The Poetry Extension’s founder and curator, Natalya Anderson, interviews our Poet of the Month for December – the loving, tender, soulfully-intelligent, Liz Berry.
Liz Berry’s poems have been recorded for radio, television and the Poetry Archive. Her debut collection, Black Country (Chatto & Windus, 2014), won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2014, and was chosen as a book of the year by several publications, including the Guardian. Liz works as a tutor for The Arvon Foundation, Writers’ Centre Norwich and Writing West Midlands.
Natalya: Hello, Liz?
Liz: It is me! It’s good to hear your voice.
Natalya: It’s wonderful to hear yours. I’m so accustomed to hearing your voice read me poems via the Poetry Archive, so this feels very candid. Also, I must warn you that it’s 7 a.m. here in Toronto, so if I sound like a toad, it’s just that I’m waiting for my intravenous of caffeine to kick in.
Liz: Bless you, little early bird. We get the messy version of each other today.
Natalya: I like that idea. Can we talk about how you first found poetry in your life, and when you began writing it?
Liz: I’m lucky because I come from a family that loves books, poems and music. From when I was a really little girl I was always surrounded by poems. I loved them in the way that you do as a child – without reservation, without any fretting. My mom and dad read to us all the time. We learned poems by heart. That wasn’t at all the world that my mom and dad came from - they came from very working-class, Black Country backgrounds - but I think it was the life that they dreamt about, a life of books, poems, music and learning, and so they worked hard to create that world for us. I felt I was given a very precious gift. I started writing poems as a little girl and never really stopped. It became something that sustained me, kept the small flame burning in me.
Natalya: When did poetry become a serious need in your life – an extension of yourself that you knew you would foster?
Liz: I think I started to take my writing seriously when I was in my twenties. I trained as a primary school teacher and taught the infants, what you would call in Canada kindergarten. Very young children. I took an evening class at the local college – ‘Beginners Poetry’. I was part of this lovely, nurturing, eccentric group of adults that had come together to write poetry on a Tuesday night. I felt thrilled by it. I thought, ‘This is going to be something.’ I applied to do an MA with Jo Shapcott at Royal Holloway, University of London. I remember thinking, ‘If I get accepted then it’s a sign and if I don’t then that’s a sign too!’ So, I got a place and it was this brilliant, revolutionary thing. I studied in this tiny group with Jo, and she was amazing. She taught me how to tear up everything I thought I knew, start over again, and to play. That’s where my first collection, Black Country, started.
Natalya: That collection haunts me. My husband was born and raised in Dublin, and I was born and raised in Toronto. My husband and I lived in the UK for ten years, and in that time, I felt disconnected from my entire family. Then I read Black Country and it was so familiar to me. I read it to my husband too, and he immediately recognized the women in the poems. The women in my family were either wives of nickel miners in northern Ontario, or farmers in southern Ontario, and somehow I was recognizing these women from Birmingham, England, in your book. It was so loving and disturbing.
Liz: You just used a really important word for me when I think about Black Country, the world loving. When I speak about the poems in Black Country, the women in Black Country, I often use the word tender. Tender in the fullest sense of the word - soft and gentle but also alive and sensitive to the soreness and the difficulty. When I was writing about those lives, those of the women in my family and women from my region, I wanted to be respectful towards them. I thought often of my mom, my nan, all the girls I grew up with. I loved these women and wanted to hear their voices and their stories in poems, to write about their sorrows and their dreams.
Natalya: I’m sure you’ve captured many other women’s mothers, grandmothers and aunties.
Liz: That was one of the truest and most unexpected pleasures of having written the book. So many people wanted to speak to me, write to me, and tell me about their Black Country women: their moms, their nans, their sisters, their wives, their first loves. It was beautiful to be allowed to share that intimacy, those tender stories and feelings.
Natalya: During that writing time, you became pregnant and gave birth to your first son. Since Black Country, you’ve extended this writing about women to writing directly and honestly about becoming a mother. These poems have been hugely helpful to me, and I’m sure to other women.
Liz: I’m so glad, because I believe poems find you when you need them.
Natalya: And in writing a poem like ‘The Republic of Motherhood’, you have changed the language from ‘here is the beauty of my new-born baby’, or ‘here is my flowering womb’, to something concrete. I remember when I was about to pop with my son, right in the middle of my own Master’s degree, a fellow-writer said to me, ‘Enjoy these last few weeks of pregnancy, because the baby is a whole other beast.’
Liz: Oh, God. Wow. I have two boys now but I had a very difficult pregnancy with my first son and found the first months, year, of his life so incredibly hard. I was in shock – about motherhood, about the way it transformed me, about the way it transformed everything. I was desperate to find – in this strange, wild land – poems that would help me understand it and come to terms with it. Yet it seemed all I could find were these gentle poems, these cradle songs.
Natalya: My vagina is a tulip.
Liz: Yes! And ‘look at my baby’s beautiful head’. And it was so beautiful! But where were the poems about this visceral, heart-skipping metamorphosis that was taking place? I couldn’t find what I felt, which was this heat, this fury, hurt, and complexity. I felt very lost to poetry. Everywhere I went - clinics, playgroups, postnatal groups - I met brilliant kind women, women who were keeping me alive, who were sharing their stories and their hearts, their very raw, deep feelings, but it was hard to find that in poems.
It took me a long time to begin to write about those days. Once my first son was two and I was pregnant again, still halfway in that wild mess of a world, I began to start writing about it, trying to make sense of what had happened. This time I wanted to write the poems that I had needed when I was new mother, I wanted to write them before the heat had cooled. I wanted to write in that fear, that urgency, so that someone might find that poem and feel understood in their wild strange days. Did you feel like that too when you had your little baby?
