Articles for Interrobang‽ Arts

In 2014, I set out to publish the creative writing of York St John University students. I formed a team and what we created surpassed all expectations of my initial project outline. We made a blog, sourced funding for two issues and made connections with students in other Universities from design and engineering courses who designed a unique format. Interrobang Arts, as it became known, was endorsed by Nicholas Royle in his preface to Best British Short Stories 2014, and the single page ‘origami issues’ encompassed photography, interviews, artwork, poetry and prose from not only students but contributors all over the globe. For more information and pictures see the separate Interrobang page under the ‘portfolio’ header. What follows are interviews and book reviews I conducted whilst Editor for Interrobang.


Binging with a Broken Heart: Billy and the Devil in Review

© Scott Hukins
© Scott Hukins

Jumping into Dean Lilleyman’s Billy and the Devil is like walking through the memoirs of a friend and finding his world is a kaleidoscopic blur of lust, tobacco smoke and overindulgence. Broadly speaking, Billy and the Devil is a collection of darkly humoured chapters weaving together a rich mixture of styles: screenplay, short story, transcript, poetry, and my personal favourite, a chapter structured around Billy’s intrusive talk to a phone-sex chat-line. We follow Billy from his earliest moments, witnessing the separation of his mother and father whilst pram-bound, to his middle age where his story diffuses into one ambiguous, magically cathartic moment. Below the surface entertainment of drunken misadventure lays a depth of emotion that explores addiction and nails the realism to the wall. The trials and psychology that come with alcoholism could be a difficult performance to get right but Lilleyman handles it with honesty and openness.

Billy is an anti-hero of the most extreme kind, pushing the word ‘hero’ to its outer limits by testing a reader’s hopes for his rehabilitation. His language is coarse and ‘fuck’ occasionally becomes the metrical beat of the prose, giving a nod to John Cooper Clark’s ‘Evidently Chicken Town’. As a child, Billy’s words are endearing, he develops idiosyncrasies by coupling words together and he invents entirely new words to describe his own world. The ‘grunch-grunch’ sound of wellington boots soon gives way to adolescent Billy who prefers the ‘fuck-arsed’ nature of life and this time-lapse linkage of innocent boy and nihilistic man speak of an addiction to words as well as alcohol. Sections of infancy, adolescence and adulthood transition skilfully, creating different places and decades with hints of Northern dialect punctuating dialogue to give a distinctly Yorkshire tone: think Fred Pass’s autobiography ‘Weerz me dad’, as opposed to Irvine Welsh’s phonetic overkill in Trainspotting.

A prude may give up after the first bout of booze-fuelled swearing or transgressive sex scene. But you will miss a whole lot of beauty and much more misanthropy.

© Dean Lilleyman

 The youngest parts of Billy’s life revel in deeply layered backdrops of 1970s and 80s Britain, where big sideburns conjure images of Noddy Holder, and music knowledge is cultural currency. Billy has a hyper-critical eye for unauthentic Def Leppard fans and wannabe followers of Status Quo and this scene, set in the landmark Frog and Parrot pub, solidifies Billy and the Devil’s fit with Sheffield culture and alternative culture in general. Time shifts are often signposted by jukeboxes and DJs playing in pubs and clubs and the later chapters use Mad-chester and Britpop soundtracks to shift us seamlessly into the 90s. Lilleyman excites the pop-culture reflexes of music lovers but with a purpose to illustrate the strongest characters’ extroversions, such as Billy’s biological father whose introduction is accompanied by a Rolling Stones tape and the womaniser therein. Yet behind a façade of Jaggeresque machismo hides a genuine sensitivity and the crux of Lilleyman’s literary power.

Explorations of Billy’s inner space come with intense poetic precision at odds with their Northern settings. Ethereal scenes of dream-like abstraction upend violent Northern stereotypes and here comparisons to Dante’s Inferno are justified:

as rook-scraw warning makes you flinch in thin skin, and it’s coming, and you know it, that legless demon pounding over dead-leaf carpet on flat-palmed sprint, arms as legs, rotting stump of cock dragging the dry earth…

Surprisingly, the Devil’s presence is rare outside Billy’s dream-like episodes, appearing in a Punch and Judy puppet show, the bad omen of rooks and ominous motif of breadknives. ‘The Devil within’ is wittier than a horns-and-trident figure and Lilleyman’s evocation of the human condition at times of moral failure and physical weakness suit the plot. Jobs, weddings and family holidays with Billy as a father, are shattered by the madness of his problem and exacerbated by tedium. The Devil in Billy can be read as a consequence of monotony in his working class, North of England lifestyle. But this overly-simple interpretation misses the point. I think Lilleyman’s depiction of evil is a man impervious to outside judgement, and unreceptive to criticism, characteristics that define many Northerners in the book.

