The story behind Cut the Black Rabbit by Benjamin Cusden

Ben PhotoCan you tell me something about the story behind Cut the Black Rabbit?
I had a fabulous career in television as an editor – cutting TV programmes together to tight deadlines. I worked hard for twenty years and over time the stress started to take its toll. By the end I was drinking heavily and not sleeping for months on end. Finally my body and mind literally collapsed and after a very prolonged illness and various financial issues I found myself being evicted from my house in Cornwall where I’d taken refuge from London.

This is where Cut the Black RabbitBeforeDawn begins and follows me over two and a half years of homelessness in the Cornish towns and countryside. Sleeping rough in the streets, pitching my tent in hidden fields, occasionally blagging a sofa from virtual strangers. It was a hard time, dangerous and frightening – life threatening on several occasions – although occasionally there were glimpses of hope. There was a brief respite when I managed to get a job and then a flat in a small village called Goonhaven but then my father died unexpectedly. I returned to Surrey, fought my demons there, and started caring for my disabled mother. Cut the Black Rabbit is almost a diary of feelings and circumstance, which all seemed out of my control.

How long did it take to gather the poems and when did you realise a pamphlet format would best showcase the work?
The memories and emotions of my homelessness became buried very deeply inside and although I attempted to write about my experiences for some time, I couldn’t express them in a coherent way. I was reading the poem Fresh Water by David Morley which triggered a childhood memory, and I spent the next three months writing the poems which became the pamphlet. These poems were different from my previous work, substantially more personal and I wanted them to be published together not lost or separated by slowly sending them out individually or hidden in a bigger collection, so the pamphlet format seemed perfect for them. By coincidence the Against the Grain submission window opened while the ink was still wet and I was a huge admirer of their pamphlets already so I took the chance and sent them in.

Can you give an insight into the editing process so other poets know what might happen?
I was extremely nervous about the editing process; these poems were very tightly entwined within me and it had been a painful extraction experience, but the editing was refreshing and allowed me the space needed to stand back from them and truly look at them objectively. Jess Mookherjee really took the poems within her and experienced them. We had some very deep and enlightening discussions about the meaning within them (and life in general). She gave me a lot of space to realise their potential for growth. I’d say to other poets to see the editing process as a means to truly see your poetry through someone else’s eyes, it’s a great gift. The process is one of discussion and encouragement to reach a greater potential within your work and, ultimately, you are the poet, nothing is taken away from you. Discussion, cups of tea – the occasional cake, laughter and deep thought -for me, that was the process.

9781916344716What reaction have people had to your pamphlet?
The reaction has been incredible. Because of COVID-19 all of my readings have been held on Zoom but the questions and discussions there have been fantastic and, hopefully, helped shed a lot more light on the human experience of homelessness. The pamphlet has touched people in many different ways and, as far as I can tell, has definitely had a strong impact on everyone whose read it. So far, touch wood, I haven’t had any negative feedback, all the reviews have been wonderful and from it I have been invited on a tour of the South West to promote it with other poets from Cornwall set for when the lockdown restrictions are lifted, so fingers crossed.

What are you working on now?
It took me a while to get my breath back after Cut the Black Rabbit. I travelled to France for a couple of months visiting, and being inspired by, poet Isabela Montello and artist Cyril Durand (Adieu Maldone), started studying zazen meditation and slowly got back into putting some poems together. I’ve taken a turn and started experimenting a lot more with sounds, word root structures and etymology in general – plus creating / experimenting with different forms and cut up techniques. Some of the new poems will be showcased at the Metamorffosis festival in N. Wales, 21-27 June this year, along with, and thanks to, Rhys Trimble, Lindsey Colbourne (Helledd Wenn) and Anna Powell plus some other great poets involved.

I’ve also been lucky to get positive feedback on the new poems from Mary Jean Chan, Rachael Allen, Sascha Akhtar, Shazea Quraishi, and Nisha Ramayya so I’m feeling particularly positive about them. The energy generated from working with Against the Grain and the publishing of Cut the Black Rabbit has taken my approach to poetry to another level and I can’t thank Jessica, Abegail and Karen enough for their professionalism, friendship and support.

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