Toria Garbutt: knottla by nature

Toria Garbutt is making waves in the poetry scene with her stories of growing up in a former mining community, and of joy, desolation and pride

Hero image

We’re all missing gigs, aren’t we? Not so much the stadium mega-shows, but the intimate, vibrant shows at small venues that are a vital part of our communities.

For the poets, authors and songwriters who tell their stories in these vital spaces, 2020 has been a challenge to say the least. Although conversely, with the Covid-19-imposed pivot to online gigs, it’s never been easier to see poets performing.

Potentially, the audience for such events is limitless, but getting the message out is hard, and for performers, it’s a very odd environment.

As Toria Garbutt puts it: “I’ve done a few now – it took me a while, because I’m a bit of a technophobe. But I know the rules now – you’ve got to see it as an up close and personal thing, which in a way allows the audience to get closer to you.  But it’s odd not to hear people clapping and responding – we thrive off that.

“It’s a bit strange, looking in the comments for feedback, although it’s great to see people enjoying it. I always dress up for it too. Someone said middle-class poets dress down for these gigs, working class poets dress up, and I think that’s right.”

“I don’t want to rush the process. I want to keep living, observing, writing about stuff.” 

Garbutt’s been writing poetry on and off since she was 11, but it was only really aged around 30 she decided to “have a proper go at it”. On the whole madness of 2020, she’s pretty philosophical. When we speak in midsummer, lockdown of varying degrees has been in place for months, scuppering her live dates supporting John Cooper Clarke’s
The Luckiest Guy Alive tour. But without that need to be in a different town every evening came the chance to take a breather, and to take stock.

“It was actually really nice to be still for a while. I’ve spent three years driving all round the country, and I’d not realised how busy I’d been. It was wearing me out. So I’ve been at home with my kids. I really like being a mum. It’s what I’m good at. I definitely needed to slow down. I’ve had more time to think, more time to read, I’m definitely writing more. I’ve managed to get a couple of new commissions.”

One of those projects is a one-woman theatre show, working with ex-Queer as Folk actor Carla Henry, as Garbutt looks to expand her range.

“I feel ready to really have a go at writing for theatre. I’ve dipped a toe in before, but I can give it more focus now. It’s a challenge, working with a whole new set of rules. I’m completely out of my comfort zone and learning to write in a new way.”

Lockdown as a whole has, Garbutt thinks, shown the best of us, in spells at least.

“I think most people are inherently good. At their core they’re looking for connection. People want to unite and come together. It’s been a reminder that we should join together, that we’re not supposed to be doing this alone.”

The arts sector has taken a kicking, even taking into account the £1.5 billion bailout trumpeted by Rishi Sunak in early July, and at the smaller end of the venues market, live performances to full houses won’t be coming back any time soon – although some are testing things with scaled-down events. Garbutt’s dates supporting Clarke are at least being rescheduled for early 2021, while she’s been kept ticking over by a grant from the Society of Authors. Such bodies, along with the Arts Council, have been a saving grace for many.

Talking about her breakthrough in the spoken word, Garbutt says: “I put a bundle together to send to Mike Garry – it felt like sending a demo tape in the 1990s. He introduced me to John, I joined them on tour and it went from there. I was also picked up by a Wakefield collective called A Firm of Poets in 2014. To be paid for performing felt like a big moment.”

Garbutt with John Cooper Clarke. Main photo: Emma Aylett

Why Garry? “The best way to learn how to do something is to find someone who is already doing it and ask them. I was already a fan of Mike, I liked his stream of consciousness rhythms and the way he talked about ordinary things in a way that made them seem beautiful. So I sent him a package covered in stickers and stuffed with angel hair, with a wad of poems in and some Wham bars. We became friends and he opened doors for me. I’m very grateful to him.”

More recent champions include Nymphs & Thugs, which released her record Hot Plastic Moon, and La Violette Societa, the bimonthly Liverpool mixed-bill night featured in Big Issue North in June 2019.

