Liz Berry was born in the Black Country and now lives in London where she works as an infant school teacher. She received an Eric Gregory Award in 2009. Her poetry has appeared in most of the major UK magazines and on Radio 3. Her debut pamphlet, The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls, was published by tall-lighthouse in 2010. She is Emerging Poet in Residence at Kingston University and a 2011/12 Arvon-Jerwood mentee.
What's the first poem you remember writing?
My mom and dad both love poetry and so when I was little we were always reading together and making up our own poems. The first poem I remember writing by myself was about the group of ladies my mom used to gossip with in our cul-de-sac in Dudley. I must have been eight or nine because my lovely teacher at the time, Miss Danks, gave me a special exercise book to write my poems in.
Where and when was your first poem published? What was it? Could you give us a small extract?
My first proper poem to be published was in a little magazine called Fire when I was around fifteen. It was in the voice of a seagull in a painting in a suburban living room, speaking her love to the late-night weatherman. The idea stayed with me for years and eventually became the sonnet ‘The Late Night Weatherman Who Used To Love Me’ which is in my pamphlet. The first line is still the same: “The late night weatherman who used to love me /read sonnets of snowfall and westerly rain.” I had poems published here and there in magazines over the following years but I didn’t start writing seriously until I was twenty-seven and I went to study for an MA at Royal Holloway. Then my first publication was in Mslexia. I had two poems – ‘The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls’ and ‘When I Was A Boy’ - chosen by Carol Ann Duffy in their annual poetry competition. I still feel very affectionate about those poems.
Tell us about 'the patron saint of schoolgirls'.
The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls was my debut pamphlet published by tall-lighthouse in the 2010 as the winner of their pamphlet competition. It’s a collection of 19 poems which were written from Autumn 2007 to Winter 2009.
How long did it take you to write the collection – which poems came first, and which came last?
I wrote the poems in the pamphlet over about two years, the time I was studying for my MA and also working as an infant teacher. The first poem was ‘The Red Shoes’ and the last was ‘Dog’.
Do you find reoccurring themes creeping into your writing? What areas do you particularly enjoy exploring?
I love writing about the Black Country where I grew up and where my family lives. My boyfriend is from the same little town and so that makes the place even more fascinating to me. It’s got an amazing dialect and folklore, an astounding story of industrial wonder and decline and is a region with a lot of heart and rough-and-ready tenderness. Recently I’ve been writing lots of poems using Black Country dialect and have written about it for the Young Poets’ Network and The Poetry School. I also love writing about transformations and metamorphoses: adolescent girls, fairytale-ish narratives, the interplay between the human and the animal, the way in which boundaries dissolve and we’re made creature by the ecstatic or sensual experience. Although I rarely write about my work as a teacher, I find the spirit of early childhood weaves itself through my poems – that spontaneity, rawness and wonder that little children have.
What form does an idea for a poem normally present itself, for you? As a word, a theme, or perhaps a first line?
Poems come to me in lots of different ways. Most often with a feeling but other times a story sparks my imagination or a little idea I hear. Or perhaps I go somewhere and experience something and that starts it. I mostly begin to gather my thoughts by making a spider diagram in my notebook with the idea or image at the centre and then just writing, writing, writing everything that comes. I find that allows me to make surprising connections and access ideas and images that might be hidden deeper. Then I get a blank page and let it find the right form.
What poetry collections have you read recently?
At the moment I’m so inspired by Kathleen Jamie’s The Queen of Sheba. It’s an amazing, alive collection which uses Scots dialect in such an exciting way. Her voice just fizzes. I’ve also been reading the wonderful The Faber Book of Vernacular Verse edited by Tom Paulin. New collections I’ve enjoyed recently are Sasha Dugdale’s Red House, Clare Pollard’s Changeling, Daljit Nagra’s Sultan Tippoo’s Man Eating Tiger Toy Machine and Kate Potts’ Pure Hustle. I also love reading magazines like Poetry London and The Rialto and discovering new poets there. Last year I was enchanted by poems I found by Abigail Parry and Anna Woodford.
You're a teacher. Do you get the chance to read/teach poetry at your school? What do you think about the National Curriculum's approach to poetry?
I’m so lucky because I mostly teach Reception, the first year of school, where poetry is all about speaking and listening. It’s a magical time because the children have no preconceptions about poems yet - about them being difficult or ‘not for them’ - and just take huge pleasure in the sound of words and rhymes and the images they make in your head. Poems, songs and stories are part of our daily routine. I’m also fortunate enough to teach at a very bookish school where reading and writing are valued. Our classes are named after writers and artists and it always cheers me up to look out of the window at playtime and see a line of juniors sitting on the wall reading.
What do you consider to be your biggest writing achievement to date?
Taking my dad to the Eric Gregory Award ceremony in 2009. He loves poetry and instilled that same love in me so it was a special thing for us both.
What are you working on at the moment, and what are your hopes/plans for the future?
This year I’m an Arvon/Jerwood mentee and I’m being mentored by Daljit Nagra. He’s encouraged me to write lots of dialect poems and has been an inspiration and a wonderfully tough editor. In the long term, I’m working on putting together a first full collection but I’m not in any rush. It’s more important for me to work hard on the poems and explore everything I want to, to make my work the best it can possibly be.
My hopes for the future are to continue enjoying writing and to care as much about every new poem as I did about the last; to continue to love reading other people’s poems and to retain that sense of wonder.
The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls