An Interview with Becky Nuttall

Becky Nuttall is a staunch supporter of the arts scene in Torbay. A painter whose work explores themes of religious iconography, relationships and memory, she’s also a poet whose work looks at similar themes. Her first collection, Nick’s Gift, has just been published. Becky lives in Brixham and organises the Stanza Extravaganza poetry nights at the Artizan Gallery in Torquay. She is also a member of various local cultural boards and committees and as such works tirelessly to promote local art.

It is a pleasure to know her and to listen to her poetry on a regular basis. Becky has often involved local poets in some of the events and exhibitions that she has curated at places such as Torquay Library, Torbay Hospital, and the Artizan Gallery.

I was glad that she met me ask her a few questions.

Hi Becky. How did you get in to writing poetry? Has it been something you’ve always done?

My dad was a playwright. He had his first play broadcast on television not long after I was born in the late Fifties. It starred Dame Flora Robson as Edith Cavell and its success enabled him to get an agent and become a professional writer. He worked from home. His studio at that time was downstairs and we could hear him tapping on the typewriter. It was his job and we absorbed it and its rules . I had access to an endless supply of paper. In those days everything was in duplicate and I had the thin paper for the carbon copy. I was my father’s child, I instinctively understood the importance of his work. He was a pioneer of television screenwriting in the Sixties. He was also a film screen writer and novelist. I wrote poetry and drew pictures constantly. I didn’t know any other child that was writing like I did, none of my local friends did. It was all solitary. Dad and some of his friends would read it and encourage me.

You came from a very artistic family. What kind of environment, artistically, did you grow up in?

My parents friends were artists and writers. Dad went to what is now The Royal West Academy in Bristol and came to Brixham after he married my mum, Jenny. They founded Milton Head Pottery in 1950 and sold it in 1959. Their friends were an enormous influence on me. They compounded my belief, that the creative life was hard and a mystery. However it is a vocation. My parents didn’t have much money when we were young children but the house was full of art by dad and the people we knew. My dad had links with Dartington because he was a founder member of the Devon Guild of Craftsmen with Marianne de Trey.

You are also a fantastic painter who uses lots of religious iconography, yet you’re not a religious person. How did this come about?

At nine years old I said I was going to go to art school. My parents took it seriously and that’s what I did when I left school. However I had a very traditional education from seven years old. We were taught the classics. Dickens was the author read out to us in class. We were taught the Greek myths and Roman culture, Shakespeare and Chaucer. It was very dry and closed. No discussion of modern social or world context. I loved it though. The problem was it was a convent. We stood out from other students because of our background, we were Church of England and I was seen as disrespectful for questioning the oddness of a religious life. I was scruffy because I wore my two older sisters’ hand down school uniform. I went on the bus to school from seven years old, I was bullied to and from school including by the bus conductors. I have no idea why my parents thought it was a good idea to send me there, I hated it. The alternative must have been worse. However religious art is the foundation for what follows in art history. I plunder it gleefully. It’s revenge for the emotional abuse I received from some particular nuns and Catholic teachers.

Your poetry is very autobiographical. What are your other influences?

All work is autobiographical and all art is a self-portrait – it’s just the different means we use to cover up or expose it.
As well as writing poetry from about seven years old, I starting reading it too, we were taught poetry in school and how to write it. My dad wrote poetry and my mum’s father wrote poetry in the Second World War. Rupert the Bear stories rhymed. There are obvious influences like Edward Lear, Hilaire Belloc, Christina Rossetti. Then I asked for Thom Gunn and Crow by Ted Hughes, for my 13th birthday. I made a leap, probably influenced by stuff lying around at home and some seriously good television programmes in the Sixties. I had The Poets Manual and Rhyming Dictionary for Christmas ( not a success). I wrote and drew equally, one influencing the other. I loved pop and rock music, for a while lyrics were my main influence. At art school , and for my degree, I studied Modernist art and writing and the work of Dada, the Surrealist artists and writers. I loved Gertrude Stein. I read Huysman’s Against Nature. I absorbed it all. What society saw as a counter culture seemed perfectly acceptable and natural to me. I’d given up children’s books at about eleven and raided my parent’s bookshelves. We weren’t censored.

