Discover the face behind the book at Brighton Festival as poets unite

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Poets Henry Normal and online sensation Brian Bilston are offering a special evening for the Brighton Festival when they combine at Theatre Royal Brighton on Wednesday, May 15 at 7.30pm.

If you don’t know it already, it will be a chance to find out what Brian actually looks like. He famously protects his visual anonymity in interview and on social media.

“It's really just in terms of how I started off,” Brian says. “When I joined social media, I joined in a way that people at work could not tell that I was spending all my time writing poetry! I invented a name and I had a picture of an ageing gentleman with a pipe and I became Brian Bilston. I started off like that but once it took off, I quite liked the fact that people didn't really know who I was. And I'm happy about that. I'm naturally rather shy and reticent, and the fact that I'm now doing a series of gigs in front of hundreds of people is a constant bemusement to me. I spent my entire life trying not to be the centre of attention but I have failed!”

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Brian doesn't imagine he will ever come clean and start writing under his own name: “I'm happy to keep it this way.” Besides all the momentum is with Brian Bilston.

Henry Normal & Brian Bilston (contributed pic)Henry Normal & Brian Bilston (contributed pic)
Henry Normal & Brian Bilston (contributed pic)

“I struggle to explain the popularity. None of it was by design. When I started off, I was just doing it purely for myself and having a bit of fun. There were moments when I was happy to realise that it had struck a chord but it's been really surprising how quickly it has taken off. I've been doing this for about ten years and my first book came out eight years ago. But one of the things about social media is that you are often writing about things that are happening that day or that week and there is an immediacy there for people who would not normally seek out poetry. I think the medium really helps in that way. Before if you wanted to read some poetry you would have to go and buy a book in a book shop or go and buy tickets for a poetry reading, but with social media there is just always that immediacy.”

And that's a big part of the attraction, that immediacy alongside the relevance: “I think that a lot of people were put off poetry at school where it doesn't feel particularly relevant or is written in a language that only feels very vaguely recognisable. For a lot of people their first experience of poetry is quite problematic. I had those issues until I got to A level and then I read Philip Larkin and loved it and all of a sudden I saw this other side to poetry. I loved the fact that it could be miserable and bleak and then he would swear. You get good value out of swearing in a classroom, and then I started finding other poets that I loved.

“When I joined Twitter I maybe did a few bad jokes and awful puns and I suppose I just thought, by accident, that I would combine a pun with some poetry. Somebody retweeted it and it just took off from there. There is a distillation in the process of writing poetry that is really useful. It's got to be really tight. You've got to get to the crux and nothing can be superfluous and I think that I just used poetry as a way of honing my writing.”

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