Poetry review, Paul Birtill, All’s Well That Ends.
Wrecking Ball Press
I met up with the poet Paul Birtill at a coffee shop in Belsize Park, where he now lives, to discuss his recently released poetry book collection All’s Well That Ends. I was overjoyed at the opportunity to write about this, because I have wanted anyone who reads poetry, or anyone who thinks they can’t, to know about Paul from the first time I read his work. He is the kind of writer who makes you feel you have found a best kept secret and need to share the news as soon as possible. I believe it is something to do with how he writes on subjects most would overlook or avoid.
Paul revealed that writing the poems has taken it out of him psychologically, but that he ‘still goes there.’ The results create an instant bond between writer and reader, through gratitude and laughter. ‘Oh, thank you’ were the first words I said aloud to myself, on reading the poem One in Four that portrays a tableau of misfits who are secretly the majority, all touched by ‘madness.’ This even includes his own doctor: ‘I’m not sure, but I think my doctor is a one in four.’ The poem is freeing, because as Paul says, ‘misery can be very uplifting.’
Paul Birtill’s work is accessible and minimal, yet he is no shirker of form and craft. Each stanza, or succinct observation on life, part true, or part fiction, is carefully considered and there is never a word too many. Even the title of each poem works as a statement connected to what is included in the content, an example of this is the one-line poem Depression: ‘whenever I think of old age, I reach for my cigarettes.’ He told me that each collection takes him ‘about two years to write’, that ‘they just come’ and he ‘can’t be bothered to write prose because it takes too long.’
I assumed Paul Birtill must be widely known on the day I walked to Hampstead’s Pentameters theatre to meet him for the first time in the mid 00’s. I had been encouraged to audition for a part in his play Squalor by two female friends who were actors, despite my having no actor training. Paul was leaning on a wall outside of the theatre, smoking a cigarette. He had been told a little about my vulnerable past and asked me if I’d ‘had addiction issues because I was a lapsed Christian.’ I replied that I was still trying to figure it all out and he suggested I buy his book. This turned out to be his New and Selected Poems, published by John Rety at Hearing Eye Press. I didn’t get the part in the play, and I didn’t want it, but I was told afterwards that Paul had said he ‘found me very beautiful’ which added to my necessary healing process at the time, as did reading his work.
I came to understand, however, that Paul’s approach to the social scene of writing and the arts in general, has left a space between him and the literary world’s wider acknowledgement of his work. He has a self-protective indifference to commercialism and trends, and a selective opinion on the art of poetry writing. He believes that inspiration is not taught, it is lived, and lived for, and has a lack of trust in the intention of most poets. He has no hesitation in saying that his favourite poet is Philip Larkin and that he ‘likes the opening of The Wasteland, The Burial of The Dead by TS Elliot’, but that the rest of it ‘goes off track and needs editing.’ He says he highly rates and enjoys Stevie Smith but is disappointed that ‘most female poets write about sex.’
He has a similar distaste for the overriding themes of sex and alcohol in the poetry of Charles Bukowski, who he is often compared to. He rejects this comparison, except to say they are both ‘equally direct’ and that he ‘prefers Bukowski’s prose writing.’ Added to his preferences are a ‘bit of Sassoon, Yeats and Auden,’ although it’s important to him to note, that he ‘had read no poets’ when he began writing in 1987. He considers this a gift, as it means he is uninfluenced in his form or style.
Despite having written over one thousand poems, nine hundred of which have been published in the Independent, the New Statesman and the Guardian to name a few, it is also unlikely you would see Paul at poetry events if he wasn’t there to read. You would more likely find him at the Flask pub in Hampstead being garrulously entertaining. He is a big drinking, Liverpudlian, Irish, working-class rogue, with a vast knowledge of literature and a savant memory of dates and events. While equally certain of his faith in a God that urges people to be kind, he would avoid the sanctimonious in any community. He wears half a suit at all times of the day, writes on a typewriter, rejects the internet (his family run his Twitter account) and never swears in front of ladies.
He once sent a typed poem to me in the post, which I had to remind him to sign as he was more interested that the gesture meant something to me. This quirky unspoilt charm has led to him being revered by many alternative artists, including band The Farm and Pete Doherty of the Libertines. The poet John Cooper Clark calls him on his land line for a chat and is quoted on the back cover of All’s Well That Ends as saying Paul ‘makes you laugh and feel depressed at the same time and that’s a rare gift’, yet it’s still a fact that more readers know about John Cooper Clarke than they do Paul Birtill.
He remains largely a cult figure, while continuing to be respected in the independent poetry world. His poem ‘Writers Block’ from All’s Well That Ends is currently long listed for the Forward poetry prize, nominated by Ambit magazine. The poem is two lines long: ‘I told him I hadn’t written a new poem in over a month. ‘You look well on it though’ he said.’ It is telling of his character that despite him selling most of his books at poetry readings, he left copies of it at home on being invited to read at Ambit magazine’s launch. The kind organisers informed him afterwards that it would have been fine, but he was mindful of the magazine doing the best it could at the event.
Conversely, there are tales of Paul leaving wildly unconventional messages on friends answer phones, and episodes of outlandishness that have resulted in hospital visits. I experienced this other Paul Birtill firsthand while eating alone in an Indian restaurant in South End Green one evening. He opened the door and raged at me, calling me neurotic for not agreeing to go to his flat for tea. I said he was right that I was neurotic, but also it had ‘something to do with him writing poems about axes by fireplaces.’ It calmed him down, the way only honesty can. But he was right, at that time I did spend too much time alone and it would have been healthier to eat with others.
I have continued to buy his books and meet up with him to have them signed as he has moved over to his new publisher, Wrecking Ball Press. We have developed an unbreakable connection and mutual respect and he inspired my passion to follow other risk-taking writers and artists. I believe they deserve a profile alongside established and classical poets for the conversations on difference they keep alive. They may have you holding your stomach with laughter pains or banging on beer-soaked tables in agreement as you read them, but it’s likely you will be glad it’s not you, who must live the life that informs their insights. I admire that unthanked devotion. Difficult people, like unconventional poems, can be a catalyst for great change, if we let them.
I saw him on the bus a few months later. He was on his way home after having had afternoon tea with the poet John Hegley. We sat close and he said he felt sad and was contemplating whether he should have chosen love over a lifetime devotion to poetry. I suggested he try having both from now on. Thankfully we both believe in giving people second chances, after all it’s an imbalance to respect unique expression on the page, but to reject people for it in life, and both these activities keep Paul alive. Maybe he is destined to remain underground, as are the subjects in his poems, along with many of our true feelings, unless they are unearthed his way. Just let him love you anyway, that is ultimately what his poems do, because acceptance of each other, could be the answer to all our problems today.
Love letter from Rachel Instagram @RachelMayfieldArts