Natalya: I am completely with you in terms of that wild, desperate search. Unfortunately, I had such a psychological breakdown during the first year of my son’s life, that I completely isolated myself from my entire family and from most other humans. When he hit the six-week mark, that period where the baby just never stops crying no matter what you do, I thought I was failing.
Liz: Oh, that phase is horrible, so, so hard. What did you feel?
Natalya: I knelt down on the kitchen floor, babe in arms, and called my doctor’s office. The receptionist told me there were no appointments available, and I said to her, ‘If Doctor So-and-So doesn’t see me today, I’m going to climb up to the top floor of this building and I’m going to jump off the fucking roof.’ And she said, ‘The doctor will see you in five minutes.’
Liz: My heart hurts so much for you when I hear that story, there’s so much pain. Those first months are like nothing else. You suddenly have to completely surrender yourself to looking after someone else, keeping someone else alive, whilst no-one is really looking after you. And it’s shocking. Physically, emotionally, down to your soul. And you’re so tired! For me, it was the company of other women, other mothers, that kept me afloat. I went to a wonderful postnatal group, which is such a different thing from an antenatal group where the focus is on birth. We met when our babies were six weeks old. We sat in a room together looking totally fucked, holding our tiny babies, and this one brilliant, beautiful mom said, ‘Can we just say that there’s going to be no bullshit?’ And there wasn’t. And it was as if someone had flung a life-raft.
Natalya: I really wish I had been able to open my heart to that. It must have been so helpful.
Liz: It was, it was comfort and companionship through this difficult, vulnerable time. It can be very lonely. Probably in that dark time, you felt like you’d got it all wrong - I did too - but you hadn’t. You were doing your best and loving your baby. We’re taught to think, ‘I wanted this baby, I should just be grateful to have this baby. I should just get on with being a wonderful mom.’ But actually it’s so much more complicated, you’re still you and hold inside you all the yous of before, with their hurts and fears.
Natalya: That’s true. I felt so ashamed. Every time I wished my boy would sleep so I could sleep, I fell deeper into the shame spiral.
Liz: You said the word ‘ashamed’, and that’s crucial to this discussion. It is so hard, and we’re made to think that we shouldn’t have a negative thought about it, that we shouldn’t make a mistake. But I think it’s so important for us to acknowledge and abide with these complex emotions and stories. It’s too easy to tie motherhood up neatly as this blissful experience, this uncomplicated step into a new life, especially with a much-wanted baby, but that does new mothers a disservice as it silences their feelings and creates shame. I remember my mom holding me on her lap when my first son was that same six-week age and he wouldn’t stop crying, and she said, ‘No-one tells you but the first bit is really bloody hard. It can be lonely and boring. But it will get better, and he will stop crying, and he’ll walk and talk and you’ll fall in love with him.’ I still well up now thinking about that kindness, the way she let me in to her hard experience and gave me permission.
Natalya: To be told that it’s dark and it’s okay. Or, more importantly, to be told that your choices are good enough, that you’re good enough. When I was finishing my studies while I was breastfeeding my son, there were women asking me when I was going to have another. I was gobsmacked. Now there was a new shame in not giving my son a sibling.
Liz: Becoming a parent invites endless advice! I meet – increasingly – people who choose to have one child or none, and it’s about being true to yourself and the right choices for your family. Someone told me, and I think this is true, that when people give you advice about your parenting it’s a way for them to seek reassurance about their own choices. ‘I did the right thing, didn’t I?’ I think that’s what we all long for, someone to tell us we’re doing the right thing and our children will be ok. When my first son was tiny I took him to the clinic, which was full of sobbing new mothers trying to breastfeed, and I remember the health visitor sat me down and said ‘Look at your baby, he’s beautiful, you’re doing a good job’. Well I was a mess but I felt so grateful to her for her kindness, for seeing into me, and I’ll never forget that, and try to show that tenderness to others.
Natalya: And, threading back again to writing more honestly about these nightmarish expectations, what do you have in store for us with your poetry? The pressure is on, Liz! Will you give Black Country a sibling?
Liz: Ha! Yes. One day. It’s taken me a while to be ready to write again, to write about that transformative time. I think I felt very ashamed. You know, the day of the Forward Prizes in 2014, when I was there with my first-born, I had a cup of tea with another poet who had just become a parent too, and they told me that their editor, a very prominent and respected male poet, had told them not to write about becoming a parent - “allow yourself one or two” he’d said “but any more and it’s just embarrassing”. That story haunted me during my son’s first years although for a long time I felt ashamed rather than angry about it, because I believed it was true. I thought ‘Writing about this is the one thing keeping me alive, and it’s seen as embarrassing?’ Embarrassing! For who? Embarrassing to be a mother and to think about being a mother and to be absorbed by it and shaken by it? Embarrassing to make life, to make a creature with a soul, to have felt life and death move so closely?
It took years for me to write and publish a poem which spoke of that time - ‘The Republic of Motherhood’ - and I felt more shame, anxiety and elation about publishing it than perhaps any other. But it felt like the poetry world had been changing, flowering, opening up. Afterwards I was overwhelmed by how many women wrote to me and spoke to me about that poem and their experiences, letting me into their darkest, most vulnerable, beautiful days. Their belief in the power of a poem made me bold. So I’ve been staying with this fury and I think that later on next year I’d like to put out a pamphlet. This little pamphlet of raw, wild poems, the poems that we needed to find when we were new in that world.