Brian Bilston: the Poet Laureate of Twitter

‘He is to poetry what Banksy is to art’. Brian Bilston is bringing poetry to the masses, taking social media by storm with his topical, witty, thoughtful and accessible poems

 

No, You Cannot Borrow My Phone Charger
By Brian Bilston

Help yourself to whatever
you’d like from my larder;
my stilton, my sherry –
or my port, if you’d rather –
but, no, you cannot borrow
my mobile phone charger.

If you want I will read you
an ancient Norse saga,
or dance naked in public
to Radio Gaga,
but, no, you cannot borrow
my mobile phone charger.

Make me learn the speeches
of President Carter,
forcefeed me quinoa
until I grow larger,
but, no, you cannot borrow
my mobile phone charger.

You can beg all you want
but I’m not going to barter
because, no, you cannot borrow
my mobile phone charger.

“He is to poetry what Banksy is to art. He is a riddle, wrapped up in a mystery, inside an enigma, inserted into a conundrum, buried underneath a puzzle.” A recent video on the crowdfunding site Unbound sums up the mysterious Brian Bilston, the so-called Poet Laureate of Twitter whose funny, whimsical poems have earned him more than 20,000 followers to date.

Bilston’s popularity saw his Unbound project to publish a debut collection of poems get funded in under three days, with donations continuing to amass. Currently funded at 160 per cent, You Took the Last Bus Home will be published later this year.

Some of the hype around Bilston concerns the anonymity he cultivates online. An Englishman living in Oxford, he uses the alias Brian Bilston to keep his identity secret “for the time being at least. Not for any sordid or particularly interesting reason – other than the real me would just prefer to remain in the background.”

Bilston may not have much choice in the matter when his collection comes out later this year. The week we speak happens to be his last in a 17-year career at an Oxford-based academic publishing company, with the writer looking forward to a few months of “garden leave” to consider what he’ll do next.

“It’s not a deliberate ploy to up my Brian-ness,” he says. “That has all happened by happenstance, really, a very happy happenstance. I would like to somehow to get paid for writing but I don’t know how that works. And no one ever got rich from writing poetry. It’s not part of the poet’s quintessential ‘look’.”

The poems on Twitter have won Bilston a following for their humour and wry take on modern life. Part poet, part comedian, he has a quick-witted style that suits the immediacy of social media commentary. Titles such as No, You Can Not Borrow My Phone Charger and Upon Awaking to the Sound of Distant Rumbles (about the revised Easter schedule of bin day) show how he mixes the everyday with the momentous to comic effect.

Bilston says he’s always enjoyed making people laugh but that he struggled to find the most natural form for his writing. “For years, I thought it would probably be a novel but I lacked the patience, and the time, and the plot. I started to write poems because I could fit them more easily into the rhythm of daily life. An evening’s concentration and I might have something at the end of it, or after a long train journey, or squeezed into a lunch-hour.”

As self-effacing as his Twitter alias suggests, he doesn’t consider himself “a professional writer in any sense”, though he acknowledges that words have always been central to his life.

His tweets often go viral or get picked up by sites such as www.dailypoke.co.uk. A recent tweet on everyone’s favourite US presidential hopeful read:

DONALD TRUMPTON

Skew,
Spew,
Barmy Hairdo,
Cut-throat,
Bigot and
Smug.

Riffing on Trumpton, a BBC children’s cartoon from the sixties, the poem was shared on social media and transformed into an uncredited meme. Does it rankle when his ideas are appropriated without recognition?

“I don’t get too upset,” he says. “It’s inevitable. It can be irritating but it’s hard to know at who irritation or anger might be directed. Maybe there’s just one, sad lonely person somewhere who is responsible for all the repurposing of others’ material, in order to make themselves ‘popular’.”

Masking his identity

In an age where social media is a tool for self-promotion, Bilston goes against the grain by using the form to mask his identity. The idea of a persona developed organically, with “Brian” starting life as a football correspondent for a fictional newspaper, The Dudley Echo.

“[Brian] would write match reports for various work teams that I played for and his name was put to various other bits of writing that I’d penned. One fateful day, I decided to join Twitter. People at work would talk about social media outlets and I would nod my head sagely without having the faintest idea what they were talking about. So I thought I should find out. I didn’t want to lend my own name to it, so I joined up as Brian.”

Starting out like many users, by posting comments, jokes and puns, Bilston moved on to short poems “and was genuinely surprised when one or two people posted nice comments. The confidence and the persona grew from there.” How much of the persona is linked to his real life identity? “It’s about 92 per cent me with 8 per cent added pipe smoke.”