To label Billy a representative for the North would offend many. He is beset by dependence and crudity. But our fascination with him is best described by his neighbours, who agree ‘Billy is a pervert… And yet, despite their low opinions of the pervert Billy, neither Scott nor Mandy can admit to their shared disappointment when the perv at number thirteen puts the phone down and pulls his trousers up’. We are those suburban voyeurs, Scott and Mandy, tutting at the spectacle whilst enjoying the exhibition! The book is driven by an ironic mirth that masks a tragedy beneath, a pattern of defamation, deceit and drink which for Billy is a tonic for deep-rooted psychological trauma. You want Billy to recover because people love him, he lives in spite of his flaws no matter what that leads to, be that ugliness, infidelity, or a terminal case of self-destruction.

With this in mind typical descriptions come with provisos in the case of Billy and the Devil: Crafted? Yes. Lurid? Yes. Humoured? Darkly so. Commercial? To be confirmed. Unsettling? May be too unsettling for some.


Put it this way, a great novel doesn’t end after you have read the last page. It reaches out after publication and plants its own mythology in the world. This is the highest achievement of Lilleyman’s debut. I recommend: read this book, familiarise yourself with the madness, cherish the wit. Then head over to Lilleyman’s blog to find the spin-off series. Billy lives on, somehow, somewhere.

Buy Billy and the Devil on Amazon.

Find Dean at his Online Home.

Original article here.

Fionn Coughlan-Wills


Interrogative with Ross Ashton and Karen Monid

The Emergence of Son et Lumière

Ross Ashton and Karen Monid have worked in Durham, York, Clifford’s Tower and have illuminated parliament for London Olympics 2012 and Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. We had a quick talk to them about re-engaging with our built environments.

: How does an artist begin in this art form?

Ross: I started off twenty-five years ago working in France producing Son et Lumière events with a Six Kilowatt Magic Lantern. The whole concept is very French to take a building, to light it and produce a story telling its history. My original background was photography.

Karen: As a kid I always felt I would do something with music. At eleven I was inside and out of a tape recorder. By fifteen I was editing the old-fashioned way with reel-to-reel. I was heading for theatre but I wanted to explore and be creatively in charge. I began in stage management.

: What is at the heart of Son et Lumière?

Ross: Our work is about space and place, about the city and its place in the hearts and minds of the people who inhabit it and live there now. We want to reconnect people with their built environment because in any city that the people walk through every day they begin to filter out everything that surrounds them. It could be the most beautiful city in the world but people level it out in their day-to-day activity.

Karen: History is something we are very interested in. To work with this as subject matter is fascinating to us so I hope my fascination rubs off when audiences view our show. We want them to find something they have never seen before or have forgotten.

: What are the challenges of using so many mediums at once?

Karen: It is a precise form Son et Lumière: it is site-specific, collaborative, commission-based, constraining and liberating all at the same time.

Ross: Some artists can do that, others can’t – and we do.

The citizens of York will be most familiar with Ross and Karen’s work ‘Triquetra’ that projected onto Clifford’s Tower in November 2013. ‘Triquetra’ told the rare tale of three Danish Kings who greatly influenced the City of York in its earliest stages of settlement. Watch ‘Triquetra’ here.

Original article here.

Fionn Coughlan-Wills


Interrogatives with JT Welsch

Here he is, the man himself, a travelling troubadour following a tradition of St. Louis men settling in the cultural miasma of Great Britain. With three chapbooks of poetry published and another intriguing project on the way, Interrobang‽ catches up with JT Welsch to talk shop.jt_welsch-photo

: When did you begin writing?

JT: I don’t remember. But I played music early on for a very long time. I would write songs and poems, and not be able to tell the difference. Like most people, there came a time with relationships and teen angst when it got serious, so fourteen or fifteen? Actually that’s a lie! I remember specifically, the first serious poem I wrote, I was thirteen when my dog died, my dog, Maggie, my Golden Retriever. For whatever reason the only way I could respond to that was a serious poem. Which I am sure is really embarrassing now. That is a specific point in time.

