Spoken word poet Toria Garbutt is a magnetic performer. Victoria Bailey saw her perform in Gateshead last year and was so impressed that she just had to interview her

While in the UK for a scheduled visit last December, I bought two tickets to a local poetry event that happened to be on. My best mate picked me up, and on our way there we got a bit lost by an overpass in Gateshead. We made it to our seats just before the readings started, thankfully, ‘cos what a shame it would have been to have missed anything Toria Garbutt had to say.

Toria Garbutt is a poet with a lightness to her presence you feel as soon as she walks on stage. Yet her genuine smile and kinetic soft movements prepare you in no way for what she delivers. Think “float like a butterfly, speak like a bee,” or maybe more, “speak like a boss bitch” (just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it does it?)

Within seconds of Garbutt starting to speak that night, my friend and I were staring at each other with the kind of mirrored wide-eyed, open-mouthed, “Holy Shit/WTF” expressions that require no words. We turned back to the stage and we listened. When Garbutt finished her first poem my friend leant over and whispered, “That’s us.” I nod. It is. At least the experiences she described are very like some of ours. Before Garbutt leaves the stage my friend and I have literally both laughed out loud (like, loud, my mate has no volume control) and cried (openly, there was no stopping it) but most importantly, we are left genuinely smiling too.

The other poets that read that night were great, but Garbutt is the only one I made a beeline for afterwards to buy her book, The Universe and Me, (Wrecking Ball Press, 2018). I read it on the plane on the way back to Canada and her voice rings out so loud and true, I felt like I should look around to make sure those sitting near me can’t hear it too.

Toria Garbutt’s voice, and what she has to say, has stayed with me since in a really powerful way, yet when I have tried describing her work, I have struggled in my attempts to do so. When I knew I would be talking to Garbutt I texted the friend who had been with me at the poetry reading and asked what word she’d use to describe her. She took a while to get back to me, finally responding with: “Raw?”

I really wanted my voice, a voice like my voice, to be heard and so I did a sound recording

My mate’s pause for consideration and the inclusion of a question mark are significant. After having had the pleasure of chatting to Garbutt about her poetry, I was left wondering why I find her work so hard to describe. This is where I’m currently at in that pondering process: perhaps the act of striving to pinpoint a definitive description of something or someone so unique, especially a powerful female poet, is a patriarchal concept and pursuit. Hear me out.

If I’ve struggled for a few months now to be able to define her work and artistic impact and abilities maybe that’s because I shouldn’t be. Maybe Toria Garbutt’s type of work is pushing us into new areas that can’t be summed up, or ought not to be, by typical traditionalist methods – and wouldn’t literature and poetry, especially for women writers, be all the better for it? I dunno, but either way, I think you’re far better off listening to Toria Garbutt’s insights, experiences and observations in her own words for yourself. Below is a summary of our chat that took place in mid-February.

Your voice, written and spoken, is powerful, clear and strong – has it always been that way for you or did you have to work at it?
I made the decision very early on to use my own voice. I felt that there weren’t enough voices in poetry and writing that represented me and where I’m from and I knew I wanted to be able to have that voice. I was always interested in writing that pushed the boundaries. I loved Sylvia Plath’s poetry and how honest she was and I thought, “If she’s wicked then maybe I can be wicked too”. I also read a lot of poetry in my late teens that was very experimental and my voice is an extension of that really.

There’s also a strong sense of rhythm to your work. Has a link with words, voice, rhythm and poetry been a constant presence in your life or is/was there a defining moment that led to you ‘becoming’ or deciding to ‘become’ a poet?
I was in an all female riot grrrl / punk band in the late 90s so I think that has definitely influenced my performance style. I’ve noticed on photos I tend to stand as though I’m holding a guitar, legs apart. When my vocals go up a level, in terms of intensity I think I subconsciously hit a distortion pedal which probably explains my strange leg movements on stage. I think there’s a fast paced punk beat in me sometimes and also, strangely, a 90s dance beat. If you listen closely, some of my rhythms sound exactly like 90s rave tunes, particularly the ones that build and explode into euphoric heights. None of it is deliberate, it’s just the way we become programmed I think. 

I did creative writing at university and there was a poetry course I did that involved having to do spoken word. At the time I thought, “I can’t fucking do this”. I tried everything I could to get out of it, but in the end I did do it and I loved it. I felt 100% connected and I felt I was good at it. There weren’t many things I felt I was good at but I thought I was good at that, that this was what I was supposed to do.

I left uni and for a decade I was in an abusive relationship. Even though I had that memory of the spoken word experience in the back of my mind as something I enjoyed, I wasn’t aware there was even such a thing as a spoken word scene. When I made the decision to leave and start again, I went online and discovered this whole spoken word poetry scene and world I didn’t know existed. In some ways it was a blessing in disguise to be away from this scene for that period of time because I think it enabled me to develop my sense of self.

