Melanie Branton – Slap Happy

Melanie Branton’s first collection My Cloth-Eared Heart was published by Oversteps Books in 2017, and her second is forthcoming from Burning Eye. Her poems are widely published in the UK, including The Spectator, and she has performed at WOMAD, the Bristol Harbour Festival and numerous spoken word and poetry nights. Her most recent full-length poetry show was showcased at the Edinburgh Fringe, Wolves Lit Fest and the Barnstaple Fringe in 2017. Melanie came second in the Bristol Poetry Festival Slam in both 2014 and 2017 and represented Bristol at the Hammer and Tongue 2016 and the Superheroes of Slam 2017 national finals. Liv Torc writes, ‘Melanie Branton is an unexpected poetry slap. The kind that makes your face tingle and your eyebrows sky-rocket. She is funny, clever, ironic, dry, gripping, needed and you won’t see her coming until she is standing in your face.’ Catch her at the CIC on 1st March.

You go through a lot in your poems. How much are we to assume that the ‘I’ in your work refers to the real Melanie Branton?

I used to tell my A-level English Literature students that the ‘I’ of the poem is never wholly the poet. Even when recounting autobiographical events, the poet will choose to present some things about themselves and exaggerate or edit out others – to an extent they are constructing themselves as a character. Philip Larkin is the obvious example. While most of his poems are autobiographical and inspired by things that really happened to him, people who knew him agree that the real Philip Larkin was nowhere near as grumpy, misanthropic and socially inept as the character ‘Philip Larkin’ who appears in his poetry.

Similarly (with the exception of poems in which the first-person narrator is self-evidently a fictional character) my first-person poems are pretty autobiographical. I imagine readers won’t feel lied to when they find out that I don’t really live in a house made of gingerbread and I have never baked a child in the oven. Actually, even there, I have drawn heavily on my own emotions of feeling demonised and outcast for being an older childless woman.

Often, minor details are changed to avoid having to give a complicated and irrelevant explanation. For example, in ‘The Twilight of the Gods’, I see a stranger on a bus wearing shoes similar to those worn by my late father, and that sparks a memory of his dying days in a care home. That really happened, but it wasn’t on a bus – in the first draft I more truthfully wrote, ‘The other invigilator is wearing my dad’s shoes’, but then realised that would only make sense to the reader if I explained why, where and when I had come to find myself invigilating an exam, none of which would bring anything to the poem. It was much simpler to change it to a bus, which is a context everybody can immediately understand. Similarly, ‘The Unilateral Intimacy of Music’ was based on two real-life experiences of fangirling musicians with whose work I was obsessed and feeling irrationally aggrieved that they weren’t as interested in me as I was in them; but neither was an accidental meeting in a bar, like in the poem.

Surprisingly few things have been exaggerated for effect, on the whole. My love-life really is that crap. I actually do have very intense, slightly creepy stalkerish crushes on people. Several of my ex-schoolmates have assured me that our boarding school was even more horrible than I have made it sound. In ‘The scholarship boarders’ one girl jumps from a window, and I imply that she died (‘I’m sure that her suicide note / was perfectly punctuated’), when in reality the girl survived, albeit with terrible injuries. I feel more guilty about the fact that I have appropriated her experience without permission than the fact that I may not have told the exact truth.

Perhaps the question of ‘truth’ in first-person poems is more controversial in spoken word (the context in which I produce some of my work). There’s often an assumption that everything a poet says onstage is true and when audiences find out that a poet has been telling a fictional narrative they often feel violated and betrayed. I can see this from both angles – I always try to tell the truth in my first-person narratives, because I know that’s what the audience expects and I don’t want to mislead them; but I do sometimes get frustrated with a scene that demands melodramatic misery memoirs, often rewarding the poet in possession of the most heartrending sob-story regardless of the quality of writing and performance. The thirst for harrowing experience as titillation is unhealthy, and encourages people to soup up their experiences – if not to outright lie – and it can lead to horribly formulaic work.

On the other hand, I have spoken word friends who are excellent storytellers and insist on their right to tell fictional first-person narratives, as they believe it should be the quality of the writing and its ability to move the audience that counts, not the truth behind it, and I’d defend them to the death.

So is it about being able to justify your stance?

Even when you’re trying to be a reliable narrator, you can fail. I am currently working on poems about my childhood for my second collection and I am becoming increasingly aware that I have overegged the ‘working-class’ element. Yes, my dad was an unskilled builder’s labourer, but we owned our own home, my mum was a surgical nurse before she married, most of my extended family could more accurately be described as middle-class and my parents certainly felt they were in a different category from most of the working-class people around them. Should I rewrite them and dial down the class angst? Should I write a disclaimer poem to go alongside them, examining my own faulty perception? Or should I just leave them as the subjective narratives they are, rather then worrying about arriving at perfect truth? No matter how honest you try to be, your experiences will always be distorted by your own subjectivity and your perception of yourself is always, to an extent, going to be a fictional character you have constructed.

