Alison Brackenbury is an English poet. Her publications include Dreams of Power (Carcanet 1981), Breaking Ground (Carcanet 1984), Christmas Roses (Carcanet 1988), 1829 (Carcanet 1995), After Beethoven (Carcanet 2000), Bricks and Ballads (Carcanet 2004), Singing in the Dark (Carcanet 2008), Shadow (HappenStance 2009), and Then (Carcanet 2013).
Alison’s poetry is regulary featured on BBC Radio and her most recent collection Skies was published earlier this year.
Hi Alison. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on the publication of your latest collection Skies. You are often cited as a poet whose writing tends to encompass animals, landscape, and history. Do you think this is a fair description of the concerns and subjects of your new book?
I greatly admire poets who plan books meticulously. I never do that. I write poems. They pile up like sand grains and every few years I sift them through. Only then do I see what colours the sand has fallen into this time!
I would now stress how seasons haunt my work. I used to be shy of admitting this. But the climate changes we already see in so many ways have become urgent in the poems of Skies, as in a poem written, for Radio Four, called ‘January’:
Our heated world already stars
daisies across the hoof-pocked grass.
As I am sixty-three, some of the poems’ histories are my own. The poem ‘Playground’ recalls a village game from half a century ago. It was a catching game, where the catcher sang out: ‘The wolf has gone to Derbyshire’. But the catcher was the wolf! This is not nostalgia:
How even then they lied to you.
Still they sing out, ‘Sheep, sheep, come home.’
I am surprised too how many people are to be found between the covers of Skies. These include writers, such as Edward Thomas and Sylvia Plath. Music, which is so important to me, has also insisted on its place, as in my poem about Amy Winehouse.
One of the poems ‘Strata’ combines these interests and uses geology and archaeology as a conceit to explore local history . Can you tell us a bit more about the poem and what inspired you to write it? And were the three sections written at the same time or did they begin life as separate poems?
Now I am retired, I have more time to write poems on request for BBC radio or for anthologies. ‘Strata’ first appeared in a very interesting anthology called Map: Poems After William Smith’s Geological Map of 1815, edited by Michael McKimm and published by Worple Press last year. William Smith was the first person to realise that fossils – and rocks – were to be found in strata, and to map these.
But Smith was not a trained scientist with a middle-class education. He was a blacksmith’s son who began work near Stow-on-the-Wold. As I have tramped and ridden the limestone hills of Gloucestershire for over thirty years, I was fascinated by his local connections – and by Mary Ann, his mysterious much younger wife, described by a relative as both ‘mad’ and ‘bad’. My Mary Ann thinks that we are mad, even to consider fracking!
The three sections, although much revised, were written in one rush. They took off when I remembered the spring in a limestone hillside which I knew as a child in Lincolnshire. A thrush used to go there to break up its snails on a stone. The thrush kindly re-appeared to keep William Smith company in my poem.
Some of the new poems also concern themselves with food – ‘Honeycomb‘, ‘Peelings‘, ‘Breaking The Fast‘, ‘The Bramley‘ – and seem to throw light on how our relationship with food offers insights into what it means to be human. I’m curious what attracts you to write about it as a subject and do you see the resulting poems as drawing the unfamiliar out of the familiar?
I am very glad that you noticed the food! My next venture will be a pamphlet, which I hope will appear in 2018, provisionally called Aunt Margaret’s Pudding. It is based on the excellent handwritten recipes of my grandmother, a shepherd’s wife when I knew her, but once an Edwardian professional cook…
Almost everyone in my country family either produced food or cooked it (to a very high standard). I think that food – what we eat, how much we eat, how we produce it – touches a pulse in our politics. Considering the food of the past throws light not just into past lives but our own. I wrote ruefully, of my grandmother, in Skies:
She fed her neighbour’s hungry son,
I find tinned beans for a food bank.
The collection also contains micro-poems of a couple of lines which suggest a speaker stricken by sleeplessness and insomnia. I’m curious if these lines were indeed composed in the middle of the night and did the poems arrive complete or require any subsequent redrafting?
I don’t, happily, suffer from insomnia. But I did, very foolishly, stay up for much of the night, tackling various poetry matters, when I was still doing my day job. I do not recommend this! It damaged my otherwise almost perfect health.
In the immoral way of poetry, it also delivered the very short poems you have spotted. They did tend to arrive fully fledged. Whether they were successfully caged often depended on whether I could find a pencil stub on the landing at 3.12 am.
Sleep, however short, is a great washer-away of poetry.
You are a poet who does not shy away from using full rhyme in your poetry. Can you tell us a bit more what it is you like about this poetic device, and do you find that following the rhymes leads you to write lines you may not otherwise have written during the composition process?
Rhymes are memorable. I am old. I forget things. When I rode our last, almost saintly pony, I occasionally ‘wrote’ on horseback. So those lines had to stay in my head until the pony was back in her stable, unsaddled and fed, and I could find the one biro in the car!
I think many listeners still like rhyme. It can be a trap for the writer. There are very few rhymes for some English words. But it also a discipline. I think that, sometimes, slowing down to consider rhyme prevents a slipshod first draft which may resist rescue.
I do feel that my rhymes, however weakly, link into a very strong English tradition, and into British traditional songs, which Edward Thomas loved and called the ‘old songs’. I love them too. But I think we still have room for some new songs!
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
This short poem is about a very good poet, who I knew, in old age.
‘Have some jam – ’
A friend empties a store cupboard
Rich mould bloomed apple jelly.
Dark strawberries had turned tart.
I fear that the Tutti Frutti
was misconceived from the start.
With amber, crimson glugged away
I set one jar apart.
Let brief moon-daisies, blue cranesbill
preserve your August heart.