Third year History undergraduate – and former Herefordshire Young Poet Laureate – Ben Ray was a co-winner of the Geoffrey Stevens Memorial Prize in 2015 for his collection, After the Poet, the Bar, which was subsequently published by Indigo Dreams Press in August 2016. His poetry can be found on SevenVoices and Power Poetry: but here's a sneak peek from the title poem of his collection!
And after the Poet, the Bar
We talk the candle into submission
And then swap breaths over its dying cough.
And if we spat out poetry like phlegm
And extinguished the small light with our voices
We can leave knowing that we have just lit another.
We can leave knowing that we have just lit another.
We caught up with Ben over the Christmas break to hear some of his thoughts on writing, the wider constellation of poets, and new directions. – Publications Director, Theophilus Kwek
Congratulations on your new collection, winner of the Geoff Stevens Memorial Poetry Prize at Indigo Dreams press! Where were you when you heard the news?
I was actually desperately working on an essay at 1 a.m. whilst at home over Christmas last year – I got the email, and didn’t quite believe what they were telling me at first! I went upstairs and woke my mother up to tell her. Her exact response was: “That’s great, Ben. Don’t you think it’s time to go to bed?”
I first came across your work in the Martin Starkie Prize shortlist earlier this year, and I noticed that the piece has found its way to the front of your collection. Could you take us through your thought process in selecting and sequencing work for the book?
I’d like to think readers will dip in and out of the book at different points to create their own unique, individual journeys.
I actually found this job quite arduous and difficult. As the collection is a compilation of work from many different points in my life, it covers lots of styles and genres – so finding a decent order for this diverse miscellany took some time! I ended up printing all the poetry I’d ever written onto separate sheets of paper and moving them around the floor to experiment with different sequences – I’ve tried to space out the various poetic moods and formats within the book to create a range of experiences for the reader. However, due to the diversity of the poems, I’d like to think readers will dip in and out of the book at different points to create their own unique, individual journeys. There’s definitely no proper order for these poems!
I've noticed that your poems vary widely in length, tone, and form – which makes the collection, on the whole, a refreshing read. But is there (as it were) an underlying method to the madness?
As I mentioned above, these poems span the whole of my life as a poet – some were written 7 years ago as a 15-year-old, and some were scribbled down a few days before the final submission (I’m not exaggerating, I genuinely ended up replacing poems with lines written that morning!). I’d like to think that they show my experimentation with different styles, as my writing used to change each time I read a new poet that I liked! I do think this book shows the evolution of my ‘poetic voice’, which I feel I’ve found in the past year – though I have included some slam poetry (aspiring to a similar form to poets such as Kate Tempest) to show how I enjoy playing and trying on different ways of writing. There’s no set way to write poetry and no law stating poets must only write in one specific way suited to them, and I think poets’ collections should reflect that.
I admire and have attempted to learn from the sparseness and sparing use of language of poets such as Kathleen Jamie, and the intelligent and almost otherworldly use of the English language by Alice Oswald – I just find English such a beautiful and endlessly fascinating language to play with.
Your work has been praised by Jonathan Edwards and compared to Daniel Huws – are there any contemporary poets whom you consciously or subconsciously take after?
My writing is influenced by almost every poet I’ve ever read! A friend once described my style as a ‘cleaner, rural version of Charles Bukowski’, and I do love the grittiness and dirty realism that comes across in his writing. I admire and have attempted to learn from the sparseness and sparing use of language of poets such as Kathleen Jamie, and the intelligent and almost otherworldly use of the English language by Alice Oswald – I just find English such a beautiful and endlessly fascinating language to play with in the poetic form. But I think that overall I adore the playfulness and the sheer fun of poets such as Wendy Cope and Jonathan Edwards. Writing around a pun or a funny turn of phrase engages and entertains the reader and is a really underrated art form. Similarly, grounding poetry in everyday scenarios which the reader can relate with and instantly understand in the way Edwards does, lifting the mundane into the extraordinary, is such a skill, and one I wish I had!
Do you think your writing has changed since the collection was published?
Definitely – after the publication of ‘After the poet, the bar’ I began to write some of the best poetry I’d ever come up with! The more you read and write poetry, the more you feel inspired to write and see poetry everywhere, so after working on the book for so long I couldn’t help but continue and write more! I think compiling the book has definitely helped me to find ‘my poetic voice’, and it’s a style I’m working on every time I write.
Compiling the book has definitely helped me to find ‘my poetic voice’, and it’s a style I’m working on every time I write.
Finally – if you don't mind – when can we expect a second collection?
I have to admit the creative flow has somewhat dried up now I’m well into my third year studies – I don’t think I’ll be publishing anything until after my degree! But I’d love to get another collection out as soon as I have the material for it – I’m flattered that people are interested in my writing, and love sharing it with the world.