He travelled to northern Italy in 2008 as part of an Edwin Morgan Travel Bursary where he helped restore a medieval village, to Iraq with Reel Festivals in 2011, and to India in 2014 as part of Commonwealth Poets United.
Hi Billy. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your second collection Dirt this summer. Can you tell us a bit more about the book and in what ways you feel it is a continuation of or departure from Bevel?
I spent six months travelling through India. I fell in love, got married. The experiences I drew upon were different, but it’s still a continuation in the sense that I didn’t try to alter the way I write. I kept walking and wrote about what happened as the world came at me.
A number of your poems are written in Scottish dialect and remind me a little of Tom Leonard. Are there any factors that determine whether you write in dialect, and do the sounds and rhythms of a dialect poem tend to lead you in a different direction than if it had been composed in more conventional English?
Conventional English is important. We have a standard format of language we can access, which makes it easier to communicate across the multitude of dialects that exist. But very few people actually speak in Standard English. There are major and minor variations everywhere.
Reading the question above gives me no clue to help decipher where you’re from. You could be from Manchester, Cornwall, Barcelona or Bucharest. Granted, if you’d written the question in Cornish I’d have raised an eyebrow. But my reading experience would have been totally different. Most likely I’d have read the question aloud to enrich the meaning. This may well have caused my wife at the opposite end of the sofa to raise her eyebrow.
When I first came across writers like Liz Lochead, James Kelman, and Tom Leonard, I thought, wait a minute, these are the voices I hear in my grandfather’s kitchen while my uncles are playing darts. I realized that literature could be found right smack bang in the middle of my everyday life. All I had to do was listen.
When it comes to specific poems there’s never really a conscious decision. I hear a phrase or see a word then run with it.
Do different sounds and rhythms lead me in a different direction? If you’re willing to change the meaning of a stanza or a sentence to cater for its sound then of course, the direction will change. This is true no matter what language you’re writing in.
You explore the minutiae and mundanity of working life in your writing, imbuing it with beauty and nobility. Did these poems arise out of a desire to represent working class experiences or were they more a reaction and antidote to the more mind-numbing aspects of manual labour?
I wasn’t trying to represent working class experience. Most of my days were spent working, so naturally these experiences fell into my writing.
People often express surprise at the combination of manual labour and writing poetry. The exact opposite is true. Manual labour and writing poetry are well suited. A day spent staring a computer screen typing word after word, or a day spent in constant communication with other people is more mind numbing than say, using your body to transport tiles from one end of a roof to another.
Think about how easy it is to work through a problem while you’re taking a long walk. This is often when ideas present themselves from your unconscious. There’s something about the repetitive movement of your body that frees your mind. As you exercise, endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain. This triggers positive emotion. It’s the perfect time to hold a poem in your mind.
I spent a summer in Italy teaching English to kids. At the end of each day I could hardly lift my legs. Keeping my mind active and engaged on all those wonderful little terrors was a whole different type of tired.
While I was working as a roofer, every week was different. Sometimes I’d be on a farmhouse and my view would be hills and mist and countryside. Other times I’d be staring down at a busy street, pigeons and noise everywhere. I didn’t have to imbue my day with beauty and nobility. It was there, all around me.
At the other end of the spectrum, some of your poems are quite metaphysical or epic in scale and evoke cosmic imagery (‘Fusion expands’, ‘Sunburst‘, ‘Impact Theory‘, ‘Schrödinger’). I’m curious where and when your interest in astronomy and cosmology began and what attracted you to write about it in your own poetry?
Again, it wasn’t a conscious decision. I was reading about quantum mechanics and astrophysics and, naturally, they fell into the poems. It’s one of the things I love about reading. If a hard-boiled detective novel has captured my imagination – standing in the queue at Sainsbury’s becomes a whole different experience. For a short time it changes the way I perceive the world.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have enjoyed recently or are looking forward to this year?
The Edinburgh Book Festival is its own island within the larger Edinburgh Festival. And what an island. Totally contained within Charlotte Square Gardens. Any reader would welcome being stranded there for a month.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
The poem was commissioned as part of the celebration to mark the reopening of the Theatre Royal in Glasgow.
I know a man whose burden is a beautiful
brown cello. He carries the instrument in a
cumbersome white case. The case is dented
and scratched, and has seen sunsets from
Santiago to Berlin. The man who carries
the case frowns at every hill. He grumbles
as he shoulders his way through busy streets.
He secretly envies the flautists. But the case
carrier and the musician are not the same.
They are separate in one body. One translates
the great composers through memories of
childhood. The other drinks whisky and spits
phlegm into his sink. They both remember
a visiting cellist that asked their class to raise
a hand. The hand was measured. The musician
says, it was to test the strength of his fingers.
The case carrier will tell you that the cellist
never looked him in the eye.