That surge of writing post-30 “was like a form of therapy for me. It came pouring out of me – this is me, and you’re all going to listen.  There’s a joy for me in sharing that, and some of the hugs I get at the book-signing table show these stories resonate – it’s life-affirming for me.

“Poetry felt like a fresh start in life. I felt like an elastic band that had been held back, and propelled into a new life, almost overnight. I hadn’t been aware at all of any poetry scene locally, let alone what artists like Kate Tempest were doing, but maybe the timing was just right. That lack of awareness might have helped, because I developed my own voice, without trying to be like anyone else.”

Garbutt’s style is distinctive all right. Much of her material stems from growing up in and around ex-mining community Knottingley. She has said she got her head down at school because she wanted to escape her northern identity but then was “loyal to where I came from”at university. Head to YouTube and check out Us From Knottla and do be ready for a hefty dollop of dialect.

Her poems cover it all: the fear and excitement of growing up; drink, drugs and devastating loss; betrayal and bereavement; desolation, joy, hope, love and hate; fierce pride. So much of it is immensely powerful and moving. Garry has referred to Garbutt’s as a “joyfully pained mind”, a phrase she loves.

You sense a woman making up for lost time. When Garbutt was younger, she was in a punk band also featuring one of the Cribs, so the urge to perform was always there. You sense too in the poems how years can just pass by when your world’s full of drug use and drifting, from “wrapped up warm for flyagaric walks” in Little Flat in Ferry to the crushing loss of a friend in Nowt Matters Now: “But muckers dunt stay muckers when t’sun’s gone down/ when t’honeymoon is owwer n you’re rattlin for t’brown/ n yo’d rob your mother’s wedding ring/ n flog it up town”.

The poets and performers she feels inspired by now include Salena Godden, Hannah Batley, Bradford’s Kirsty Taylor and Wigan-based Louise Fazackerley, with an additional nod to Violette Societa’s mercurial frontman Roy. “They’re all ‘spice of life’ writers. I can identify with their stories. And that’s what we look for, isn’t it? It validates our experiences.”

The best of Garbutt’s early work is included in her collection The Universe and Me, published in 2018. She has spoken of an abusive relationship but is now based in Mytholmroyd, happily home-schooling her two boys as a single mum. Does the catharsis of getting some of those tales out mean we should expect to see different themes emerge?

She replies: “I’m in a happier place now but I’m a highly sensitive person and, although there’s a lot of pain in there, there’s also a lot of intense love, joy and hope. I’m more settled now but I’m still picking away at those memories. Being in a good place can give you that ability to look back and bring those stories out. People have said to me ‘it feels like my story, and no one’s ever told it’ so I think it’s important to try and tell those stories.”

Garbutt’s optimistic about schools getting on the ball poetry-wise.

“When I was at school poetry wasn’t a big part of it but it has become an in thing now. There’s more of a presence. I do feel there’s a bit of a response to the political climate of the last few years, from an emotional point of view. People are looking for someone to make some sense of it.

“From a school’s viewpoint, I think more than anything technically specific or funding-related, it’s about inspiring – that’s the most important thing. It might not work right away but there’ll be a lightbulb moment and it’s important for working-class kids to have that self-belief, and that passion coming from a teacher is infectious. I’m still in touch with my old English teacher.”

As for specific plans, there’s a second collection to follow The Universe and Me but all in good time. “I don’t want to rush the process. I want to keep living, observing, writing about stuff.”

She’s also teamed up with Taylor and Batley to form Us Women, a collective set up to raise awareness of domestic abuse, with plans in development including workshops and fundraisers.

There’s also that play, something that is allowing Garbutt to move beyond her autobiographical poetry to develop other characters – “to take a step back and say things I can’t from a first person perspective”. There’s plenty more to come from Toria Garbutt.

The Universe and Me is published by Wrecking Ball Press

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Toria Garbutt: knottla by nature

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.