holding dialect up to the light: Romalyn Ante interviews Liz Berry
In late April, I boarded a Wolverhampton to Birmingham train. I normally drive, but that day I thought I should save my mental and physical energy to meet one of my biggest poetry inspirations: Liz Berry. I have admired her since I read Black Country (Chatto & Windus) in early 2015. Her work was introduced to a local writing group of which I was a member. I was really impressed by this poet from the Midlands who shook the UK poetry scene, winning the Forward Prize for Best First Collection in 2014, as well as the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award and Somerset Maugham Award.
What really amazes me about Liz’s work is her ability to create a landscape full of music, warmth and heart from the stereotypical slate-dull colours of the Midlands, and even though I did not grow up in the Midlands — a place that is completely different from my hometown in the Philippines — I have come to love and appreciate the landscape more through Liz’s words.
I first met Liz in early 2018, at the Verve Poetry Festival. This was also the year her pamphlet, The Republic of Motherhood (Chatto &Windus), came out. I feel that Liz is a poet who is very approachable and down to earth and, since our first meeting, my respect for her continues to grow. For the interview, we agreed to meet at a Vietnamese restaurant in Birmingham. After all, Vietnamese summer rolls and pots of green tea can make any ‘poetic’ discussion more exciting… Listening to her journey and imbibing her words of wisdom has been an invaluable gift which I am very excited to share with you.
Romalyn: When I was working in a Dudley hospital as a renal dialysis nurse, I used to drive to work from Wolverhampton, and I remember one of my patients telling me that the easiest way to Dudley was through a village called Sedgley. And so that was the route I went through. I know you grew up in Sedgley. To what extent did you think Sedgley, or the wider West Midlands, has impacted your poetry?
Liz: The West Midlands, specifically the Black Country, has been really important to my poems. It’s a fascinating, beautiful, sometimes ugly place and it has so much heart. The people are down to earth, funny, proud and they have an amazing rich dialect that hadn’t been used in lyric poetry before. So when I started writing, I started looking at the place where I was from, the place where my family was from, where I’d grown up, and I wanted to see if I could capture some of its life, its spirit and warmth in my poems. I wanted to see if I could write about it in a really tender way. And when I say tender, I’m thinking of all senses of the word tender — being warm and loving, but also aware of what’s difficult and complicated, sore or painful about a place.
Romalyn: So, it’s not only about having a sense of place, but a sense of your own awareness of that place, and how you relate to it.
Liz: Yes, and when you were speaking just then I was thinking of the word ‘ache’ — you know, an ‘ache’ for a place? Not just a yearning or longing, although there’s a lot of that in my feelings and in the poems, but an aliveness to what’s difficult and complicated. I’m interested by ideas of ‘home’ and ‘away’, what makes home and who makes home.
Romalyn: When did you start writing poetry?
Liz: I was lucky because I grew up in a house where there were lots of poems. My mum and dad both loved poetry. They came from very ordinary working-class backgrounds, but they came of age in the 1960s when there was lots of crossover between poetry and music, and so that became part of our world. My parents used to read to us all the time. My mum worked in the libraries in Wolverhampton, so I was always, always in the library. I read constantly and loved being read to. So, from when I was really tiny, I started learning poems and then started to write them.
Romalyn: How old were you back then?
Liz: I was little, maybe seven, eight, that’s probably when I started to write poems.
Liz: I think there’s always been a poem with me. All my life I’ve been thinking about them, or enjoying other people’s poems, or writing them in secret. I wrote quietly for a long time… a secret poet... and it wasn’t until I was in my twenties and I was working as a primary school teacher that I began to take it seriously. I did an adult education evening class in a local college called Poetry for Beginners. And I just fell in love with it again. I used to go on a Tuesday night after I’d finished school and we read amazing poems and had a go at writing them, and probably my poems were terrible then, but I just felt really alive. I was excited when I was writing. And it was a complete change from my day job which was teaching. I used to teach Reception and Year One, five and six-year olds, and that was a lovely, mad, chaotic world, but poetry was lovely, mad, and chaotic in a different way…
Romalyn: Yes, so again, it’s that sense of… poetry is different from my normal life, but it gives me a sense of aliveness too?
