Liz Berry received an Eric Gregory Award in 2009, an Arvon-Jerwood Mentorship in 2011, and won the Poetry London competition in 2012. Her pamphlet The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls was published by Tall Lighthouse in 2010.
Liz’s debut collection Black Country (Chatto & Windus 2014) was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation, received a Somerset Maugham Award, and won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.
Hi Liz. Thanks for taking the time to chat. Congratulations on Black Country and its awards success. Reading the poems there’s a sense they are often steeped in the language, history, and culture of the West Midlands. Were these concerns present in your poetry writing from the beginning, or is it something that came into focus more as you developed as a poet?
Thank you! It’s lovely to be invited here to chat. I was born and grew up in the Black Country, but it wasn’t until I left that I became interested in writing about it. When I moved away from the Black Country something of my heart was left behind.
The place haunted me, haunted my work: its darkness, its gutted landscape, its folklore and music, its story of industrial wonder and decline, and – most significantly – its dialect. I was dreaming of going home again, whatever that meant, and so the Black Country became an almost mythical place for me, a sort of parallel dream-life. My poems became letters to and from the area, love letters, ghostly letters, letters home.
I wanted to explore the magic within the Black Country’s grit and to celebrate its beautiful, though sadly often much maligned, language as the stuff of poetry. So many people who I love, and have loved, have spoken in Black Country dialect that it seemed important to me that it should be treasured.
My nan died when I was twenty seven and I was heartbroken but also compelled then to celebrate the voices and stories of women like her through my poems. Often when people write to me about Black Country they want to tell me about their wives, moms, first loves, nans who came from the region. That’s a beautiful thing for me, to feel my poems and readings have opened something within people that allows them to share their tenderness or vulnerability with me.
Now things have changed again as I’ve moved back home to the West Midlands, I’ve become a mother there, and so I see the region differently and with different longings.
Another feature of your poetry seems to be an interest in imagining yourself into other bodies and lives, whether that be animals (‘Bird‘, ‘The First Path‘, ‘Owl‘), or characters (‘Trucker’s Mate‘, ‘The Black Delph Bride‘, ‘The Last Lady Ratcatcher‘). I’m curious what the impetus is behind these sort of poems and do you subscribe to the idea that poetry has transformative powers?
I’m endlessly enchanted by the idea of transformation and of being able to slip inside other skins and selves. It’s such a freeing idea – a way to be bold and transgressive whilst remaining secret and hidden. In real life I’m very well-behaved so my poems are the place where the wild things are!
I’m especially drawn to the interplay between the human and the animal, the way that boundary can be pushed through at times, often in sensual moments, or intensely physical moments like sex, when we’re in pain, when we have children, when we feel afraid. I think we feel closer then to our animal selves and it’s exciting what possibilities that releases.
I understand you will be working as a mentor for the Spread The Word project. How did you come to be involved in the project, and just how vital do you think these sort of initiatives are in promoting diverse poetic voices?
I feel very honoured to be a mentor for the Complete Works III project, a national development programme for advanced Black and Asian poets, run by Spread the Word. In previous years the scheme has mentored poets like Warsan Shire, Kayo Chingonyi, Mona Arshi, Sarah Howe, Karen McCarthy Woolf and Malika Booker – what an amazing list!
I’m mentoring a Newcastle-based poet and performer called Degna Stone. She’s a really interesting writer who’s working towards her first collection and it’s a pleasure to be able to support her. I think projects like the Complete Works are so important in fostering and promoting diverse voices in poetry. We live in an incredibly lively, multicultural country, full of exciting voices, and yet we don’t see that fully reflected in the books that are being published. It’s our job as poets, editors and readers to demand and create something better.
I believe you’ve also been writing a new poetry sequence called ‘Marble Mountain’ more recently. Can you tell us a bit more about these poems and do you intend them to form part of your second collection or be a pamphlet in their own right?
I started writing the ‘Marble Mountain’ poems after my son was born, around the time Black Country came out. I had a very difficult pregnancy and felt so utterly transformed by it, and by motherhood, that those experiences and feelings seemed too unbearably raw and intimate to write about or to share publicly.
So I began writing ‘Marble Mountain’ as a way to let myself write again. The poems explore the story of my great great aunt Eliza Showell who was one of many thousands of poor or orphaned children sent as child migrants to live and work in the British colonies between 1860 and 1960.
Eliza was twelve was she was sent from a children’s home in Birmingham to Marble Mountain, a rural lime mining town in Nova Scotia, Canada. She never returned. Several years ago we followed her story from her children’s home records to the tiny coastal cemetery in Malagawatch where she is buried alone.
Eliza’s story moved me so much as it’s about home, family, loss, belonging and also – and this is still such an important question – how we treat the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society.
I’m quite a snaily slow writer and am very tough on my poems so it might be a good few years before I’m ready for a second book. I just like to write from poem to poem and to be excited by what I do.
Are there any dates in the poetry diary you have especially enjoyed or are looking forward to this year?
This year I’ve been a judge for the Forward Prizes. It’s been lovely to be able to help to shine a light on some brilliant poets, poems and presses. Sasha Dugdale, Melissa Lee-Houghton, Denise Riley, Alice Oswald. For a glorious week in April, every day the postman bought a big box of poetry books. There were books everywhere – even my little boy got a bit delirious with the excitement of it!
I also really enjoyed being part of a BBC2 film which follows a train journey from London to Glasgow. There were six poets who covered different stages of the journey – Sabrina Mahfouz, Michael Symmons Roberts, me, Andrew McMillan, Imtiaz Dharker and Sean O’Brien. I covered the stretch from Birmingham to Crewe. The film was broadcast last weekend and is currently available on the BBC iPlayer.
I’m now taking a good few months off readings and events as I’m expecting our second little boy in early Winter. It’s been a lovely, whirlwindy two years where I’ve been travelling and reading a lot so it’ll be nice to hibernate for a while and perhaps work on some poems and enjoy some new collections.
Finally, can you tell us a little about the poem you’ve submitted to Poetry Spotlight?
‘The Horse Bride’ is a very new poem from ‘Marble Mountain’. At fourteen Eliza was living and working on a farm outside Marble Mountain when another child migrant, a teenage boy, was also placed with them. So this is a strange sort of love poem, one of several between them, in which their animal selves become blurred with their growing intimacy.
I read so many moving interviews in which child migrants said their experiences had made them feel in some way like an animal so I wanted to explore that and see if there might be any potential for resistance or tenderness within it.
The Horse Bride
My darling, the horse bride,
kneeling in the stable,
her mane starred with apple blossom,
the wedding-wind gusting violets
and the sweet, gut-butterflying perfume
of horse muck. My darling, kneeling,
teeth clacking as if she is praying.
Her wedding shoes are dainty
silver crescents, her ring a bridle.
She nibbles carrots and hard red apples
for her bride feast. Her pinafore
is a train for redpolls to carry.
I put my cheek to her forelock and oh –
her black suede lips on my palm,
her hay-breath warm
behind teeth monumental as gravestones
in Malagawatch bone-orchard.
What tenderness is this, what lonely love?
Mother, father, brother, husband.
My darling, the horse bride,
shut the stable doors and let her lie
until cock-crow, chaste
in her bridebed of straw and wild grasses,
the parish-lantern keeping watch
like a fretful new mother, the mice singing
their song of sowing and harvest.
parish-lantern / moon