Poets: the top shelf spirits of the writing world

While the output of an ordinary writer like myself is as messy as a Tuesday night shopping basket – a bit of copywriting, the odd short story, a work-in-progress novel – the poets I have met write poems, and nothing else. Poets are the top-shelf spirits of the writing world, pure and intoxicating. While ordinary writers paddle between the flags at the beach, a poet free dives the Titanic. They go there. And yet, the word poet just sounds so genteel and lovely.

One of my favourite poetry memories is taking my friend to see the women poets reading in the Tropical Garden at the Perth Writers Festival. New Zealand poet Hera Lyndsey Bird was on, and as she read – perhaps it was Monica – or maybe Speech Time – I watched his expression change as his understanding of women poets was… expanded. Or maybe pulverised.

But I had forgotten, until I went to the British Council’s Literary Seminar, held in Kreuzberg last week, just how much I love poetry. Upon arrival I saw that the next writer on was a poet called Liz Berry, who had written a Forward Prize winning poem called The Republic of Motherhood, which I read on my phone. After picking myself up off the floor, I went upstairs, bought both her books, then found a seat worshipfully close to the stage.

She’s from the Black Country, a region in Northern England named after its coal seam and the thick smoke from its many iron-working forges that hung over it through the nineteenth century, and her writing seeks to preserve and revive the beautiful and particular dialect of her home.

Her books come with a glossary of words: clem gutted (starved or miserable)  wammels (dogs) and wum (home). She also draws on folklore and magic realism in her work, writing, for example, a poem called The Year We Married Birds. As well as reading some poems she made some salient points about writing, which I jotted down.

On being called a ‘confessional’ poet
This idea of work being confessional is a complicated one. Often it’s been used against women who write about bodies or families as way of sweeping it away, saying there’s nothing artistic or creative there. So I do write about those things but it’s not just confessional writing, I put them through a process of chemical transformation to make something new.

On writing about the Black Country
I try to write about where I am from with tenderness – and by that I mean I look on it with love and warmth, but also with an awareness of what’s painful, sore or difficult. I have a fascination for the region and I’m also really interested in unusual language. My work has been warmly received there, I think because I am from there and also because I have stayed.

On writing and motherhood
When I became a mother I was suddenly plunged into this hidden world made up almost entirely of women – from the midwives at the hospital to the nurses at child health clinics and the mothers at playgroups. It was a really strange experience of being in the same city but suddenly in this secret world of new mothers, and I became fascinated by it, and in love with it, the kindness of other women.

I couldn’t find that world in poetry, and I wondered, why is no one writing about it? People told me to read Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath but the trouble with them is they don’t teach you how to survive it. I describe myself as a feminist and I see writing about women’s bodies and women’s experience as a feminist act.

On becoming a poet
My father read my a lot of poetry as a child – Dylan Thomas, Thomas Hardy, Christina Rossetti. And then in my twenties I went to see poetry readings and saw poets like Denise Riley, Kathleen Jamie and Jackie Kay and they were generous and kind and clever and I thought, that could be my world.

The following day, she gave an equally inspiring workshop on using place names in writing, and it was so helpful I will do another blog on it as a writing exercise – to be continued….