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  • Jack Bennett

Toria Garbutt: 'There’s a lot of humour in darkness and that’s how we stay afloat'

Photograph: Emma Aylett

After touring extensively with Dr John Cooper Clarke, publishing her first poetry collection, and recording a spoken word album Hot Plastic Moon, Garbutt now relishes the time to be with her family and work towards her second collection of poetry. 

“The poem he wrote for his wife was surprisingly heart felt. She didn’t know about his secret life as a polite flasher though.” She’s telling me over video call about the time she was messaged over Facebook by a flasher with a proposition for her, from which she persuaded him to write a poem. “People are complex aren’t they!” she declares.

This bizarre and hilarious exchange was serving to illustrate how she sometimes orchestrates certain situations through an awareness of their humourous outcome. “I don’t know if I'm proud to admit that or not but when you can see a good story coming together and can’t help but plan the ending.”

“These past few years I've been touring around all over the place,” she explains, with her two sons joining her. Writing for Garbutt comes more as a “splurge” rather than a strict routine. “I’m a natural swerver” she admits chuckling. 

Sending an “old school demo package” of poetry to Mike Garry – the support for John Cooper Clarke’s tour - after seeing him perform, she developed a close friendship with him. “He unofficially mentored me” she says with humbling gratitude. He introduced me to John, who took us out for dinner in a fancy restaurant. He had an Ox’s tongue and I asked for ketchup.” At which point she fondly recalled the moment she made the connection between her childhood image of Cooper Clarke as a cartoon character in the 1980s series of Sugar Puff adverts. “Then one night I had a shot at supporting him in Leeds, then I joined them full time” she says. “Here's this guy who’s made a career out of it. Talking about ordinary things in a beautiful way.” 

Recently, she has begun working on a series of monologues for a one woman show in collaboration with the actor Carla Henry [Queer as Folk], focusing on real life experiences. “I’m out of my comfort zone. It’s not something I would normally do, but that’s really exciting too. That's how you grow. I think they’re funny. But then a couple of friends have read them and said that’s just heartbreaking. I've probably just got a dark sense of humour. There's a lot of humour in darkness and that’s how we stay afloat. That's the way I've been raised to keep laughing and keep going. All my funny experiences I think are rooted in pain,” she says laughing. “My funniest stories are probably my most embarrassing moments in hindsight.”

Turning to the autobiographical nature of her work, Garbutt says that through monologues “I can say things in the monologue I wouldn’t say on stage. I feel like my style has become more confessional by being able to hide behind somebody else.” Revealing a tenderness, she gives voice to her “most powerful or painful experiences have produced the most writing.” Opening up about her past struggles with post-natal depression, Garbutt, emotionally tells of the difficulties surrounding this and the conversations she’s had with her family. “It's a part of me and it’s the truth” she says with a raw honesty. She declares, “motherhood has probably been one of the most rewarding and painful experiences of my life. I don’t want to be a different person around my children or anyone else, I’m just me. There's no shame in mental health. That's probably been something which has made them understand me more to be honest.”

I feel like my style has become more confessional by being able to hide behind somebody else.

She felt an urgency to voice what she had prevented herself from saying over a number of years, articulating, how “part of me felt that all I do is write the truth I can’t be responsible for other people.” She believes that “opportunities will arise for certain stories to be told. There is a right time for everything. You have to get that balance between speaking the truth and wanting to protect people. The current collection of poetry she is working on she feels “contains a lot more lightness, probably because there’s more lightness in me and tenderness - not sentimental because I don’t like that word - but more joyful and gentle poetry.” Garbutt discloses the connectivity of vulnerability within art, and the healing process she has undertaken as a result, sharing the experiences and feelings of comfortability, positing a sense of relief in the ability to talk about private or shameful experiences. This brings to mind for her moments in which, during breaks of shows, “people would come over in tears and I connected with so many people on tour at these moments. I triggered something in them which needed to come out. That's our job as artists to make people feel.”