Liz: How did poetry feel different from nursing?
Romalyn: So different! Both of them can be really rich, and from both nursing and poetry you’ll get to learn about life. Both are ‘stressful’, but they’re different because with my nursing work the pain is ‘real’. You meet people, you lose them. And it is hard for me because I left my country, the Philippines, so I lost my country, and everyone in it. And then you meet someone, you meet a patient whom you get to know, who gets to know the country that you left, but then you lose that patient too, somehow, so the pain is there, and you cannot even reflect on the feelings properly because they come and they go, they come and they go… Whereas in poetry, it’s a different field, a place in which you can explore all your experiences but you know it is a safe place, you know that in poetry, you cannot ‘lose’ anyone, or cry about the country that you lost… Well I guess, you can, but you always feel better because then it’s down on the paper.
Liz: Yes, it’s a way to let that out. When I’m writing poems or teaching other poets, I always tell them: allow yourself to be free in your poems and to play and go wild because the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll write a bad poem, and in the grand scheme of life, that’s not such a terrible thing…
Romalyn: (laughs) That’s nothing.
Liz: No, there’s no real pain in writing a bad poem, you can always write another.
Romalyn: Yes, yes, and you don’t even need to say the ‘actual truth’ in poetry!
Liz: It’s a safe way…
Romalyn: It’s a safe way of exploring life and ‘feeling’ life.
Liz: I found that when I was writing The Republic of Motherhood. I found the poems a safe way to explore those really difficult, painful, taboo feelings. That I could let them out safely within that little holding place of a poem.
Romalyn: In both The Republic of Motherhood and Black Country it feels to me that there’s this theme of transformation. In Black Country you’ve transformed the grey and industrial colours of the West Midlands into something exciting and wild, all those childhood memories, familial love. In The Republic of Motherhood, there’s also this sense of transformation, a journey that takes the reader to the queendom of motherhood and the transformation — through all those vulnerabilities and crazy experiences — into a mother. So, my question really is, how do you explore a theme? When you have one theme, how do you explore and expand it?
Liz: Are you thinking about the theme of transformation?
Liz: I am eternally fascinated by transformations. I think as people we’re all really interested in transformations. I was thinking about it the other day, we love makeovers and before and after photos, fairytales, Drag Race... We love anything where people can become something completely different. I think it’s because it can be a very liberating idea, this idea that your life, your world, your previous experience doesn’t have to be your boundary. That’s not the limit of you. Through our imaginations, through our poems, or through these transformative experiences, we can access the wild, thrilling, strange, powerful places or parts of ourselves.
Romalyn: So in your writing how do you enter into the process of accessing those places? Do you follow a certain process… or do you just…
Liz: … get on with it?
Romalyn: (laughs) Yes! Just write a draft, then edit it!
Liz: I’m really messy. So normally I think of an idea or thought and then I write it down in a big, mad, free-writing, sort of spider-diagram. And I just let my brain go… So, like, suushh-suushh, write, write, write, write, write, (Liz gesticulates writing). I don’t even read it back for ages and then, eventually, I go through it and I pull out the treasure and then I start to put it into a poem form and see what happens, and then I work on it again, and again, and again.
Romalyn: And again…
Liz: And again! (laughs) And then, eventually… Well I never really know when I’m finished. I always feel that somebody else has got to read it and say That’s it, you can stop now… (laughs)
Romalyn: Oh, wow.
Liz: I used to think I’d one day get to the point when I’d just know, when I’d be such an experienced poet that I’d be able to think (winks and tongue-clicks) done!
Romalyn: That’s it!
Liz: But no, I’m still messy and insecure and I send them to my editor and to poets I trust, because I long for someone to say Yes, that’s fine, well done, that’s finished now.
Romalyn: But you know what, Liz, that’s probably better than thinking I know this poem is finished now, that’s it. When we send our poems to other people for advice, I think that says a lot about us as well, as humans, we are also work-in-progress like our craft, and sometimes it’s nice that someone can say Your work is good enough, that’s alright now, you can stop now.
Liz: Yes, it’s interesting because I taught a class recently, and we looked at drafting, and we were looking at three different drafts of a poem that I’d written. We had the first notes, a middle draft, and the final draft, and one lady said to me You know I probably would’ve stopped on the middle draft, I would’ve thought ‘that’s fine’ and I probably wouldn’t have kept on going. She asked, How do you know when to keep on pushing? And I said I don’t.
