‘Van Roberts’ and add a link into Little Raven (www.littleravenpublishing.com).
Van also blogs here.
Enfant terrible by Van Roberts
The man in front of me smiles broadly; he loves his cat, his woman and a cold one every so often. He seems too friendly to be a controversial poet known for Horror, Sleaze and Trash. Who is this Ben John Smith?
In one life, Ben is an industrial sand blaster and painter who describes himself as “pretty much a family man.” In his other life he is a poet and publisher who receives death threats, as well as invitations to threesomes.
The 27-year-old poet has been creating ripples since his arrival in 2010 with his self-published book I f**king love you bithc. As he explains, he wrote poetry all his life “but not in the sense of writing that someone would read or enjoy. It was a place I could say the most ridiculous things I was thinking to no one in particular. Then it evolved into doing the most ridiculous things I could write about for anyone in particular,” he laughs. Ben struggled to find poets that he could relate to, but everything changed when he “found (Charles) Bukowski, then I wasn’t afraid that poetry was only for the soft at heart. That was around 19 or 20.” Bukowski’s influence on Ben can be seen in his precise writing and his balance of humour and tragedy. Ben quickly adds that he “doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as some rip off.”
Bukowski was a breath of fresh air that inspired Ben to write about his garden, his friends, his “woman and sex, mainly sex.” Ben takes the reader to a place where the everyday is both beautiful and banal. “I’m a World Famous Poet” captures the pleasure and melancholy of being recognized. “A girl with the prettiest brown curls you ever saw calls me ‘the ‘poet/And asks to f**k the both of us in an orgy I couldn’t handle anyway/ With the passing red lights a smudge to my/drunken eyes, I say, ‘You hear that, baby? They called me a poet.’” His poetry is humorous, though generally laced with sharp observations “’It’s strange saying Merry Christmas in July’/I respond/’I know, right, any excuse to get drunk.’” Ben talks like he writes – with an Australian turn of phrase: “I curse my missus out for closing the porno page/I was looking through/I say ‘for f**k’s sake, now I won’t know where I was up to!’/As if I was reading ‘War and Peace.’”
He is well known for writing about sex, but his poetry is strangely unerotic. The sex he writes about with himself or in a puddle of red wine, “don’t worry about it/I’ll clean it up later/with a second wipe of a gym sock.” He is painfully honest and bold “I think my ultimate fantasy/would be to dangle/my limp dick across a woman’s face.” His girlfriend of 10 years inspires many of his poems. Ben recently performed a poem about her while she was standing in the front row. How does she feel about his poetry? “I know it hurts her and I know she wishes I was a little more quiet,” Ben says, but “throughout it all she’s been a muse.”
For someone so fearless on the page, he is a nervous mess when he performs. Earlier in the year Ben “battled” local performance poet Koraly Dimitriadis at Polyester Books. Standing on a makeshift stage in front of 40 people, Ben avoided eye contact and shifted from foot to foot. After Koraly’s powerful stage performance where she looks straight at the audience, Ben rushed through his poems and diminished their power – he lost the battle. He admits, “I’m definitely a page poet. I get nervous, I don’t like crowds. I feel ashamed.”
Ben encounters love and hate at readings; some people find his work disgusting and sexist, others like Koraly are “blown away by the honesty and exposition in his poetry.” People have walked out, called him a sleaze or made fun of his moccasins, which he forgot he was wearing. Ben has “gotten threats from feminist groups and crazies sending me letters with washing detergent.” He is nonchalant about it all “it means people are doing something instead of nothing and that’s cool.” He gives a toothy grin “for anyone wanting to hunt me down I’m usually at the Old Broady Pub in Westmeadows.”
Despite the strong reaction he gets from the public and his cult following, Ben is not very attached to his success or even his work. “It’s () such a small, niche group (The Melbourne poetry scene) and that whole celebrity thing is contrived. Even if you’ve been published in a million zines, no one really gives a toss. Read at a million venues, you’re still just an over-emotional narcissist.” Ben has been published in several languages and journals, but he doesn’t see that as an accomplishment “my main wins are the cheap, no-nonsense, honest chapbook I make and send away for free.”
Ben created the website Horror Sleaze and Trash after it became a popular Facebook page to share “gore, porn and horror images.” The site has a large audience especially in the United States. It features poets, writers, videos, photos and a Horror Sleaze Trash Girls section where scantily clad women pose; covered in blood or bringing cupcakes out of the oven. They usually wear Horror Sleaze Trash t-shirts and hats.
The publishing arm of the site has produced two collections of Ben’s poetry Aire a Boire and Horror, Sleaze and Trash. There have also been two collaborations: Double Penetration with Ryan Quinn Flanagan and a cooperation between Ben and American poet Catfish McDaris aptly titled Dancing on Bukowski’s Grave. The brand continues to grow; the website boasts merchandise and a DVD of the Horror Sleaze Trash Girls photo shoots will be released. Ben shrugs his shoulders and laughs, “it’s a s**t smear, nothing special, nothing of importance. I don’t want to get ahead of myself at any time. We have fun but this is nothing serious.“ Updating and editing the website takes up most of Ben’s time, he sighs “I haven’t written a poem in months because this is sucking my time. I want the next poem to be a murderer.”
His latest collection of work Horror Sleaze Trash is divided into three sections of the same name and is “really red raw.” It came from many nights of “my girlfriend hating me for being a creep, putting myself in women’s clothing and playing with my dick.” He is very proud of the collection and the visuals created by German designer Thomas Schostok; the words are placed over the page and make the reader work hard. Every poem is in a different font, with some parts in bold and capitals. Far from being confusing, this technique creates the sensation of reading music and builds tension as if waiting for the chorus. “The transition between text and art makes sense. I wanted to show the correlation between words and also a visual build-up” Ben says. He is currently working on a sequel to his zine Self-satirised anxiety that will be pressed and distributed for free. He self-publishes because Australian publishers “are not listening to me” and he prefers to have control over his work. Ben shrugs as he says this; he’s happy to do his own thing.
Ben doesn’t fit the physical stereotype of a poet – emaciated and suffering. He pats his stomach “don’t let me fool you, it’s a white beer belly. I played strip poker once and a woman said I had a body like Mr Burns from the Simpsons” Ben grins, “believe me I’m suffering.” In other ways he is the stereotype of a poet – fond of a drink, stubbled and unafraid to reveal himself. His poetic voice is fresh, succinct and a little bit sleazy, but to Ben it’s not important “in the bigger scheme of things I’m unimportant, like Tasmania.”