Donkey Alley Estate: An Interview With Ben Borek
By Lander Hawes.
3:AM: What were your influences for writing a fiction-length poem? It seems unusual.
BB: I suppose it’s a little unusual. There are more verse-novels (or novels in verse, or whatever you want to call them) than people realise. Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate is a well-known example in the very same form (after Onegin). Then there’s Glyn Maxwell’s Time’s Fool, John Fuller’s The Illusionists, The Emperor’s Babe by Bernardine Evaristo, and a lot more I can’t remember (I have problems with my memory).
But I think what you end up writing is not necessarily due to what you’ve been reading, or what you’ve found influential. I would say I read (in the past), and read (generally), more prose fiction than things written in formal verse, but somehow strict formality seemed to suit me. I think I’m a magpie in the sense that all the things I read whilst I write go some way to informing what and how I write. Maybe it’s horribly transparent that I was reading lots of X whilst writing the fourth stanza, or lots of Y during the sixth…but I’m not saying who because I’m not sure I can remember accurately.
3:AM: One of the sources of energy in the poem comes from the tension between the style and the setting. Writing about a South London tower block in language that is playful, inventive and elegant is quite a feat. Did you intend the poem to be written in this way at the outset?
BB: I think the form inevitably makes it have to be that way. Metre, but also the strict rhymes, mean that, as much as you might like to, you can’t really produce a story written in the vernacular that might be more fitting to the setting. I think these things aren’t necessarily too deliberate, and I tend to write everything very formally anyway, despite myself (did I mention that?). But the central character is a self-consciously ‘cultured’ chap who really couldn’t talk in any other way. I think I like generally the idea of things being ‘inappropriate’ in terms of style vs. situation — it makes things more fun. And, besides, why should one perpetuate the idea of grotty South London in fiction?
3:AM: How long did 152 pages of rhyming poetry take to compose?
BB: That’s hard to say. Looking back, it didn’t really take that many writing hours, but I am either lazy, or work very slowly, or both, so I’d say about a year (in time) or about three months in days I actually spent working.
3:AM: Did you have one memorable experience that inspired Donjong Heights?
BB: Not an experience, as such. But the desk I sat at when I started working on it looked out across South London and the window framed a huge estate that I always knew as Donkey Alley Estate, but is actually called Dawson Heights. Not conscious, but I guess it was just there, suggesting itself…
3:AM: It’s a finely-illustrated piece of work. How involved were you in this side of the production?
BB: Well, I decided I liked the idea of an illustrated book and got searching online. I found the society of illustrators, and looked through lots of people’s portfolios that were linked. I liked Natalie’s work very much, and she shared an online ‘gallery’ with Matt, so, with tight deadlines, it made sense to split the workload, which was fine, because Matt’s work is very good too!
3:AM: What are you working on now? What are your working routines and habits?
BB: I’m working on lots of things, in a stupid and haphazard way. Poems (mostly connected in some way with living in Warsaw), a (prose!) novel, and another novel in verse with a few different narratives, touching the mass influx of Poles to London, among other things. Oh, and I’ve been writing postcard poems to three other poets in three other European cities for a project called Permanent Tourist, which is part of the London Word Festival.
I have no routines. I probably should, but I don’t seem to be able to make myself work when I don’t feel like it. I live in a very small flat and there’s usually a distraction like another human being or a boiling kettle or a barking dog…
3:AM: What fiction and poetry have you read and liked recently?
BB: Luke Kennard’s The Harbour Beyond the Movie is excellent — witty, intelligent. Will Self’s The Book of Dave isn’t so new now, but I read it recently and think he’s getting better and better. I’m a bit out of the loop really when it comes to new things in Britain. Every good Polish student should have read Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, and I think that should be extended across Europe. It is strange and wonderful and unnervingly funny…and was banned by successive regimes (Nazi, Stalinist, Polish Communist) in Poland during the 20th century.
3:AM: How did you start writing? What made you keep going?
BB: I don’t really know how I started. Did I start? No epiphany, I’m afraid. I just do it, and think it may as well be so, because things would be duller without it. Also, people seem to like my work, and I’m really rather fragile, so that fact probably makes me keep going…
3:AM: Are you publishing poetry in Poland?
BB: God no! I speak Polish like a baby, and I don’t really think there’s much outlet for new Anglophone poetry here. But I’ve written quite a lot about being in Warsaw and hopefully it will see the light of day somewhere. I really, quite stupidly, imagined that after living somewhere for 18 months I would just ‘pick up’ the language, through osmosis. And I think that process does happen, but not with Polish so much, because it is just so bloody difficult — nouns, which come in three genders, all changing in seven ways depending on their employment, verbs being different for every person (and sometimes this includes gender), very long words with virtually no vowels…
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Ben Borek is the author of Donjong Heights — a 152 page poem about a South London tower block — published by Egg Box Publishing. He was born in in Camberwell in 1980. He graduated, with distinction, from the University of East Anglia Creative Writing MA in 2004. He currently lives in Warsaw, where he teaches English and is currently working on his second novel.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Lander Hawes has written two unpublished novels and currently has a third dismantled around his flat. There is a wad of short stories that he is also responsible for. In his twenties he lived in London, Brighton, Spain and currently rests his head in Norwich. He has recently abandoned a PGCE, and a period of time working in libraries/bookshops seems imminent.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 26th, 2008.