem for the Festival. So I wrote a poem about lace running through the history of Nottingham, but the poem turned out to be about how Nottingham’s changed so much in my lifetime. I was trying to create a kind of map of the city, using the image of lace. When I went into the archive I found all sorts of terminology to do with lace making, which is also in the poem.
The second thing I wrote was about lace workers at Walker’s Factory – this was derived from a photograph of workers wearing pinnies and standing in a line. This poem was about the difference between the workers and those models wearing lace that others’ graft created.