RISING STAR: Ben Maier

The Belfast Book Festival guest on being a multi-genre performer and why Bob Dylan is no poet

Who/what/where/why/when is Ben Maier?

A poet, musician and actor, originally from London and currently living in Belfast.

When did you start writing poetry?

I'd written bits of poems and song lyrics throughout my teens, but started to think more about writing when I attended a workshop run by the poet, Colette Bryce. I would recommend creative writing workshops to anyone. It goes without saying that no one needs a workshop in order to write, but the advice and encouragement I got was valuable. It was a safe place to sound out ideas.

Why relocate to Belfast?

After the workshop I wanted to see if I could focus more on writing for a year or two. I applied for a course at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry on the recommendation of a friend.

Who are your literary influences?

In terms of classics, Dylan Thomas and Laurie Lee. Contemporary poets would have to be Alice Oswald, David Morley and Glyn Maxwell. I find films, plays and visual art just as inspiring as poetry. I've seen some spellbinding theatre in Belfast recently. Smaller companies like Kabosh, Prime Cut and Big Telly always put on innovative, exciting productions. I saw Wes Anderson's new film, Moonrise Kingdom, a few days ago. It's a beautiful piece of work, the originality and attention to detail are breathtaking.

Last year you read alongside Elaine Feinstein and Michael Longley at the Belfast Synagogue as part of the 'Jews Schmooze' line-up. Have ideas of identity and belonging shaped your poetry?

I suppose it's inevitable that someone's background will influence what they write in some way, but my first thought is that I would never want someone to feel excluded from my poems because they haven't shared my experience. The best poems take an individual experience and make it recognisable in some way. There has to be a communication. I'm interested in creating a sense of belonging in a reader or audience member, so that for the duration of a show or poem people feel that they are part of something special.

You're also a musician. Are there any similarities in writing poetry and writing song lyrics?

There are similarities, certainly, in that both poetry and lyrics play with language, and say something that needs to be said in the fewest words possible. However, lyrics are bound up with melody – you can stretch words and compress them to fit with the music, you can say the word 'love' ten times if the tune changes – whereas poetry has to stand alone as pure words. If you see Bob Dylan's lyrics printed as poetry, it doesn't work somehow. But if you hear him singing them, with jangling guitars and a honky-tonk piano, the words come alive. It's a strange alchemy.

Your poetry has been featured online on audio archive site From The Fishouse. Does the oral/performance aspect of poetry shape what you write?

Certainly. I love the way in which a poem, when read out loud, can hover somewhere between speaking and singing. Poetry is a strange beast, it moves between theatre, music, and literature, without ever really falling into any camp. It's a shape-shifter.

Audiences may also have heard you in aural form as an actor with
Wireless Mystery Theatre. Would you ever choose between acting, music and poetry?

Not if I can help it. I think that, whether you're an audience member or a performer, each gives new sensations and new ways of seeing the world. Each has its own peculiar magic.

Your PhD studies are in radio theatre. Tell us about your research.

I'm looking at a particular kind of poem: the radio poem, i.e. a poem written for radio, using words, music and sound effects. It ties up again with my interest in how words, music and other sounds play off each other, how each can interact and complement the other. And radio is such an intimate thing. It's a great forum to play with the relationship between the poet and the audience.

What can Belfast Book Festival audiences expect at your event, An Imaginary Circus?

More than anything else, fun. It's something between a theatrical spectacle, a poetry performance and an acoustic gig. It's the story of a circus troupe formed in the face of adversity, told using a vast array of brightly coloured plastic flowers and an assortment of children's musical instruments.

Are there any other Belfast Book Festival events you want to go to?

The storytelling session with Liz Weir looks fantastic. I'm looking forward to seeing some performance poetry from the Voica Versa collective, and the lecture on hip-hop and youth by Tolu Olorunda. And, of course, Colm Toibin.

What's next for Ben Maier?

I'm mulling over ideas for a poetry show that would incorporate a whole band: singers, drums, guitars, bass, a violin or two maybe. In the nearer future, An Imaginary Circus is packing its trunk and going to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I'm performing in the Fiddler's Elbow at 6.30pm every night from  August 4-19, as part of the PBH Free Fringe. Drop in if you're passing.

Ben Maier will be performing An Imaginary Circus at the Belfast Book Festival (Crescent Arts Centre) on June 14. For the full programme and to buy tickets online go to the Belfast Book Festival website.