Brian Bilston: Twitter’s poet laureate on his print debut
Poems can be ‘measured’ in Twitter retweets or Facebook likes but that’s no barometer of quality and among my most popular ones are some I don’t really care for very much
Brian Bilston: It made me think about whether the intrinsic nature of what I’d written had actually changed somehow, as it moved from social media into traditional print. In some indefinable way, it felt like it had; a concreteness, perhaps, that the poems never had before as they moved from an ever-changing world to one of permanence
As I write this, I find myself teetering on the inky precipice of publishing a book. This comes as something of a surprise to me. Even more so when I remember that it’s a book which appears to contain poems within its pages.
I find it curious because I have never harboured any real ambition to be published; I worked in publishing myself for many years, and have seen the royalty cheques. But it’s doubly curious in that I’ve had little inclination to share my poems with others – with, perhaps, the exception of my cat – until the last few years.
This has not been the traditional path of getting a volume of poetry published; I have not endured long years of submissions to poetry magazines and competitions, jostling with fellow hopefuls for desultory prize money or space on the page, and its accompanying prestige. Nor have I taken my poems out to pubs and clubs, backrooms and classrooms, or dazzled at spoken word events, poetry slams and literary festivals. And I have not been anthologised by artisanal, avant-garde presses, as awareness of my lyrical prowess grows amongst the wider poetry community.
Instead, I took a short cut, following that most modern of routes to fame and misfortune, social media – chiefly, Twitter and Facebook. But even there, I had no plan of where I wanted to go, because I hadn’t really thought about going anywhere. But what I did begin to do was to share words with others – sometimes whimsical or surreal, frequently scurrilous – about the world around me, or events in the news, or people from TV. After a while I found these words – some of which were morphing into something more recognisable as poetry – reaching increasingly larger audiences. But interestingly, whilst it seems likely that some of these readers overlapped with that world of poetry magazines, competitions and festivals, many did not; these were people who enjoyed poetry when it came to find them but who wouldn’t typically go out of their way to find it.
The popularity turned publishers’ heads, and so it was I found myself publishing a crowd-funded book with Unbound.
The sublime serendipity of all this business, though, presented its own set of problems as my words made the transition from social media to print.
For instance, I had written a lot of poems (or “things”) – but which ones should make it into the book? Some seemed self-selecting but others not so. Some of these “things” were responses to a certain event that happened on a particular day – and so had very limited shelf-life. Or were about topics so fleeting that they seemed more than frivolous:
I’m a Celeriac Get Me Out of Here
A knobbly root vegetable
with a plan
was able to escape
from the van
And then there were considerations over which of these “things” were actually poems. On Twitter, in particular – with its 140-character constraint – there can be a fine line between a “poem”, or simply an artful way to present a thought or idea. There was a “thing” like Donald Trumpton, a nostalgic reworking of an old children’s television show refrain:
Was that a poem? Or this?
I had always wanted to go
on a busman’s holiday
so I saved up for ten years
and then five holidays
came along at once.
I double-checked the dictionary. Poem (noun): a piece of writing in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by particular attention to diction (sometimes involving rhyme), rhythm, and imagery.
So that wasn’t much help either.
And then there were the “hits”. Social media provides an instant reaction to the written word. A poem can be “measured” in Twitter retweets or Facebook likes, in the way a book can be measured in copies sold. But that’s no barometer of quality and amongst my most popular poems are some I don’t really care for very much. America is a Gun was one of those, written quickly in response to how Twitter reacted to a tweet from Jed Bush in which he shared a photo of his handgun alongside the one word “America”. Take it out of that context, though, and it seems crass and reductive.
And how many “things” should I include? I’d been writing poems almost daily. I probably had enough poems on Jeremy Clarkson to justify a slim volume on him alone.
Another issue I encountered was “versioning”. I would often post a poem on Twitter, and be subjected to a pedantic observation that made me want to change a word or a line. I’d then correct this for when I posted it on Facebook, spot something else I didn’t like, and edit it once more for posting on Instagram. And certain poems would be re-shared a number of times, with evolving changes as I went. There was no definitive version – so each poem had to be revisited, re-read, and in some cases, completely rewritten.
And then how should all of this be organised? All the poems about buses in one section? The visual ones in another? Or just mix them all together and let the reader make sense of it all.
For the publishers and the sales team, there were other questions. Where in bookshops does this best fit? Only in those ever-shrinking Poetry sections? Or would it be better in Humour? But then, nobody looks in that section until panic-buying for Christmas comes around. And how might a cover look to reflect these twin worlds? And what on earth might we do about this awkward author, who seems very happy to interact with people online but has this whole anonymity thing going on outside of that, which means we can’t really ask him to go into a bookstore to promote his book?
The book itself is an answer to all of these questions. Not necessarily the right answer, but not the wrong one either – and certainly not the only one.
As I went through this process, it made me think about whether the intrinsic nature of what I’d written had actually changed somehow, as it moved from social media into traditional print. In some indefinable way, it felt like it had; a concreteness, perhaps, that the poems never had before as they moved from an ever-changing world to one of permanence.
But perhaps that’s just a romantic notion attached to book publishing – and what would I know about that? I’ve arrived here by accident not design and, as usual, I’m just making things up as I go along.
Brian Bilston’s You Took the Last Bus Home is published today by Unbound. Martina Evans reviews it in The Irish Times on October 15th. Read Sarah Gilmartin’s interview with Brian Bilston