Paul Birtill was born in Walton, Liverpool in 1960 to an English father and Irish, County Meath mother and lives in London. He has published a number of collections with Hearing Eye, including New and Selected Poems. He is also an accomplished playwright and several of his plays have been staged at London theatres, including Squalor, which was short-listed for the prestigious Verity Bargate Award.
Paul’s new collection Bad News will be published by Wrecking Ball Press on September 14. The collection sees the poet return to his favourite themes of death, relationships and mental illness with his usual brand of dark humour, deep-veined irony and more than one poem about Coronavirus. We had a chat with Paul so he could tell us more about his new collection and squash the rumours about his use of correction fluid.
How would you describe Bad News?
The collection is a mixture of work, some of which is autobiographical, some of which is semi-autobiographical and a somewhat exaggerated version of events and some that display my usual black comedy.
Can you tell us something about where this collection came from, when you started work on the pieces within, why you wrote them, how they developed and how Bad News came to the attention of Wrecking Ball?
I started working on the poems in this collection just under three years ago. What tends to happen is that when I have enough poems together, maybe around 40, I’ll start to think about them in terms of a collection and come up with the title at that point. Coronavirus happened and I wanted to write something about it because we are living through history here and it’s important to capture that, even in my own funny way.
I’ve known the poet Dean Wilson for 20 years and I knew Roddy Lumsden, both published by Wrecking Ball. I sent some poems for inclusion in The Reater years ago but there were no more Reaters so that was that, even though the editor liked them. I read with Dean in Liverpool a couple of years ago and we swapped books. I really liked his book and the quality of its production and he told me to try Wrecking Ball again. So it’s all Dean’s fault.
Who are you writing for?
Normally I write poems in notebooks and if they’re any good I type them up on a typewriter. I start by reading them to half a dozen good friends and if they like them they’re in. If not, I don’t bother. So initially I write for my small circle of friends because they’re a good critical audience.
What experience do you want your readers to have with your work?
Somebody once said to Brendan Behan, “what’s the message in your work?” And he said, “there is no message, I’m not a fucking postman.” Sometimes I’m expressing ideas or my point of view which some people might find bleak and depressing but I also like to make people laugh.
Would you like to share something about your experience with independent publishers?
I had a great working relationship with John Rety, who founded Hearing Eye. He was the poetry editor of the Morning Star, an anarchist and a really good chess player. John published my first collection Terrifying Ordeal in 1996 and went on to publish other collections of mine and pamphlets and I liked him a lot. Good independents allow writers to remain independent too.
You avoid technology and continue to write on a typewriter. Why is that?
I do avoid technology, yes. I’ve never been on an aeroplane and if I travel to Europe I take a boat or Eurostar. I don’t drive a car and it was only in the last year that I got round to getting a mobile phone and only then because the landline was getting more expensive and there were some good deals to be had.
I’ve never really liked technology and I’m not the most practical or technically minded person, so I’ve never really wanted a computer. Someone told me once that they had a computer but quickly went back to a typewriter because they found it too easy to change things on screen and that’s what I feel too.
I have an electric typewriter, a Brother, that I’ve had for 30 years. I can’t even buy the ribbons in Rymans these days so have to order them and I hope I can continue to keep buying them when I need to but so few people use typewriters these days. I’m also a great user of Tippex. When I’m stocking up on Tippex at the newsagent’s I don’t think he quite believes that I use a typewriter at all. I’m pretty sure he thinks I sniff the Tippex.
How is the London life these days?
I moved down here from Liverpool on July 1, 1983. I’m quite good with dates. I’ve been here ever since aside from a year. I live down a leafy road near Hampstead Heath, so I’m in one of the nicest parts of London. Camden Town is down the road if I want to socialise, which I did a lot when I was younger.
I lived in Glasgow for a year, during the European Capital of Culture year. It was the dream place for a writer to be although I moved there for the drink and a woman I was unhealthily obsessed with. That was a great year-long party, the pubs never closed. I nearly stayed but then I ended up back in London after the year. If I ever do move from here now it would be to live back in Liverpool.
What does the future hold for you?
I’m coming up to 60th birthday next month. So with that and the publication of Bad News I’ll be enjoying myself. I’ve already got 20 more poems written and I’m still quite prolific as a poet, so more of that. I’ve also been a playwright since 1984, at the time of the miners’ strike, and have written ten plays and written poetry since 1987. The problem with plays is that you need a really strong idea to be able to sustain 90 minutes whereas with poetry, in ten lines you can write about something quirky and specific.