[Interview] Benjamin Stainton, author of ‘The Jealousies’


Benjamin Stainton was born in Bury St. Edmunds and grew up in and around the Suffolk countryside.

His debut collection of poems, The Jealousies, was published by Bewrite Books in October 2008.

In this email interview, Ben Stainton talks about his writing:

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Quite late really, I was 26 or 27. At that time, I thought of myself as a musician who occasionally wrote poetry, quite badly.

Around autumn 2005, I’d written some newer poems that seemed better, a little more assured, so I submitted a few for an anthology called The Soul Gatherer, and the editors accepted one called “9th of October”.

The Jealousies was being published three years later, to the day.

Who is your target audience?

As this is my first book, just anyone who reads or has an interest in modern poetry I suppose. I’ll be booking myself in for some readings shortly, so my target audience will be whoever’s in the room.

How would you describe your writing?

Poetry comes more easily than prose, for me. My prose is a bit tepid, usually.

I prefer to write in a non-linear, abstract way, but keep it accessible, hopefully retain an emotional point of contact with the reader, somehow.

I think my style changes from day to day. I don’t feel settled into one particular mode of writing yet, and I’m unsure if a writer has to do that — to “find their own voice” as the saying goes. I prefer speaking in a number of voices.

At the moment, I’m writing about contemporary and historical figures, real and fictional, usually people approaching a crossroads or involved in a drama of some kind. I see it as empathetic poetry; attempts to identify someone else’s interior world.

Who influenced you most?

When I started writing seriously, Arthur Rimbaud and Sylvia Plath were major influences.

Others included Keats, Berryman, Eliot, Hemingway, maybe Dylan Thomas.

Outside of literature, Van Gogh and the abstract-expressionists; a huge range of music, films, adverts… too many sources and people to name.

I also think poetry, and other art forms that may rely on the subconscious, draw on influences already forgotten by the artist.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

The Jealousies is quite autobiographical, not entirely, but about two thirds of the poems are based on personal experience. It’s very preoccupied with the past. Almost a sloughing off of the past, in a way. My newer writing is moving away from the personal, perhaps becoming a little more expansive.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My main concern is to make an emotive or unconscious connection with the reader, but also to reveal or propose something about myself, to myself.

I deal with those concerns as best I can, by writing in a way that moves me, and I hope others can relate to.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

To keep improving, I suppose. No one wants their first book to be their best. Bob Dylan said something like — an artist who feels he’s arrived is finished. I hope to always be on my way somewhere.

Do you write everyday?

Well, hopefully my charming employers won’t read this, but I have quite a superfluous job where there isn’t much to do, so I write at work. Usually I’ll have a vague idea about what I want, or where it’s heading, or a certain feeling will come over me — a little scenario or tableaux pops into my head — which can happen anytime. I’ll then write, edit, re-write and arrange until the poem is finished. This could take minutes, or weeks.

What would you say The Jealousies is about?

The book is about me, essentially. It’s determinedly personal. The section titled “Film” purports to be about other, famous people — Thomas Chatterton, Lucrezia Borgia, Amy Winehouse — but my own personality creeps in.

Most of the poems were written in 2007, although a handful are older.

I sent an abbreviated version of the book to Sam Smith at The Journal, who’d accepted a few of my poems, and on his recommendation Bewrite agreed to publish.

What did you find most difficult when you were working on the book?

I’m something of a perfectionist, so I have major difficulties finishing anything I care about. Think I drove Sam (who also edited the book) slightly insane with my constant revisions, additions, deletions etc. In the end he had to tell me to stop.

What did you enjoy most?

I enjoyed the whole process really. For someone who has been creating for years, learning the book would be published and fleshing it out with new work was a good feeling, like a justification.

What sets the book apart from other things you have written?

Well, although this is my first book, I can compare it to earlier poems, which tended towards a more surrealistic style — automatic writing with no prior considerations at all. I was basically writing for the sake of it. Hopefully there’s a little more coherence and fluidity to what I’m doing now.

In what way is it similar?

I think I still approach and attack from similar angles, with surreal elements, but my stuff now tends to be rooted in reality. Maybe a deformed version of reality.

What will your next book be about?

It will probably be a series of longish poems or dialogues, each told as a first person narrative. I’d like to express something about the modern world, make use of colloquial language, be a little less “poetic” in the old-fashioned sense, but hopefully retain a dreamlike sensibility. Strong characterisation is paramount. They’ll be character poems: life-affirming, life-despairing.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

The fact a small group of people, unknown to me personally, have trusted my writing enough to publish it, is my only accomplishment so far. But I’m very, very ambitious. I want to write poetry that endures, that sums up a certain level of existence. I want to push myself over the edge.

More at Conversations with Writers.

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