Creatives in profile - interview series Interviews

Creatives in profile: interview with Ben Armstrong

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Ben Armstrong is a poet from the West Midlands, UK, who specialises in surrealist, hyper-real and absurdist pieces. An alumnus of the renown Warwick University Writing Programme, his poem ‘The Year of the Apple’ was featured in The Apple Anthology (Nine Arches Press, 2013), shortlisted for Best Anthology in the Saboteur Awards. His debut collection Perennial is out now through Knives, Forks and Spoons Press, and has drawn praise from a number of right-on poets and publications, including Luke Kennard, George Ttoouli, and David Morley, as well as the magazines Eye Flash Poetry, and Here Comes Everyone (oh, and ourselves, of course).

In the large hadron collider that is Perennial, Armstrong challenges the reader to embrace unpredictability and recognise order within otherwise apparent disorder, in what is an extremely fun, engaging, witty and anarchic poetry collection. Given that we love witty anarchy as much as the next creative collective (it’s among the best kinds of anarchy if you ask us), we were thrilled to have the opportunity to interview Armstrong himself and add him to our community of creatives who have shared their stories and innermost secrets with us.

INTERVIEWER

Tell us about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

ARMSTRONG

I was born in the Black Country, West Midlands, in the early 1990s and still live locally. We’re famous for our pork scratchings, ale, canals and the steel industry (amongst other things). I grew up in Stourbridge, which doesn’t have so much of an accent – people tend to find it hard to place me unless they’re familiar with the Midlands. I’ve just bought a house with my partner so my current lifestyle is mostly settling in there, working, keeping fit and writing for my next book.

INTERVIEWER

Is poetry your first love, or do you have another passion?

ARMSTRONG

Music is my biggest passion although I’m a much more perceptive listener than a musician. I was in a band for a few years recently and I spent so much time listening to our mixes, tweaking my EQ – focusing on the really minute details. I loved designing our album booklet and packaging. I guess a lot of people would find that stuff boring? For me, the beauty has always been in the detail. In this way, my love for poetry and music stem from the same place. They’re both very liberating mediums that I can really get stuck into them on a micro level, whilst still having a finished piece at the end of the process.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you, and why?

ARMSTRONG

On the whole, people who really dedicate themselves to their art. I find that highly commendable, especially in the modern world where money doesn’t exactly come easily for most artists. I’m inspired also by people who have a very strong artistic vision and stick to it, especially across a collection of pieces. We live in quite a quick-fire culture but I still really value full-length collections, records, etc. that tell a story or carry a vibe across a substantial body of work. You can spot these people a mile away and they tend to have long, varied and diverse careers in art.

INTERVIEWER

The structure of your poems is often experimental, while the content blurs vibrant, intricate language with both pop culture references and classical analogy. How do you see the balance or relationship between modern and classical? Are we living in a world of post-post modernism? Or have we simply run out of the terms to adequately express and describe our contemporary cultural trends and styles?

ARMSTRONG

We’re living in an age of pastiche. This is the first time that our entire existence as human beings has become self-referential. It feels like we’re finally letting go of the concept of ‘time’ – the whole thing has just become delineated. Courtesy of technology, the recent past may as well be right now. The distant past is as accessible as what I did last week. People are always creating new art, but the leading trend seems to be recontextualisation. We’re a race of curators, of remixers and remodellers. I think that my poetry and Perennial especially speaks to that. My aim is to make sense of the chaos, somehow.

INTERVIEWER

When writing poetry, can you tell us a little about your creative process? How do you go from blank page to fully fledged poem?

ARMSTRONG

Nearly always, a line or phrase will just drop into my mind. If I choose to pursue it, I can feel the tangents pulling off from the original seed and urging me to get to a computer or pick up a pen. From there, I write quickly to capture as much as possible and edit as I go. I tend not to move on until I’m happy with a line although if I end up at a dead end, I’ll consider some radical changes to the structure to jump-start the process. I favour using a computer because I can get a better ‘feel’ for the visual element of the poem.

INTERVIEWER

How do you decide when a poem is ‘finished’?

ARMSTRONG

This one is down to intuition. Mostly it’ll be when it feels right, visually. I really champion the visual aspect of the poem on the page – it really steers my decision making throughout the entire writing process. Certain ideas just need to ‘look’ a certain way. Some need to slink down, some appear to me as very horizontal and aggressive, others flutter like a burst bag of feathers. I’m not entirely sure why I feel the need to act on these but I do and it’s a big part of why I love writing poetry. I suppose I’d compare it to how a chef arranges a plate. Certain choices are dictated by things other than logic. Why does the onion need to sit just so? It just does.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve recently published your debut collection, Perennial. Can you tell us a little about the work, and the experience of putting it together? How did you first conceive of the idea, and how did it evolve?