‽: Is that totally dissimilar to what you write about now?

JT: I would like to think it is more mature subjects but really I guess it is the same things: the big moments in your life.

‽: Why express this through poetry?

JT: I always sang, played piano and guitar but there was always a performance to do or a recording studio to go to. That required something beyond the writing which is the same for drama. I’ve had screen and stage plays produced which is really exciting to see but it’s all away from you. If that makes sense? Really I am trying to find a way of saying [with poetry] ‘You can be a control freak’. Poetry was always really tempting because it always started and ended with me. The performance was completely contained within the page. I like to perform poetry but in a way that supplements it. It is not necessary to the writing.

‽: Do you ever write a poem with a melody in your head or an idea of musicality behind the composition?

JT: I would say it is more often the opposite. I can’t listen to music while I write because I end up writing to the melody, or I’ll rhyme with the words in the songs. I have to keep them separate. I have taken other people’s poems and written music to them and have had my poems set to music by other composers. That always felt like a translation process.

‽: Do you consider yourself first and foremost a poet. If not, can you define yourself?

JT: It’s one of those awful things that you hate telling people. I was at the chiropractor the other day, a new one, and he asked ‘what did I do?’, and I had to say I’m a poet. It never sounds serious.

‽: Similar to ‘I’m a comedian’ followed by ‘tell me a joke’?

JT: People expect you to know what your favourite book is and what you write about. Things that you should be able to answer! I realise that I haven’t answered your question. I like to use whatever the project needs. Most often its poetry but within that I think poetry is a broad enough category with as many possibilities. It feels as though each project is a totally different thing. ‘Writer’ has so much baggage.

‽: A reviewer of Orchids described your style as ‘micro precision in macro uncertainty’, which is an attractive phrase. Does it ring true to you/ can you define your style?

JT: I like that phrase too. When people say good things about your work, it’s assumed that they know exactly what they’re talking about. They must be a great critic if they see your genius (laughs). Micro and macro is similar to the old thing of finding both the universal and the particular. It’s like any personal experience that has happened to everybody else. It’s to let go and then focus on the particular details that make it an experience that is relatable but not in an absolute sense. They picture their dog, not mine and fill in their own details. The word ‘uncertainty’ – it seems they are using it in a positive way. When you write a lot, ‘uncertainty’ is often the negative. Coming across as open ended means that people can fill in the gaps with their own stories.

‽: How do you construct meaning with ‘gaps’?

JT: I enjoy dramatic monologues like Robert Browning, the classics. But I’m also influenced by folk songs and pop songs. It is always that ‘I’ singing to the ‘you’, whether it’s really the singer or not. That kind of triangulation when a reader is listening while also standing in the position of that ‘you’. As was said, it is like hearing only half a conversation. Except you are not just hearing it, you are stepping into it and it is letting you stand in that role by coming out. It plays out like a game. A pet peeve of mine with poetry is when people do the ‘I and you’ thing but then the ‘I’ tells ‘you’ things that they will already know. For example, ‘we were at the beach’ then it seems like a fake conversation. Why not let the reader take the place of that uncertainty.

‽: No exposition in poetry at all?

JT: In anything. I like the suggestive. It should be open for the reader to fill in their own material.

‽: Given your transatlantic experience, how does expatriate life inspire you?

JT: It definitely does, or I want it to. It is an identity that I don’t mind having. May be because of the tradition, T.S Eliot coming over from St. Louis where I come from and Ezra Pound, all of that generation. That is the narcissistic way of thinking about it. I like the feeling of being a foreigner, of being out of your element. That does not necessarily have to mean going to a foreign country. Being self-conscious about your language. I have been here ten years now, but I am aware of my accent. I am aware I have different words for the same things. Those kind of slippages are nice, they are productive in writing because you are aware of small things being culturally determined.

‽: You parallel the use of high modernist ‘classical languages’ with contemporary references in work like ‘He do the Star Wars in different voices’, do you find that crosses more barriers than it puts up?

