Alison Brackenbury talks Ayres & Ashbery, kittens & wolves

Alison Brackenbury was born in Lincolnshire from a long line of shepherds and farmworkers. She won a scholarship to study English at Oxford, and has worked as a librarian, an accounts clerk and a metal finisher in the family business. She is now retired and lives in Gloucestershire. Alison has published nine collections. Helen Mort describes her latest, Skies, as ‘her best, her most urgent collection to date’.  Alison has received an Eric Gregory award and a Cholmondeley award.

You are giving a talk in Birmingham later this month (March 2017 – Ed) on the shared qualities of poetry and song. In your poem ‘Playground’, you incorporate lines chanted in a traditional game of tag: ‘Sheep, sheep come home. The wolf has gone to Derbyshire. He won’t come back for seven years.’ Do you think poetry should aspire to be as memorable, and as central in people’s lives, as such refrains?

I am very glad that you noticed this poem, as it is one of my favourites from my latest collection,  Skies  (Carcanet, 2016). I must stress that I think good poetry can – and should – take many forms. On my own shelves, I have the poems of John Ashbery next to those of Pam Ayres. I would note that many poets could learn much about performance from Pam – and about technique, too. Her best lines are certainly memorable!

If poems matter to us, we need them in our minds, to be with us, like friends, in hard times. It does trouble me if I read a collection which I think has merit, then close the book – and cannot remember a single word. The Beatles, in their early days, had no recording devices to capture the songs they were working on. The tunes had to stay in their minds until they reached the studio. When told this was risky, one of them replied, ‘Well, if we can’t remember our songs, how can we expect anyone else to?’

They were young! I am sixty-three and I can forget anything – in its entirety. But, as a Retired Person with time, I do now try to learn my poems for performance. So I know that rhyme, for example, helps memory. It’s not the only device, but it’s a very important one. I normally do use rhyme now. I think it makes me write better: to focus on each line. Many readers and listeners love rhyming poetry. If it helps them, too, to remember the odd line I’ve written, then I am glad.

The question about poetry being central to people’s lives is a huge one. I think that many people do welcome single poems which they come across, almost by accident, and which seem to speak to them. I know this from readers who have kindly got in touch with me after seeing my work on the Web, or in a pamphlet left with a doctor’s magazines by the charity ‘Poems in the Waiting Room’. Increasingly, too, people search for poems to read at weddings and funerals. They are creating their own ceremonies, and believe poems have a place there.

I have realised rather late that one of the most important things I can do, as a poet in Britain today, is to find places, real or virtual, where poems can meet people. I don’t think everyone need write in the style of the playground rhyme about the wolf. But I wish I had done so more often – not least to point out that the lying wolf isn’t in Derbyshire! He is waiting just around the corner, for my reader.

You grew up in rural England. ‘How love can tear, and binds us to the wild,’ you write in a poem about a ‘wild kitten’ (‘The second jab’). How much do you value wildness?

Ah! You should see our back garden. It is tiny, but we also own the very top of the railway cutting. This has nettles (for the butterflies). There are brambles at the very end of the garden. Wild arum grows in spring in some of the borders, and three-cornered garlic has appeared from goodness knows where. The plum trees from the old market gardens are still putting up suckers everywhere…

But, of course, this isn’t wilderness. Even before the houses came ‘there were nut trees and orchards everywhere’, an old man once told me. And there were water rats in a pond where the local school now stands… Much of what looks most beautifully wild in my garden was imported by me, from other gardens: cow parsley, celandines… And, at the beginning, I planted Spanish bluebells, which ecologists deplore, and they are now slugging it out with the more delicate native bluebells I bought later. Even the native bluebells, in a garden, never have the intense violet-blue of the flowers which drift through woods. Our soil must lack something. But, still, there are birds, deafening as the days lighten, frogs, hedgehogs, and the visiting fox. The insects, after forty years with many plants and few chemicals, are spectacular. In mild years, we had a colony of crickets!

I have come to think that there is a kind of poem which needs a long time to grow. Its soil, I suppose, is time, and the ticking life of the writer. In my own poetry, I don’t think that the wildness of the world is best caught by a wild indifference to form. Poems, like the garden, are artificial, however cleverly this is disguised. They can’t hold the world’s richness, any more than the garden’s bluebells can keep the blueness that pools the woods. They shadow it. Their apology must be something else: perhaps a kind of music.

The garden, and the poem, are made in the hope of something else visiting, perhaps staying a while, to be sensed by strangers. That is beyond the writer’s control. But, like the fox glimpsed at dawn, it is all that matters.

You have declared yourself a fan of the short poem (especially when it comes to competition entries!) You are also a poet who writes in form, and often employs rhyme. Some of your shorter poems seem like reflections on an event that has just passed. How far do these poems take root in the mind before you write them down, and to what extent do they find their shape on the page?

First, I had better explain my working methods (such as they are). I worked in day jobs for most of my adult life. So my poetry was written in regular ‘slots’ – no more than two hours a week, sometimes less.

Poems had to turn up during those times! They must have done so, as I managed to produce eight collections this way. I work on drafts until I think the poem is finished. This can take years, and I write a large number of poems which refuse to be finished quickly.

I started my retirement at the beginning of 2013, with a backlog of poems in a thin plastic carrier bag. This has got worse and worse. I now have a stout cloth bag, which I can barely lift, containing hundreds of poems, in carefully labelled, dated files. I do work through them in my new regular slots for writing – roughly an hour a day, five days a week. I still have not quite cleared 2013!

But most of these poems are longer ones. I discovered, in retirement, that the poems I had been missing in my working years were short poems. They go by on the air, and I have to get them down straight away. (This was not practical when I was a metal finisher, wearing oily gloves, with an aerospace engineer standing at our workshop door waiting for me to pack dozens of pieces of tooling…) If I don’t catch these poems, they disappear, or crash land, wrecked, their rhythms broken.

Despite appearances, I rarely revise these poems. If they work, it must be from the (often fruitless) effort I have put into their more demanding cousins from the cloth bag. But these short poems are the most difficult for me to judge. They can’t all be good. My mind goes numb to their effects very quickly. So I send them out assiduously to magazines, to see if the judgements of editors match mine. I have found that readers are passionately fond of some short poems which I nearly put in my ‘Abandoned’ bag. This is worrying. Have I caught them only to lose them again? At least they arrived easily! If only they would bring with them a neat label saying: ‘I am a good (although short) poem…’

Visit Alison Brackenbury’s website

Matt Bryden

This is the second in a series of interviews for Fire River Poets by Matt Bryden.  See Matt’s profile here