ARMSTRONG

Perennial has been in the works for a very long time now. I started writing poems for it in around 2012 on a coach to visit my uncle in Scotland. It was never intended to be my first collection – it is actually a spin-off to a bigger, larger story – but it just so happened that I finished it first. The collection is a diary of sorts written by an unnamed character who finds himself lost on a strange island. In a narrative sense it functions as a backstory for the character, but it’s a real book within this fictional world, too. Characters from my other poems have read Perennial. The interesting part for me is that due to a complete lack of contextual information, a first-time reader is going to be pretty baffled by it. I wanted to create this underlying sense that its part of something bigger but never really state that outright. The next book will unlock a lot of the secrets in this one.

INTERVIEWER

We live in a time when language is deliberately misused and manipulated – frequently for malicious purposes – to serve and support those in power. This is a time of ‘alt-facts’, an Orwellian landscape in which language is a tool of deception and demagoguery. What role do you see poetry playing in an age of ‘fake news’ and social media trolling?

ARMSTRONG

The reliability and ‘usefulness’ of poetry is always going to be a grey area. I frequently misuse and manipulate language for different purposes. The difference, I suppose, is that I don’t have an agenda. I’m not trying to make you think or feel a certain way, politically or socially speaking. I think modern poetry will continue as it has done for a while – to inspire the few and confuse the many.

INTERVIEWER

Since Percy Bysshe Shelley was moved to pen poetic verse in protest at the Peterloo massacre, poetry has been used as a tool to provide a voice for the powerless and inspire movements and action against the powerful. What are your thoughts on the idea of ‘poetry as protest’?

ARMSTRONG

I think poetry can be used as a tool for those purposes – It’s probably one of the better mediums for it. Of course, it depends entirely on the person writing it, their motivations and the reader’s own interpretation. Performance poetry isn’t really my thing but it’s undeniably effective at bringing together communities and giving people a voice.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any personal responsibility as a poet?

ARMSTRONG

Not as a poet so much as a person writing poetry. We’re all personally responsible for the impact we make on the world.  I write primarily for myself and to do justice to the story I’m telling with each collection I put out. My main responsibility is to let the poems go wherever they want to. In spite of this, I do try and promote the things I think are important through my work, too.

INTERVIEWER

In an age of ‘abject’ incomes for authors and poets, how can aspiring creatives pursue their passions while also making ends meet?

ARMSTRONG

I’d say just do it and keep doing it and keep finding ways to continue to do it. I find it easiest to keep my passions and sources of income separate, but mutually beneficial. I do a lot of writing for my day job, and this keeps me sharp for my poetry.

INTERVIEWER

What’s next for you and your poetry? Are there any exciting projects we should be looking out for?

ARMSTRONG

As I mentioned earlier, Perennial, is getting a companion collection which should be finished towards the end of Summer. I’m really proud of what I have so far for it; it’s a lot more playful and experimental than Perennial was. Euripides is the biggest influence on it as a whole. I have an incredible artist working with me on the cover design and some internal illustrations too. We’re currently just working on some initial ideas but I can’t wait to pull everything together. 

Quick fire round!

INTERVIEWER

Favourite poem?

ARMSTRONG

It would have to be The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot.

INTERVIEWER

Curl up with a book or head to the movies?

ARMSTRONG

Mood dependant! I don’t really read to relax so probably the movie more often than not.

INTERVIEWER

Critically acclaimed or cult classic?

ARMSTRONG

Cult classic

INTERVIEWER

Most underrated poet?

ARMSTRONG

David Morley. I’m biased because he was my tutor, but in my mind, David stands up against the great pastoral poets of the past. Calling him underrated might be selling him short, but he should definitely be even more known than he is.

INTERVIEWER

Most overrated poet?

ARMSTRONG

Because of how widely he’s taught, probably Shakespeare. Not all of his work has aged gracefully and I never had him down as a particularly great poet.

INTERVIEWER

Who is someone you think people should know more about?

ARMSTRONG

This is a really tough question, given that so many poets are unknown in the greater scheme of things. I’d probably say Jonty Tiplady. I love Zam Bonk Dip, his debut collection. I’m not aware of what he’s done since, but this has inspired me to revisit him! Outside of the poetry world, I recommend that people check out the ambient musician Tim Hecker. His sonic landscapes are just so expressive.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any hidden talents?

ARMSTRONG

I’m really good at recalling the specific release years of records. I can also recite Pi up to 50 digits after me and a friend decided to see who could learn it to more decimal places. I’m not even sure why I can still remember it – that was fifteen years ago.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

ARMSTRONG

“Thank you”

“Thank you?”

“Thank you.”

INTERVIEWER

Could you give your top 10 tips for aspiring poets?

ARMSTRONG

Don’t be afraid to write bad poetry, just write something. It can take years to finish a poem. It can take one minute to finish a different poem. Avoid saying things that have already been said because you think you should say them. Try to write without using any similes. Put effort into your book cover. Remember to title your documents. Performing live doesn’t have to be the goal if you don’t want it to be. Revel in your rejection letters. Aim high.

 

 

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