Bertel Martin is Director of Bristol publishers City Chameleon which supports emerging creative writers from a range of cultural and social perspectives. Bertel started writing over twenty years ago and has hosted residencies, community workshops, as well as undertaking television and radio work.
City Chameleon recently published Seasoned, a book by local poet Edson Burton. The title is a term that referred to a slave on the plantations who knew all the routines.
A: I’m born and bred in Bristol. For me it’s all the networks and connections here – although I do get frustrated with them at times. In creative circles everyone is hooked-up and it’s all very informal, so you’re never sure who knows who!
More art spaces – we’re very short of flexible, affordable places where work can be produced.
I’m trying to create access to print, in particular for the large number of writers in Bristol who are ready for publication but can’t find an outlet. It’s a one-man operation at the moment, but that has advantages. Mainstream publishing produces some gems, but it’s established and writers who haven’t gone through the traditional system miss out on the networking and connections – which isn’t a reflection on their work. I’m more approachable and always willing to discuss where they are and what could help them. Even if what they want to do isn’t compatible, I’ve probably got connections or ideas about what they can do next. I’m here to encourage, support and move people along. Most people don’t know what the first steps are to making a career out of writing.
When I’m being glib I say “Well, I can’t sing, I can’t dance, I’m no good with instruments but I’ve still got this need to express myself.” From a young age I was impressed by and felt the power of words. I know that I’ve got something I want to explore and if I don’t get it out and express it, it builds up into a frustration.
When I started writing I stayed with the Arvon Foundation. They run courses for black writers around the country. I was in Lumb Bank in the house where Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath lived. I hardly knew any other black writers. I realised that there was a community of us – it was inspirational. It made me realise it was something I wanted to do and it got me thinking: “How do I make a living out of this?”.
There’s a cliché that the best poetry contains ambiguity – well I’m not necessarily looking for ambiguity but I am looking for writers who want to explore and ask questions. I’m not so interested in writers who think they have the answers and want to spread the message. Also, I want to work with people who don’t just have one story they want to get out, or one set of poems. I’m more interested in people who want to have a career in writing and performing.
What inspired me from the age of eight were American comics. I still collect them. A lot of new writers were coming through that really moved the genre along. I was just blown away – they used texts like Dante’s Inferno and referenced cutting-edge science and classical paintings. It broadened my reading because I looked at where their references had come from.
Getting City Chameleon off the ground and surviving for the last three years. Also, there is a poem of mine in the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool that I’m proud of – Maya Angelou came to the opening and the brochure had my poem on it. I’m still waiting to see it. Last year during the slavery bicentennial people were going up from Bristol and coming back and saying: “I saw your poem up there Bertel!”.
Let me think, I’ll have to go through the list! My development as a writer and as a publisher has been through a non-academic route and at times I think that if I’d gone through academia I may well have progressed things more quickly.
Do your research! Writers fail because they don’t do their research and get rejected by publishers not because of the quality but because they sent it to the wrong people. To poets I’d say, re-read your work en masse because a good poem may not work in a collection. And get other people to read it – you may find that although you’ve been writing a couple of love poems, a couple about Bristol, a couple about being in Peru, underneath it all some other theme is coming through, about childhood or identity that someone else will pick up.
People who don’t catch on to things as quickly as I do. I get very impatient. I attend meetings where you exchange ideas and sometimes you can almost see a light bulb come on over their heads and they say what you just said 20 minutes ago, like it’s a brand-new thought!
In a weird way, it’s success. It tends to mean a moving-away from people you’ve grown up with, your cultural background and that scares me. Success creates a distance. I come from a Jamaican, migrant background and when I go back there I can see that people are proud of what I’ve achieved but they’re conscious that I have moved away from them and they couldn’t quite grasp who I was any more.
I watched Hell Boy II last night and enjoyed that! I’m also back into reading science fiction – I’m really enjoying Russian fantasy writer Sergei Lukyanenko. He did the trilogy The Night Watch, The Day Watch and The Twilight Watch.
There’s a period in life when it’s good to say yes to everything, to open yourself up to all kinds of experiences. But after a while you cultivate a stronger sense of yourself. You need to get to the point where you can say, “This is where I am, this is what I am, this is where I’m going” and reject those things that won’t benefit you.
I am a Black man.
My soul is in Afrika,
my mind is on the West Indies,
my feet are in England.
I am a Black man.
My spirit is in Afrika,
my heart is in the West Indies,
my body is in England.
I am a Black man.
My ancestors are in Afrika,
my relations in the West Indies,
my family in England.
I am a MAN.
My history is of Afrika,
my past is of the West Indies,
my present is of England,
my future is of the world.
For more information visit citychameleon.co.uk
Interview by Fiona McClymont
First published issue 56 (Spring 2009)
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