Liz: It’s what you talked about earlier, the advice Pascale Petit had given you, how to begin to know the difference between a good poem, a well-crafted poem, and a special poem. I think it’s about that pushing. The poem ‘The Republic of Motherhood’ was written quite quickly, I wrote it over a couple of weeks —
Romalyn: Really — wow! How to be you?!
Liz: (laughs) No, I normally take like seven anguished months, taking out a word, changing the shape! But that poem came in such a fury. Yet the ending, that came very late in the making of the poem, the whole wide fucking queendom bit. That didn’t arrive until one of the last drafts. So, I think that’s why you’ve always got to push your poem and push yourself, because otherwise you might miss the magic that the poem needs, you might not know what it really needs, until you push it and push it and push it.
Romalyn: Yes, and poke that poem! (laughs)
Liz: Yes, don’t relax! (laughs)
Romalyn: Wow, this is so interesting, and since we’re in this ‘advising’ mode now…
Liz: (laughs) Go on...
Romalyn: I know that you also came through the Jerwood/Arvon mentoring scheme. I learned a lot from Pascale, and I am sure you also learned a lot from your mentor Daljit Nagra. If there’s one really valuable thing you got from that mentorship, that you still use now, what would it be?
Liz: Probably one of the most important things was that you’ve just got to do it, get on with it. It’s no good just thinking about it, or talking about it, saying I’d like to do this and or maybe I’d like to try that. Just do it. Because what’s going happen if you try and it doesn’t work? Nothing terrible, you’ll just try something different. So, I think it’s that restlessness, that being restless, always pushing yourself, always working on your poems until they’re shining. If you think they’re okay, push them until they’re really good.
Romalyn: Yes. Just do it!
Liz: Just get on and do it!
Romalyn: That is so true. But Liz, how do you do it?
Romalyn: (laughs) But seriously. How do you do it? You judge competitions too. So, for you, what separates a good poem from a special or winning poem?
Liz: I always use the word ‘electricity’, you feel it, you find it in special poems. ‘Special’ poems, that’s what Pascale said to you, isn’t it?
Liz: ‘Special poems’ have something electric about them. So, when you read the poem, you feel it in your body. Perhaps you feel thrilled by it or awakened by it, changed by it, or deeply moved by it, or furious about it. It’s something that knocks you over. It’s really hard to describe the feeling. I don’t think I could ever give a list. I could say things that make good poems, things that make really bad poems or boring poems, but there is something about the thrill of that ‘special poem’, for me.
Romalyn: Yes, and it comes with a feeling, with bodily sensations.
Liz: Yes, for me it’s a bodily experience as well as an emotional and intellectual one.
Romalyn: It reminds me of the CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) treatment that I’m providing, as a nurse practitioner. The concept of CBT is that there is a thought that gives you a certain feeling, and that feeling influences you to behave in a certain way. So, I think when we read a poem and it makes us ‘feel’ something, then that is our body telling us that, actually, we are already in the process of ‘thinking’, subconsciously or awarely. Because feelings won’t just arise, they come from our subconscious thoughts or from thoughts we are already aware of.
Liz: I think this idea of ‘feeling’ poetry seems to resonate with us both. I wonder if it’s also to do with the worlds we grew up in and worked in before we started making poems?
Romalyn: Yes. Sometimes I think if I’d learnt the technical stuff first, I wouldn’t be able to attack a poem... ‘Attack’ a poem? Is that the right word?
Romalyn: ‘Punch’ it! (laughs) What’s the right word?
Romalyn: Yes, to navigate a poem! But nowadays, I am thankful too, that I know more about poetry, the cerebral part of poetry, the technical part. I am learning how to give my poems a ‘mind’, like how I learned the fundamentals of giving a poem a heart, a heart it deserves.