You released a record, Hot Plastic Moon (Nymphs & Thugs, May 2016), before releasing a written collection of your work, The Universe and Me (Wrecking Ball Press, 2018) – was there a reason or an inspiration behind that?
I really wanted my voice, a voice like my voice, to be heard and so I did a sound recording. It was just pure words and I liked that. But I also found I loved having the book, I loved the validation of it as a writer. Part of me is a rebel that thinks “Fuck it”, then there’s part of me that buzzes about being in The Guardian. As I hadn’t heard my working class, Yorkshire mining town accent anywhere, when the book came I refused to drop it so my poetry is written in my voice too.

I find that with men, the most common thing is they say that I made them cry. Generally speaking, I suppose they should do more of it

Your insights, and the emotions you touch on in your written collection, have much in the way of universal and accessible qualities yet from a feminist point of view, you are a woman, your work focuses on more of a working class, northern experience, and there are what some might perceive as representation of intersectional stigma/challenges present in your work – have these issues played a part in how you have been treated as a poet/artist?
A woman came up to me after a show once and said, “That was great – do you do any other accents?” as if I was putting it on. I think I’ve had to fight hard to be heard and challenge people’s preconceptions, but it hasn’t held me back, I was determined not to let it. It easily could have, I can see that, but it’s in my blood to fight hard and stand up to people. I’ve got this, “You will fucking listen to what I have to say”, that comes with being so determined.

Why do you think that is – why do you think you are so determined?
For many years I felt trapped in a situation I had no way out of and I became a diluted version of myself. After I decided to leave everything became about reclaiming my life and making it what I wanted it to be. I didn’t have anything to lose so I thought I might as well have a go. When I started to perform, it was like I’d come out of nowhere. When I was at Glastonbury, it felt a bit like people were looking at me like, “Who’s she?” But I had just decided to do it, that people had to make way for me and what I had to say, and it worked; thank God really. I think when your “Fuck it” switch gets switched on, you just think, “Let’s have it.” When your personal liberties are taken away, you go into fight or flight, and I was fighting.

Do you find more women approach you/buy books/want to chat after your performances or is gender not really an issue in terms of who seems to be most impacted by your work?
I find that with men, the most common thing is they say that I made them cry. Generally speaking, I suppose they should do more of it. A friend said to me once that they wondered if my work that focused on domestic violence might make men think, “I do that.” Often with women they’ll talk to me about my poetry about postpartum depression. There tends to be a mixed response to the poems about growing up. Overall, the poems and the conversations I have after reading seem to result in the most beautiful open dialogue. People end up telling me about all kinds of thing that have happened to them. I think when you have bared your soul it gives permission to others to bare theirs too.

What issues/experiences are currently inspiring you?
I’m happy. I’ve got a new partner, I’m in love, home’s great. I’m working on a book, I’m really interested in play writing at the moment and working on two scripts for plays. I’m on the road and juggling being on the road with my work and home life – hopefully I’ll be inspired to write about this experience too. I am happy, I’m not depressed, but the writing’s coming slower as if I have nothing to say, but I don’t want to rush it and just churn something out for the sake of it. I have been thinking a lot about recovery and my own recovery, so that will probably come out in my work but really I’m just going with the flow.

Lots of things still make me angry but I want to talk about how we can be more positive, about love, about how we can change things. The reason for this is that I truly believe love conquers all, because it has for me, and that is the message I want to spread. Also, forgiveness; forgiveness of yourself and others, forgiveness of myself and the things that have happened to me.

Are there any poets, particularly any women poets, you’re excited about or recommend we should look out for?
Yeah, definitely, there are some really great poets but in particular I would recommend Salena Godden, Louise Fazackerley and Kirsty Taylor.

What advice might you have for women looking to write poetry or stories, or to speak, perform and share their voice and experience?
Don’t limit yourself, dream big. Just focus on the outcome and believe in yourself 100%. I really believe that if you put that intent and determination out there the universe moves things and people around so you can do it. Be determined, if you have anger let it fuel you, but ultimately fall in love with yourself, believe in yourself and just fucking do it. Sometimes we think that what we have to say, that our lives and experiences, are not enough, but we’re all fascinated by each others’ worlds. Talk about yours. As long as you’re authentic and honest, if you share your shame and your fears, people will appreciate that.

Trust me, you will appreciate Toria Garbutt’s authentic and honest words too. But I’m not going to tell you any more about it, you’ve got to see her and hear her for yourself. You’ll thank the universe you did.

For more information about Toria Garbutt, her live reading events and links to purchase her sound recording Hot Plastic Moon (Nymphs & Thugs, 2016) and debut poetry collection The Universe and Me (Wrecking Ball Press, 2018), visit her website.

Photos of Toria Garbutt by Emma Aylett. Image one shows Garbutt lying on her back on some wooden benches at a launderette. She is wearing a hat. Image two shows Garbutt sitting on top of a washing machine. She is wearing blue jeans and an orange t-shirt. Image three shows Garbutt sitting on the steps up to what appears to be an old, traditional style, richly decorated caravan. She is touching the brim of her hat and is wearing a pale pink ruffly skirt with black top and leggings.