Tom Denbigh is the first Bristol Pride Poet Laureate and a BBC Radio 1Extra Emerging Artist Talent Search winner. He is also producer at Milk Poetry and has performed his work at numerous venues and festivals both in Bristol and nationwide.
To mark the launch of his debut collection, …and then she ate him, he talks about the book, the Bristol poetry scene and performing his work.
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What drew you to putting a collection together themed around traditional storytelling character types?
One of the big themes in my writing and performance is stories. I first loved fairy tales as a kid and then myths and legends. I used to consume the epic tales like King Arthur and Merlin or the Odyssey but my favourite stories were the Greek and Norse myths which are really fun tales about a load of celestial idiots acting jealously, sleeping with each other, getting into fights, and turning each other into animals. Just like humans really, er except without the turning into animals.
Because of this theme in my writing I’ve split the book into sections named after characters. It also means if you don’t want to read the collection from front to back you can work out what you are in the mood for and just read that; so if you fancy trickery you can read the poems in Trickster or if you want something darker and twisted you can read Villain.
Did you write many of the poems specifically for the collection?
A bit of both really – when I first started work on it about two years ago, the collection was just a big lump of poems. As I started to work out what the themes were and what stuff I wanted to explore more, like for example the queer experience, I started to write for the collection.
In the end I think I’ve only kept a very small number of the original poems, the rest I either wrote with the collection in mind, or I wrote in the last two years and when they were done, I realised they fit the collection without me even meaning them to!
You do have to cut a lot, which can be very sad, but if a new poem doesn’t fit you can always save it for another day. It’s not gone for good!
What elements do you think a great poetry collection needs?
That’s such a hard question. I’m not sure there’s a right answer. I personally love variation in poetry collections but there is also something incredibly satisfying about a collection which focuses very narrowly on a few ideas or a short period in someone’s life. Maybe it’s what you are in the mood for that determines what’s good – a focused collection is great read all at once, and a collection full of variation you almost have to take your time and give all those different poems some space from each other.
I do think it’s important for a collection to knows what it is. It’s good to know what you are aiming for and not just bung everything in a bucket and call it a book. A bucket of poems is still great, of course, but because poems are like very dense thoughts/ideas if they aren’t ordered and arranged it can be very hard to read.
Do you prefer writing or performing poetry?
I love performing – the buzz of a reacting room and audience, the energy and enthusiasm afterwards and most of all the feel of a poem living on stage. That said, I think I prefer writing. That’s ‘cos writing isn’t really just writing, it’s also listening to and reading others’ poems, it’s sharing your rough drafts and discussing them. That creative learning and growing is so rewarding and fun, even if it isn’t as big of an immediate rush as being on stage.
How much influence, if any, does your poetry have on your climate change job?
Ah for me it’s probably the other way round – climate change work is led by evidence not poetry, but reading about the changing world and looking at they way we understand that does inform my poetry. I don’t write about climate change a lot, but that fear of the unknown, as well as what we can do to stay positive, and where to find humour and joy, even in the face of something so large, that’s very inspiring.
What do you think of the current Bristol poetry scene?
I think Bristol has one of the most interesting and diverse scenes in the UK. People are always trying something new, and stepping out of their comfort zones and that’s a testament to the poets and audiences who support and encourage that kind of brave writing.
What is your favourite Bristol venue in which to perform your work?
It depends what mood you are in, but for me right now it’s the Wardrobe. The Wardrobe Theatre feels intimate and big all at once. It also has a really interesting corner/half a square seating style which helps bring the stage and audience together.
That said, I also love how in Bristol any bar or cafe can suddenly become a poetry stage. Surprise venues – maybe they’re the best of all!
Tom Denbigh’s debut poetry collection, …and then she ate him, is out now. It will be launched at the Folk House on December 16. For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/events/563030807847650/
Read more: Best of Bristol 2019 Books and Spoken Word