I interviewed poet Cathy Bryant, winner of the Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest. Cathy talks about how she began to write, her approach to humour and ‘bookcrossing’. She also describes the other influences on her writing, including the lyrics to songs and her experience of disability. Two hundred and fifty of Cathy’s poems, stories and articles have appeared in anthologies and magazines. She is the author of three poetry collections and a guide to winning writing competitions.
Leslie: What are the different styles of poetry you use in your writing, please? Why them?
Cathy: I try to make the form and content fit each other, unless I’m going for a jarring effect. For instance, a poem about child abuse in the form of a sing-song nursery rhyme can be eerily effective.
I often use free verse for my more conversational poems, though free verse can have its own rhythms and technical effects, if not metre. For funny poems I sometimes write villanelles – the repetition can work well when the implications of the line have changed. In one poem, I’m looking forward to being taken out for dinner: “I pictured silver forks, red wine.” It turned out that my date was taking me to a motorway service station. Once there, he explained to me that the egg-and-chips-plate was the cheapest meal. The repetition of, “I pictured, silver forks, red wine…” is now a comical lament. The story is true, by the way!
I love to try different forms and to play with them, which works for me as my poetry has been described as playful. I’m fond of the shadorma and the sedoka. For some reason I can never write a good ghazal – like haiku, the ghazal is easy to write – but extremely difficult to write well. I shall keep on trying and keep on playing…
Leslie: What kind of humour do you use in your writing? What makes it funny?
Cathy: I often use absurdity, as that fits with my world view. It can be very funny if delivered in a serious and pompous tone, which heightens its silliness. For instance, The Advice Less Travelled is a list of ‘helpful’ advice I have been given, from “Never take drugs” to “Take 2 every four hours”. Put together like that the suggestions become over-the-top and ridiculous. Hyperbole is always fun, too.
My ‘Greatest Hit’ poem is called ‘Sexual Positions for Those No Longer Young’. I’d noticed the elaborate names that young people had for their sensual shenanigans, and I thought of a senior version with appropriate names: the Slip-on Shoe, The Antiques Roadshow, the Mothy Woollen… I think the humour there comes from the juxtaposition of the homely images with the idea of hot sex.
Leslie: How does performance affect and change what you write on the page?
Cathy: I hope that it doesn’t! I’m primarily a page poet but I adore performing, when I’m well enough to do it. I don’t tend to think about performance when I’m writing, but sometimes I write a poem and it doesn’t work on the page, though I know it will work onstage. Vice versa, too. My poem “Fudging Language” is a defence of swearing though it doesn’t contain any swear words. It lies flat and dead on the page, but perks up in performance. Whereas my poem ’22 Fruits’ (from my first collection, Contains Strong Language and Scenes of a Sexual Nature) is about homophobia, but has the names of 22 fruits concealed in it. Hence, ‘Papa yammering that they should ban anal’ has ‘papaya’ and ‘banana’ in it, and ‘White-hot anger, inescapable’, contains ‘tangerine’. But in performance, that’s completely lost.
I very rarely set out to write a page poem or write a performance poem – as is probably clear by now, I experiment and I play, and then develop the resulting poem as feels best.
Leslie: Looking back, how did your interest in writing and performing begin, grow and develop?
Cathy: I had a very unhappy childhood, and books were my escape from that. I can remember the moment I suddenly understood reading, what all those letters and sounds were for: my father held me on his shoulder in church, and I read the words of a hymn as we all sang it. It was an immense moment.
Having older siblings, I read all their library books as well as my own, which made for a decent education.
As for performing – my mother couldn’t touch me when I was first born. It took her a few days as she was convinced that I was going to die (the child she had before me had been born with severe health problems, and lived for only nine weeks). I understand now, but it’s a way into my personality: look at me! Love me! Listen to me! Watch me! Hold me! There I was, a baby full of itself and its needs, which couldn’t be met…I still want to be watched, listened to and applauded today.
Reading, writing and performing were my powers. I was always in the school play, and I wanted to be an actor for a while. But writing was my dream, and I always wrote. Utter dross at first, but tiny gems appeared in it here and there occasionally, as I gradually found my own voice.
Leslie: Tell us about book crossing. What surprises has it come up with for you?