One of the things that I’ve learnt as well is, we have to… well, not that we have to… but a poem, to be effective, gives something new to the reader, or takes something away from the reader. I think that is true. We can’t explain it, whatever it is, but if you ‘feel’ it — like you said, in your body, if you think There’s something about this poem that makes me feel sad or excited, even though you can’t explain it, you’ve already thought of it, subconsciously, that’s why you’re ‘feeling’ it. That’s why when I first read your poetry, even though back then I did not understand the technical concepts or some of the dialect, I got the book’s feeling. I knew the longing in Darling Blue Eyes, I knew the feeling of wanting to jump off the window ledge and become a bird and transform. I got that connection even though I hadn’t thought too much about the way the poems were written.
Liz: It must be really interesting for you, Roma, because you’ve worked as a nurse in the West Midlands, you’ve been surrounded by some of those voices and those characters, but you’re looking at them from a very different perspective, from the perspective of a nurse, and also someone who grew up in a different country.
Romalyn: Yes, and it was hard. I had a patient who had such a distinct, strong Black Country accent that whenever I talked to him, I felt like I did not know English at all! (laughs). But he read The Black Country Bagel?
Liz: Oh, Black Country Bugle? (laughs)
Romalyn: Yes, that’s it. (laughs) The Bugle! And I said What’s that? And he taught me things about the Black Country, words like ‘bostin’.
Liz: Great word!
Romalyn: So, when I read your Bostin Fittle poem, I thought I know this! It’s a nice feeling.
Liz: So, we both mix our home languages into our poems. Tell me, how do you know when it feels right to use Tagalog words in a poem?
Romalyn: It’s just a matter of editing in the end, if I see too many Tagalog words in the poem that may not belong there then I take them out. But in the very early stages, I just let the Tagalog words seep out as I am writing. Is it something that I plan? No. I guess, it’s the same with the Black Country dialect as well? When the accent comes, or a dialect comes, it’s not something that we plan, because those words are innate to us, those languages are in our blood, in our hearts.
Liz: I think it’s fascinating that almost everybody slips between different voices, even when they’re not aware of it. We all have multiple voices — the voice you use at home, the voice you use when you speak with your family, the voice you use at work, the voice you use when you’re in a new country. We all slip in and out of different voices. I think we should loosen up on this idea of everyone having ‘a voice’.
Romalyn: Yes, like one, single voice. When I try to think of voice, the voice in a poem, I say to myself It’s not your voice, Roma. It’s the poem’s. What the poem requires, you write it. Don’t write a poem for it to be ‘you’. If the poem doesn’t require a Tagalog word, don’t use it. Yes, we ‘write’ the poems, but we are servants to our poems too, it’s not always the other way around.
Thinking of multiple voices, how important is it, for you, to use the Black country dialect alongside standard English in your poems?
Liz: It’s been very important, not just for me as an individual, as a writer thinking about the place I’ve come from, about my family, home and language, but I feel I’ve been able to do a really tiny, good thing in the world. No one ever says anything good about the voices of the West Midlands. Whenever you hear them, on radio or TV, they’re almost always associated with being unintelligent, uneducated, ineloquent. So to be able to make poems using that dialect, and to write Black Country, and for it to be read, and people enjoy it, and it win awards, has been so meaningful for me as really it’s winning awards for this beautiful, hidden language. I feel I’ve been able to take the area where I come from, where so many people that I love come from, take its wonderful dialect, hold it up to the light and say: Look at this, it’s really beautiful…
Romalyn: … and special.
Liz: I’d love for other writers, with all their different voices and home languages, to think: What poems might be in my home language? I want people to feel proud of their voices. There are so many beautiful, different voices in our country now and they all belong in poetry.
Romalyn: We know how hard it is to break through in the poetry field. What would be your advice to someone who just started writing and someone who may currently feel discouraged, perhaps because of rejections or feeling that they’re not ‘getting anywhere’.
Liz: My advice is always: be kind to yourself. Be tough on your poems but kind to yourself. Stay open to wonder and to learning. Keep the poets and poems you love in your heart and take courage and comfort from them. On days when it feels hard or you feel discouraged — and we all have those days — just step out of poetry and into the world beyond and do something kind for yourself. Go for a walk, cuddle someone you love, listen to a great song — something to put it all into perspective. Years ago, I taught some teenage girls and we talked about those discouraging days and one of them gave me some brilliant advice which I think of often: It’s just a poem, Liz, it’s not your whole life!