The decade of the ‘90s provide a foundational backdrop to large amounts of Garbutt’s poetry. Re-reading her poetry she recently discovered how it has an ingrained 90s dance beat to it, “I wonder if that’s why I’ve written it like that” she jokingly exclaims. “To get your reader to engage you need to engage their senses or feelings at that particular time” she says. “Whether that’s Bisto gravy, to Achtung Baby by U2, or Blur or Oasis, I’m just trying to paint a vivid picture of that time. I was conscious that with the first collection I wanted that younger voice to be heard. With anybody it’s a significant time in your life, formative years. The 1990s were simply brilliant. I'm probably looking back with rose-tinted glasses but in terms of music, fashion and culture, everything felt bright and exciting. Music was a massive escape; I had been able to attach myself to something which felt bigger than Knottingley. Massively freeing. Britpop, festivals and MTV made me feel part of something bigger. They were my whole world. I write about things which have shaped me. I am so ‘90s - as my partner never fails to remind me” she says through laughter. 

Photograph: Emma Aylett

Photograph: Emma Aylett

While regionalism, dialect and distinctive poetic voices underpin Garbutt’s creative work, a decision which she made with clear intentions. “I decided I wanted to sound like me, in particular the younger me. That voice had not been heard. I felt sad for myself that that voice had not been heard and I felt sad that voice didn’t belong in the art or educational world. I felt very conscious of the fact that I wanted my voice to heard, valued and respected, thought of as somebody as equally talented and creative, as well as working class and Northern.” The coupling of individual voices and societal expectations have become a barrier to overcome. 

“In a funny way” she adds, “once I'd made that decision to use my own voice it’s worked to my advantage; I don’t think there’s anyone else doing what I'm doing where I'm from. It has become a part who I am, which feeds into the work I do naturally.”

Regarding the second collection she is currently working on, Garbutt aims to create a body of work which “could hold weight in an educational establishment, rather than an alternative poetry or performative collection.”

With the expansion of the spoken word and performative poetry arena in recent years, she reflects on how when starting out from an isolated position, the scope and magnitude of the field was not completely clear. Garbutt views this as to having been to her advantage. “I wasn't consciously trying to sound like other people. Which is something which can easily happen, people starting to sound the same. I was amazed by the scene which felt like it was everywhere. Which coincided with a second wave of the beat generation almost, the urgency of emerging art and poetry.”

“There's definitely a need for this engagement in poetry in schools due to a difficult in teaching the subject. There's a demand and interest in it. Probably like with the last wave of this poetic explosion, it’s probably born from a time of political and social unrest, like all the best art. It's probably a response to the repressive circumstances we find ourselves in, there’s a need for rebellion and for the truth to be told. A need to listen to a voice which is filtered by the media. A natural need to come together as people and share stories, I think that’s part of our ancestry.”

Critically, she explains that “it's the job of the artist to report upon a period of time from an emotional perspective. The newspapers provide the facts and the poets the emotion. This need is something which will continue to grow accordingly to societal change, which we will ride the change alongside.”

Formatively, she experienced poetry through her “wicked” passionate and enthusiastic high school teacher, to then being introduced to Sylvia Plath at college, who influenced her desire to write autobiographical poetry. “I loved the unapologetic frankness of her poetry. Her bravery in talking about things which were unconventional” she says. “We all have problems and darkness, it’s a relief when people speak out.”

Alongside these influences, Garbutt fondly described her devotion for Jim Morrison as a teenager. From her shrine-like bedroom to him and even venturing on a pilgrimage to his grave in Paris at the age of 15, describing how she lit a candle and sat there like a grieving widow. In particular, she found freedom in his stream of consciousness style. Something which she continues to be influenced by, preferring free-form poetry to the strictures of form. Although she says, “I quite like a Haiku because it’s so small and beautiful, saying something huge in a small way.” 

“Someone pulled me up on the use of the word confessional recently, saying they disliked it, because it implied you’ve done something wrong. Which I thought was interesting, and the reason I feel that word has always sat with me is because I've always felt like I've done something wrong. That's why identify with this confessional poetry tradition.”

Being aware of the absorption of inflections and influences from everything she encounters, Garbutt emphasises how “there's something really powerful about directing it to you, sometimes that you is everybody.” 

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