James Bunting’s debut poetry collection Conkers is here. It’s currently sat beside me on my desk and has already surpassed the rest of my reading pile. It is a wonderfully genuine and heartfelt book, perfect for curling up under a blanket as the cold days approach. To give it some context, I spoke to James about his motivation and aspirations for the book.
Hi James! Congratulations on your new collection! How does it feel to have completed it and hold a physical copy in your hand?
Mainly it feels incredibly surreal. I first spoke to Burning Eye Books about doing this collection back in 2011 before we did Rhyming Thunder. It took me that long to be fully happy with what I was trying to turn out. In those five years so much has happened in every aspect of my life that it feels forever ago, which makes actually getting here such a wonderfully strange feeling. But equally, looking back over those five years and everything that went into the book it’s tremendously exciting to be holding something that has been so conceptual for so long. I think it still hasn’t quite sunk in!
Where did the title ‘Conkers’ come from?
It’s named after one of the earlier poems from the book. I’ve got this theory that poems should only ever have short titles. Dylan Thomas is my favourite poet, but I wrote my dissertation on him and I swear half the word count went on his titles alone, which really bugged me. From that point on I decided I would only ever do one-word titles. So I wanted to stay true to that for the collection too. As the poem Conkers is in part about Bristol that was important but also because is the kind of thing you collect. Also, and maybe I’m being too fluffy about this, but I think there’s a terrific nostalgia in the idea of playing conkers, which I like to think someone somewhere will be reminded off because of the book.
What piece was the toughest to write?
Probably Storms. When I first wrote it, it was something completely different to what it is now. It went through so many revisions as I tried to wrestle with the imagery that wouldn’t behave the way I wanted it to. I would write it then re-write it then go away and come back and realise it was something completely different to what I intended. It took maybe two years to finally get it to behave, which is far longer than anything else.
How did find the editing process?
Really eye-opening. Never has the phrase “can’t see the wood through the trees” been quite so poignant! Luckily, Tommie Gillow (my editor) is both a terrific editor but also a friend who I have known for many years. That balance meant we already had a great relationship to work from and when she told me something didn’t work I knew it was coming from a friend as well as an editor. There were plenty of instances where she would point out that what I meant and what I’d written were very removed, but that really helped me to better understand what I was trying to do. It’s changed the way I write, in many ways. For better, I hope!
Do you have any advice for any aspiring poets?
Perform. For me, the most formative things you can do to progress are things you do on a stage. You say your poetry out loud, which is one of the most important things about writing as it forces you to understand the multiple facets of language that you might miss just reading and writing. But more than this, you might accidentally switch words around because it’s more natural and then realise you’ve done some live editing. Or you might forget the words. If you forget the words, it forces you to think about your writing so critically because you question why you got stuck when you did. Is it because there’s a forced line, or the flow is broken, or it doesn’t make sense? It might just be that you had a mind-blank, which is formative too, but it’s interesting to think about. Also, performing means you see and meet and speak to and hear other poets, which will teach you what you like and don’t like about poetry.
Despite living in London, your collection focuses a lot on Bristol, how does the poetry scene in London compare with that of Bristol?
The London poetry scene is enormous compared to Bristol’s, which is brilliant but also harder. There’s so many events and nights and people that it takes as much work to keep performing as it does to keep writing, which is very draining. Equally, London is so much bigger that you can’t just nip out to an event, you have to dedicate a whole night and acknowledge that you won’t be home before midnight. But the flip side of the size and scale is that it draws some of the best poets in the world in to perform. And whatever kind of night you like the most, that exists. There are some wonderful characters at these nights as well and you’ll never tire of seeing new and exciting poets. Bristol does keep it’s side up though and I keep close tabs on what’s going on even though I’ve moved away. It certainly punches above its weight in all things art, poetry most of all.
Finally, what’s next for you?
Weirdly, I’ve already started working on a new collection. I had an idea out of nowhere (as is so often the way) and I can’t stop thinking about it, so I’m writing it. That will probably keep me busy for another five years! But in the more immediate future I’m going to try to get out performing more in Bristol, Birmingham, London, Manchester. Anywhere that will have me! I’ve been so wrapped up in the book that it’s now time to get out and share it!