You are a very stanch supporter of the local artistic scene. How would you describe the state of art and culture in Torbay at the moment?

I support the local art heritage because of my dad and his connection to Torbay. I wanted to honour our own heritage. Although growing up in such creative privilege was influential, it was a period of time that passed and became forgotten. It wasn’t idyllic growing up with an artist, it was messy and dysfunctional and I moved on and beyond. Gradually I came to understand the context of mid twentieth century culture and that my family had lived it. There is a move to recognise Torbay’s place in this and I wanted to help. It happened that the community, in Torbay and the South West, I first saw doing the most for the arts when I ventured out again was, and still is, poets. It was the kindness of poets that encouraged me to support the arts in any way I can. Contemporary art suffers because it is led by money and gate kept with value judgements. Torbay is slowly, I hope, starting to break this cycle by bringing back into the community.

How did it feel to read or perform for the first time?

I first read and performed poetry when I was at junior school, it was mandatory to stand on a stage and sight read. I think the school thought it was character building to make me perform as I had a lisp, a problem with Rs, a gap in my front teeth, naturally scruffy and a mild stammer. They under estimated how much I was a show off, entitled and a contrary pain in the neck so I loved it. I performed my own poetry at art school at student events. I was mentored by the creative writing tutor so the showing off was moderated. The next time I performed was in 2016 after sneaking in the back of poetry performances for a while. It was exhilarating and addictive, bouncing off the talent in the room.

Who are your favourite poets or artists?

I thinks is easier to come to my house and look at my bookshelves…

What is your process for writing a new poem?

Research and more research. I’m driven by the academic and art in equal measure. I treat every poem and every picture as a small thesis.
For instance, the poem ‘Spaceflight’ is essentially about the moon
I find the idea, most of mine are rooted in my past, a memorable occasion, a memorable person.
The influence of recent visits, The Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Spellbound at the Ashmolean, Certaine Wytches at The Devon Guild of Craftsmen; another poem I’d written, Nick’s Gift.
Remembering fleeting friendships in gloomy bus stations. The isolation if you were different
Text my daughter about her thoughts on the themes as she visited Boscastle with me. Connect it subliminally to Robert, who asked me to perform with him.
Research symbols attached to the objects in the poem, cultural and religious influence on people, objects and places drafted in the poem.
Research the language and roots of words.
Print off all the research and collate it.
Type the beginning, print it and hand write on it mind maps, lists of a chronology of events, the message, the character in the poem who carries the message, the sadness, the universal at the core of the poem over it. Compose and type it.
Listen to rock music, David Bowie, research childhood stories on the theme of the moon and witches. Turn it on its head, change the title to change the perspective, music. Compose and type it. Edit and edit, read it out loud, change the punctuation, change the page format for reading.
Proof read it

How would you describe your book, Nick’s Gift?

I grew up as a teenager in the Seventies. Between 14 and 16 years old I absorbed everything I could out of the sight of my family. I was against the patriarchal authority and society that said what was acceptable for teenagers. Mostly it was wonderful, sometimes it was horrible. The stars aligned though and here I am. Nick’s Gift is mostly about those influences, now moderated by the love of good people.

What does the future hold for the poet and artist Becky Nuttall?

After my twenties I still thought my achievements had be validated by a third party, that acceptance by a ‘better’ person was a high achievement, that I had to be shown, repeat, copy. The negative experiences far outweighed anything positive, I didn’t respect the ones I chose to teach me. I had grown up with better artists and tutors whose influence could sustain me and I was more than capable of finding out the rest by osmosis. I had to get on with it, stop procrastinating and thinking there was some formula for success held by a snake-oil salesman, some power/status merry go round; find my own voice.
Now I’m much older I still don’t need validation. If you like it, great. If you don’t, I don’t care and I move on. I develop my craft on my own, like I did when I wrote poetry as a child. I’ll carry on because it’s in my genes. It’s my journey and my heritage I see reflected back and there’s some way to go yet.

You can find out more about a Becky and her work, and order her book Nick’s Gift, here http://www.beckynuttall.com

Author: Robert Garnham

Performance and spoken word artist.

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