Cathy: Bookcrossing is huge fun! When I lived in Manchester, I used to attend the Bookcrossing group there. Essentially we’d all turn up with a few books, meet in a pub, have a look at the books and take home any we wanted to read, and then release the rest into the wild. This is particularly good for books that are too damaged for a charity shop to accept. At the bookcrossing site – http://bookcrossing.com/ – one can download basic labels, and register your book. It is allocated a number, which you write on its label, and stick it in the book. Then anyone who finds the book can put the number into the website and share their thoughts about it, and where it will go next.
Many books are never heard from again, but I had an Agatha Christie travel all the way to Iran via dozens of other people, and it was thoroughly enjoyed by the nice Iranian chap who found it. A few days ago, I heard of a Virago paperback that I released in 2011 – it has been read six times and is currently in Scotland. I’ve had books go as far as New Zealand, which is marvellous.
Another facet is that thanks to bookcrossing, I’ve read books that otherwise I’d never have heard of or read, because people bring such agreeably odd things.
Leslie: Looking at the work of Pete Brown, what would you say are the characteristics of great song lyrics?
Cathy: My view is that the primary job of the lyricist is to write lyrics that fit the music perfectly. I’m thinking of the deceptively simple lyrics to the Cream song, ‘I Feel Free’ – a flowing, melodic tune with repetition and an upbeat feel. The joy of a love that makes one feel oneself completely rather than what one is ‘supposed’ to be, and with more freedom, not less, is the ideal subject for the music. “You’re the sun/ and when you shine on me/ I feel free…’ Simple, but ideal for the song. It’s joyful.
Pete wrote for so many musicians, including his own band, for decades, and his lyrics have probably influenced thousands of songwriters who have never heard of him. RIP, Pete.
Leslie: How have allergies, blood sugar issues and other disabilities affected your response to life and your writing? What have you learned about yourself from them?
Cathy: I’m glad you asked this. I have a bunch of disabilities and health conditions (an unlucky dip box!): chronic arthritis, chronic fibromyalgia, PTSD, Diabetes type 1.5, Depression, Generalised Anxiety Disorder, PCOS….I’ll stop there!
There’s a big ‘However’ – However – becoming too disabled to work full-time or have a normal job meant that I could give myself permission to write. As I’d had two rejections in my teens, I thought I couldn’t write, and was being self-indulgent. But as I couldn’t work ‘properly’, I let myself write – improperly, so to speak.
Then my best friend blackmailed me into submitting my work, and several pieces were accepted…
Years later, I had a couple of poems accepted for the Nine Arches ‘Stairs and Whispers’ anthology by Deaf and Disabled Writers. One of the things that sets my teeth on edge is when writing courses or exercises say, “Go for a walk in nature – use all your five senses!” Ableist or what?! As I said to the editor of SAW, do we really need more poems about the transience of Spring flowers or the fact that Winter is cold?! The closest I can get to Nature, sometimes, is the orange on my lunch plate. But perhaps we need fewer poems about flowers and more about oranges on lunch plates. Disability has made my poems more interesting, I think, and has allowed me to write in new and different ways. It’s also allowed me to write about disability, the horrendous as well as the positive, and share these insights with able-bodied people. This is the thing about diversity – inclusivity benefits all of us.
Leslie: What has been the effect of living in Cheshire on you as a writer?
Cathy: Cheshire has a very special place in my heart. In my life I’ve lived in Hampshire, Sussex, the Midlands, North Lancashire, Manchester, Derbyshire, Cheshire and now sunny Salford (because we couldn’t afford to buy anywhere in Cheshire, sadly).
We (myself and husband, Keir) moved to Cheshire having had a rotten time in our previous home, being bullied by some very unpleasant people whom we eventually took to Court. In Cheshire we healed and rested and recovered.
The other delight was that living there made me eligible to enter the Cheshire Literature Prize! I’ve been extremely lucky – I’ve been a runner-up, and I’ve won it twice! One of the prizes was the staging of my first ever play, which was a wonderful learning experience. I love the different experiences and places that writing can take you. Cheshire has been very kind to me in many ways.
Finally: I run the site Cathy’s Comps and Calls. Every month I list writing competitions and Calls for Submission that have no entry fees or submission fees. Many of them pay writers, too. The idea is that if you have access to a website, you can submit to and enter things, and even make money or receive a book or a prize for your writing, or have a book published. https://compsandcalls.com/wp/
Next week I interviewed V G Lee about her five novels and two short story collections, her coming out as a lesbian, and her standup comedy performances.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here.