Learning to Read #11
Firstly, if you get a chance to see this guy perform, take it. The way that he brings his words to life, with cadence and accent, and an easy charisma – it really transforms what you have on the page. I saw him at the 2017 Kendal Poetry Festival and the room was spellbound, they couldn’t get enough. Plus, he’s not exactly difficult to look at.
This is his second collection, after Bevel in 2012, published by Carcanet. Appropriately, given the title, you have poems here that are very much down to, ahem, earth – gritty and real. Several of the poems draw heavily on his Scottish dialect, and this reinforces the street feel, the tenement bedsit feel. Sometimes I find this a distraction, but I really think it adds authenticity here. “The Bevy” tells us “a hid met this lassie / she liked the bevy / a like drink masel / bit this lassie liked the bevy” – I’d argue that the dialect is adding colour in huge amounts through this poem. If it was an abstract poem from a high intellectual place about love and drink, then maybe not. But this is a poem about a boy who meets a girl and they get drunk a lot, and the boy understands a lot more than you might give him credit for, but it’s still about being drunk, and loving and hating someone.
The poems draw on Billy’s (let’s relax, we’re all friends sharing a pint here) early time spent as a roofer, his time in India, his family, and his growth as a poet. This is a heady, rich and varied mixture – from being caught short in “Let in Go” – “My sphincter pouts like a smokers lips” – to having an interview with a corporate drone in “The Interview” – “A middle-management centaur, half man / half desk, imbued with authority power.” – to tenderness and real sensitivity in “Naked” and a knowing sense of wanting to tease the reader in “Delight” – “I keep my red stiletto heels in the freezer“. There is a lot of humour in here, a lot of observational finesse and plenty of direct, honest words. I would have to put a lot of quotes in here to really capture the full range of what he does.
My favourite little extract, though, is the one from the back cover. “There are all types of bodies / If you’re lucky you’ll find someone whose skin / is a canvass for the story of your life. / Write well. Take care of the heartbeat behind it.” Man, that is my love poem right there. It’s from “In a bamboo shack on the edge of a beach”. If I’d have had lines like that when I was younger…
If you read my review of Ocean Vuong, you might know that I’m not a big fan of word art. Billy; putting “OjOs” on a blank page is not a poem. This is a great collection though, and I’d really recommend it. And like I said back at the start, go see him if you get the chance.
You can find a bit of a biography and some readings here.
The publishers are here, so presumably you can buy direct.