JT: I am mindful of it and wary of it. If I let myself use it I would run away with it. My life as an academic: my research is on their work. It is tempting to use that approach. I would never want to isolate a reader with ‘inside jokes’. A ‘nudge, nudge’ to the people who know what ‘this’ means. Keeping people out that way. At the same time it acknowledges that all language comes from somewhere. That may be Star Wars or T.S Eliot, even for him it is from somewhere else. Through the layers of people and history you are still just a filter for language.

‽: Having said that, would you rather be Sherlock Holmes or a late Cary Grant?

JT: Within the scope of that poem, I wouldn’t want to be Cary Grant. In either case there is an element of playing with masks and disguises which I enjoy writing those kinds of poems. I like the idea that you can be yourself and someone else. This doubling that happens, but at the same time it is a sad Cary Grant in that poem, of having to keep a certain part of life secret and the tragic effects of that. That isn’t an answer to either. So, Sherlock Holmes is my definitive answer! So you could play around with characters.

‽: James Dean or Sal Mineo?

JT: It’s the same problem with them. They were both tragic and had to keep a part of themselves under wraps. It’s talking about sexual identities in different ways. It is a more general point, that everyone has a private life and a public life. Everybody has their twitter and Facebook persona, and that is different again to how they talk to their parents. Yeah, it is back to the idea of the dramatic monologue and playing a role which can be freeing.

‽: What draws you toward impossible hypothetical situations as subject matter?

JT: I think you can have a conversation with James Dean. I doubt I use impossible situations because when you are playing with other peoples’ words (like the Screen Test poems) you use specific quotations from things. In a way, that is the material person; you are taking some part of that person and using them. You are speaking through them with their words. There is something seemingly impossible when merging two people. That kind of impossibility is very cool. But it is something that can be done with language that can’t be done in real life. In the same way, if you were mistaken for someone else you could get away with disguises but that is a con. Whereas in this poem it is actually happening.

‽: How did you conceive the concept for Waterloo?

JT: To put myself in the position of the student, I was doing my PhD and trying to write poems for a book of poetry and I had some devastating feedback. It wasn’t just negative it was derailing for all the things I was working on at the time. I don’t know whether students have had this with a mentor when you feel ‘my only options are to write what I know they would like me write’ or rebel and do the complete opposite. Both of those feel as though you are conforming. So that is the long answer. They are different to any other poems I had written before or since. They were written quickly in a specific period of time as a coping mechanism. Later I came back afresh. I have since done it many times, conceived a project and returned to it later. I sat in my writing shed in Manchester and bashed them out one after the other on my typewriter, these poems in a specific form with ten lines. Somehow that made it possible to keep writing when part of my soul had been crushed by a response to my other work.

‽: Was there not a hint of smugness when it went to print?

JT: It was years later that I had gotten this particular publisher interested. I enjoy pamphlets that are self-contained, more like a concept album than a compilation of hits and filler. To have this thing that you sit down and read in half an hour that tells you a little story. It is best when you can click with a publisher who is as excited about the project as you are. So yeah, it was good to publish.

‽: Given Waterloo’s autobiographical nature, are the accompanying images from a personal collection?

JT: It was the digital equivalent of a microfilm library. Some of it was stuff of my own, like the photo of my grandparents. Other things are from relatives I contacted. Though I felt very anxious using their images, the same as using other people’s voices. I had to be careful and cover peoples’ faces and redact things because it felt too personal. The collages were the first time I had ever put together images and poetry. I am working on a book right now with an illustrator where we are collaborating on a fully integrated text/ image work. The images on page with text in Waterloo are relevant to the work but I would avoid saying that they illustrate it. I don’t what the visuals to tell the reader that ‘this’ is what these people looked like and so on.

‽: Can we look forward to a future collection?

JT: The one with the illustrator I’m excited about in a childish way, because it is all about dinosaurs. A couple of those poems will be in journals coming out soon. I’m really into my projects that involve intense research first. That one I wrote the text months ago and is now with the illustrator. What I am working on at the moment is about a Norwegian painter from the late 19th century. I really like the work so I am writing poetry to go with the paintings. There is a tendency in modern poetry to treat what people call ‘the full collection’ as the be all and end all. Whereas, I prefer sequences and specific projects as opposed to: ‘Here is a Bunch of Stuff That’s Been in a Bunch of Magazines Over the Years’. People use a theme a lot of the time, for me it is the only way of getting work done.

We recommend viewing JT Welsch’s readings.

Original article here.

Fionn Coughlan-Wills


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