Pipe smoke or not, Bilston’s commitment to his poetry and his followers is clear, with new poems appearing daily. Form plays a major part in his writing; poems appear as tweets, Scrabble clues, tree images, Excel spreadsheets and even Venn diagrams, as with his poem At the Intersection, which won the 2014 Great British Write Off.

“Generally, the visual poems are the most popular,” he says. “One of the advantages of being rather unschooled in What Proper Poetry Should Be is that it makes it easier to play around. We live in a very visually literate world and I like to think about how my poems look as well as what they might say.”

Bilston admits that this can sometimes lead to style over substance but argues that it’s fun to subvert the rules. “I’ve written a few ‘shape poems’ where the shape somehow breaks down in the writing of it. It’s a form of anti-poetry in which the poet is not the master of what he does but the act of writing gets the better of him.”

Examples of similar styles that he admires include Roger McGough’s 40–love, “a really clever, playful way of illustrating a malfunctioning marriage. And I love the way Tim Key’s wonderful psychotically-comic poems are presented on Instagram.”

Of the more traditional canon, he mentions Larkin, Eliot, Auden and Owen. “Larkin was a particular favourite in my teenage years, I loved the bleakness and black comedy. I still do. And then there are the poets who make me laugh regularly: McGough, John Hegley, Ogden Nash, Ivor Cutler.”

Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage and Jonathan Edwards are others highlighted by Bilston, contemporary poets who “all have that magical blend of poignancy, humour, and accessibility”. It will come as no surprise to his followers that his wider literary tastes show a preference for the dark comedy of Muriel Spark and PG Wodehouse, and the postmodern writing of Flann O’Brien.

Unpleasant comments

While commentators such as Ian McMillan have called Bilston “a laureate for our fractured times”, some of his poems have been received less favourably online. America is a Gun, written in response to Jeb Bush tweeting a picture of his handgun with the caption “America”, is one such example.

“When I posted it on Facebook, it was greeted with a barrage of deeply unpleasant comments, mainly from what appeared to be right-wing America, particularly the cold, dead heart of Donald Trumpland,” says Bilston. “I was anti-American, lily-livered, stereotyping, racist even. Various comments were made as to my sexual practices. Some of the remarks were truly vile.”

He finds trolling upsetting, no matter how he tries to inure himself. “I often get comments on Twitter such as ‘that’s a really crap poem, mate’ and what upsets me is not so much the sentiment itself – they’re probably right – but the fact that they have deliberately gone out of the way to tell me so. It’s the equivalent of crossing the street to tell a complete stranger that you really don’t like the dress they’re wearing.”

Bilston needn’t worry, with the vast majority of online feedback overwhelmingly positive. A poem written recently, Refugees, has already gotten over 5,000 shares and was written about in the Huffington Post for its clever use of form. The Irish poet Victoria Kennefick, who follows Bilston on Twitter, compares his work to satirical poets like Dorothy Parker and Dr Seuss.

“He plays with structure in a way that is refreshing, engaging and funny but his purpose can often be more serious in nature,” says Kennefick, who cites Bilston’s recent poem for International Women’s Day, In the Margins, as an example of how form can highlight the stark reality of an issue.

“Any mention of women is literally written in the margins, or footnoted,” she says. “It is a simple idea but has huge impact on the page. His work demonstrates how flexible and robust poetry is - more vital, relevant and useful in the internet age, ideally suited to its possibilities and constraints.”

Despite the followers and the social media Poet Laureate accolade, Bilston is still reluctant to call himself a poet. “I’m just someone who writes poems,” he says.

“I think that there can be a certain self-importance that comes with defining oneself as a poet. I hold the view that too much poetry seems to be written with an audience of fellow poets in mind; it’s almost wilfully opaque, as if poetry isn’t any good unless the reader has to read it ten times to understand it. Whilst I don’t believe poetry should be unchallenging, a balance is needed or readers become alienated. And then people wonder why the average poetry book only sells a couple of hundred copies.”

Refugees

They have no need of our help
So do not tell me
These haggard faces could belong to you or me
Should life have dealt a different hand
We need to see them for who they really are
Chancers and scroungers
Layabouts and loungers
With bombs up their sleeves
Cut-throats and thieves
They are not
Welcome here
We should make them
Go back to where they came from
They cannot
Share our food
Share our homes
Share our countries
Instead let us
Build a wall to keep them out
It is not okay to say
These are people just like us
A place should only belong to those who are born there
Do not be so stupid to think that
The world can be looked at another way

(now read from bottom to top)

Links to Bilston

@brian_bilston

brianbilston.com

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