You often approach your subjects through a detail – a penchant for pasta, attitudes towards butter paper, say – or through the prism of a fairytale.

The focus on detail has come over time. When I started out, I wrote wafty, descriptive poems about emotions or ideological standpoints generally, but they were unsuccessful in that they weren’t saying anything original or specific at all. It’s almost impossible to say anything meaningful in the abstract – you have to home in on detail. And the choice of detail through which you explore a topic is often what makes the poem original to you.

I wish I hadn’t used the prism of a fairytale quite so much – when I wrote the sequence of fairytale poems in the collection, I wasn’t yet aware how hoary a concept the fairytale poem is in modern poetry. It’s possible to take a well-worn concept and do it well, of course, but it’s not somewhere I particularly want to go again.

Ted Hughes was concerned that our universal poetic language is diminishing as we lose touch with the ways of animals, birds and trees.

I love Hughes’s work, but, with respect, he’s wrong. There’s a rich tradition of poetry that takes its inspiration from the natural world, but it is by no means the only tradition (there aren’t many animals, birds or trees in Beowulf or Chaucer), and my background is urban, so I am never going to write nature poems. You can’t ban people who live in towns from writing poetry!

I suppose what Hughes was getting at is that nature is timeless, while manmade things are ephemeral; but nature poetry is never timeless and universal, as human perceptions of nature don’t stand still (we have a totally different understanding of animal psychology now than people did fifty years ago, and a Western poet with a background in veterinary science is going to view animals differently from a poet writing in an animist culture that views animals as gods or spirits).

Also, the poetic forms used to capture nature change over time and place (there’s not much commonality between a haiku, a sonnet, a Martian poem and a limerick, even if they’re all about a cherry tree, say). Many would argue that the very defining feature of poetry is its continual striving to ‘make it new’, so I would question the existence of a universal poetic language that remains unchanged over centuries.

Is it true that performance poetry places more emphasis on ‘currency’, and for that reason its references will date more quickly? How much is that a problem, if so?

‘Performance poetry’ is an umbrella term for a wide variety of styles and genres and it’s as impossible to make generalisations about it as it is about ‘page poetry’. Certainly, there are genres of spoken word that specialise in topical sociopolitical comment, but they will date no more quickly than, say, Alexander Pope or Chaucer’s The Book of the Duchess or many contemporary page poetry projects (e.g. Poems for Jeremy Corbyn). In any case, this is really only a small subsection of spoken word. 

 I suppose ephemerality is built into performance poetry in a way that it isn’t for page poetry, as it is designed to be consumed in the moment, and that shapes it in several respects. I get tired of having to explain to page poets that spoken word poems don’t lack subtlety because the poets can’t write, but because exposition has to be more blunt when your audience has to grasp it on first hearing and doesn’t have the luxury of being able to go over the poem several times, gradually piecing together who is doing what to whom and why. As performance poets are increasingly happy to put their work in print (largely for reasons of providing an extra income stream), I am more worried about spoken word losing its distinctive ephemeral nature than I am about the problems caused by its ephemerality.

I’m jealous of many poets’ schooling – which tends to involve orphanages, kindly nuns, eccentric monks and magic. However, your accounts don’t make me envious in any way whatsoever. How far is one’s childhood key to a writer’s life? 

My childhood does shape the way I think about my writing – both my mother and my school were very demanding, gave very little praise and accepted nothing short of perfection. For that reason, I tend to be very competitive and feel a failure if I’m not getting into the most prestigious journals or getting booked for a slot as high up the bill as I feel I deserve.

My childhood also shapes the way I think about myself – I was a fat, shy, socially inept, clumsy, un-sporty child who was never one of the cool kids or more than a marginal member of any social group. As a member of a madly self-improving, aspirational working-class family who went to private school on a scholarship, I never really felt I fitted in anywhere. I’ve always felt vulgar and unsophisticated amongst middle-class people, but too sheltered and bookish and eccentric and shy to fit in amongst working-class people. That sense of being an outsider has probably carried over into my poetry (it’s also one of the reasons why I love Heaney’s work so much – that sense of being torn between his rural, agricultural, manual past and his urban, literary, intellectual present, between violent nationalism and treacherous appeasement, resonates with me).

I seem to draw heavily on things I learnt at school in my poetry – I frequently use Latin (which I studied to A-level) and grammar terminology as symbolism in my poems. I have also just written a poem about my primary school reading test. The fact that I have worked in education on and off since my 20s has probably added to this, too.

Ultimately, as well, I am just very immature. If there’s a childlike quality to any of my poems, it’s because I have an emotional age of about eight.

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This is the fifth in a series of interviews for Fire River Poets by Matt Bryden. See Matt’s profile here: