CHRIS RICE COOPER is a newspaper writer, feature stories writer, poet, fiction writer, photographer, and painter. She maintains a blog at https://chrisricecooper.blogspot.com. She has a Bachelor's in Criminal Justice and completed all of her poetry and fiction workshops required for her Master’s in Creative Writing with a focus on poetry. She, her husband Wayne, sons Nicholas and Caleb, cats Nation and Alaska reside in the St. Louis area.
Saturday, October 4, 2014
Alison Brackenbury, poet from England's Midlands, and her new book of poetry "THEN"
Alison Brackenbury, 61, in her most recent
collection of poetry, Then, (Carcanet Press Limited www.carcanet.co.uk) reflects on her roots
of her farm family living in a small village in Lincolnshire, England’s East Midlands.
Brackenbury’s father worked as a ploughboy at
the age of 14, and then worked as a farm lorry driver for the same farm for over
forty years.Her mother was the primary
school teacher, who worked for decades in her village school, and toward the
end of her career, became its headmistress.
Brackenbury spent her first eight years
in a large Victorian farmhouse owned by her father’s employer.
didn’t even furnish all the rooms, and stored crates of apples by a marble
fireplace.This house was surrounded by
a small wood, which to me seemed vast.The skies were vast and we did a good deal of walking!I met more birds than people.I never have quite got over the felling that
human beings are an exciting but unfamiliar species of animal.”
Her first memory is seeing braches
against a sky, and her favorite memory is riding in a cart behind a small
sturdy horse, with her grandfather and uncle, both who were prize-winning
could drive, so they used horses until traffic forced them to stop in the late
After graduating from high school she
won a scholarship to attend Oxford where she majored in English.
“I realized, after a
very bad patch, that I could not be an academic, and write poetry. As I
didn’t need a First Class degree, I therefore acquired one, in a kind of joyful
Instead of pursing a degree in poetry,
Brackenbury helped her husband run the family business, which actually nurtured
Brackenbury’s love and production of writing.
“I had already
discovered (at university) that any kind of academic work interfered with my
own writing. I found manual work far more compatible with writing, and a
source of material (if I could stay awake long enough to use it).”
In 1981, she published her first book
of poetry, 1829, and felt for the first time that she could call herself
“I know have some absurd, but useful cards which say ‘Alison
Brackenbury, poet.They do not claim
that I am a good poet!”
Brackenbury has been described as a
prolific poet, but she is also a prolific and devout poetry reader, reading the
works of William Wordsworth, John Clare, Philip Larkin, Jenny
Joseph, and Elizabeth Jennings.
Her most recent poet to read is Lorraine Mariner’s There Will Be
No More Nonsense. (Picador, 2014).
She also is drawn to German, Russian, Chinese
Poetry, and poetry from the United States.Her first love is always the poets from Britain.
practice, I think there can be rhythmic differences between poetry linked to
different areas which are, or have been, part of Britain. For example, I
can hear music in Irish poetry (and in poets of Irish descent), which I cannot
reproduce. So British poetry can include fine work, which some English
poets could not produce. Some of my favorite contemporary poems were written by
poets who grew up in Britain, but whose families came from the Commonwealth, but
any discussion of England is complicated by the fact that many (perhaps most?)
English people are of very mixed descent. I have Welsh blood. So I must add
proudly, Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen. John Clare, who’s generally thought of
as an English poet, had a Scots grandfather, and loved the work of Robert
Burns! Just as the English language is rich with words from many sources,
English poetry is richly varied, and British poetry has an even wider range.
It’s very rash of me to
generalize about American poetry! But I do notice, in some of the American
poets I most admire, an irresistible combination of formal toughness and
outspoken freshness. I also notice a far more straightforward acceptance of
industry, manual work, and of the value of the countryside (which is often, in
American poetry, far closer to wilderness).”
Brackenbury, the mother of one grown
daughter, resides in a small shabby, semi-detached house, with her
husband.The house built in the 1960s is
in a suburb of a small town.
is next to a railway line, so we are visited by foxes, hedgehogs, and an
unusual quantity of vocal birds, which we feed.”
It is in the house next to the railway
line where Brackenbury writes most of her poetry.Her favorite writing spot changes throughout
the day – it is always the room that has the most sunlight at the time she
feels the muse to write, which she describes as “moving around the house with the sun.”
Brackenbury writes her poetry, never in
a hurry, and always in pencil and paper, in a process that can go on for one
day or even for years.
“Sometimes they are almost right in a first draft.Sometimes they are copied and altered time
after time. This process can go on for years. I think the poems
which take longest probably teach me most, although these are probably not
poems I publish. I have hundreds of finished poems, which have not been
included in my books. I must get these to a safe home before I die!”
Brackenbury is never alone in her house
by the railway line:in addition to
receiving visits from foxes, hedgehogs, and birds she and her husband have
pets: two cats named Shadow and Snowdrop (whom her husband now calls Slug) and their
twenty-nine year old horse, Woody, whom her daughter changed to Would-be-good.
“Our animals provide
endless subject matter. They also take up almost all the time, which is needed
to divert this into poetry! In various ways, I think they do link us to a wider
world, which has no adequate name, but which is rich, and mysterious, and which
we have come very close to destroying.”
In 2005, Brackenbury wrote the first poem
that makes up the collection Then.She doesn’t date each individual poem so
doesn’t recall which poem she wrote first.The manuscript was complete and ready to publish by 2011, but Brackenbury
postponed the publication due to a family illness and that she was still
working for the family business.
In December 2012, all of that changed,
when the family member recovered, and she finally retired after twenty-three
years.Then was published within
the next year by Carcanet Press (www.carcanet.co.uk).
Then is not the first book of poetry Brackenbury
published with Carcanet Press. There
have been eight others:1829,
Beethoven, Breaking Ground, Bricks and Ballads,
Christmas Roses, Dreams of Power,
Selected Poems, and Singing
In the Dark.
What makes Then so special is it
symbolizes her new life as a poet:she
is now dedicated full time to the art form, which includes giving readings,
conducting workshops, and participating in events with other poets.
“I was very glad to have
the chance to do lots of readings, which was impossible when I worked for the
family business.Things are now a bit
more settled.I am now writing, for an
hour before breakfast, on most days. I used to cram writing into an hour or so
on Saturday, and again on Sunday. This made it quite hard to finish difficult
pieces quickly. But as I am now writing even more poems, the recalcitrant
ones still skulk in files for years!”
The main dilemma Brackenbury had when
it came to writing and editing the poems in Then was to be impartial.
“The poems about my
family were not exceptionally hard to write, but I did find it impossible to
judge their merits, as I was still too close to them. Interestingly, my editor
kept more of them in the book than I would have done. It is very difficult to
judge your own work.”
What makes Then different from all
of her other books is that most of the poems were written after the death of
both of her parents.
Then could be outspoken about their
lives.Unexpectedly, I found that this
also drew me back to write about the lives of my grandparents, about which I
knew rather a lot. I am still exploring, in new poems, what they told me.”
Brackenbury defines a poet as a writer
of a finished poem.And the poem:“It
will often have intensity, and hold much in a little.”
Brackenbury credits her love of folk
music and the art form in helping her become an effective poet.
am drawn to the boldness (and occasional brutality) of folk song lyrics.The particular beauty of their music is
beyond poetry, but poets can try.The
traditional singer who has most interested me was recorded in the early
twentieth century: Joseph Taylor. Even when he was old, his voice lilted like a
bird. He learnt a song called ‘Unto Brigg Fair’ from a gipsy. It has a grave
joy, which seemed wholly familiar to me (he lived in the county where I grew
She also gains poetic inspiration from
folk singer Chris Wood, and more specifically his song “Hollow Point” which
tell the story of a young man, who was shot by the police in London, after
being mistaken for a terrorist.
She also finds inspiration from Edward Thomas
who sang “the old Songs” for at least an hour a day with his family.
Brackenbury dedicates one hour per day
each morning before breakfast to write poetry.She now writes on average one poem per week, becoming even more prolific
since her retirement almost two years ago.
“This has its
difficulties. Poems silt up around me – and which are the good ones? I can’t
send everything out, even to the most sympathetic of editors. But I do try to
finish them, and I keep them all. No wonder our cupboards are so full.”
Brackenbury’s own echoes can be heard
and felt in Then, particularly when she reads her poems from the
collection, where she only needs two things:her book Then and a microphone.
do give introductions to my poems. I think audiences appreciate background
information. I also think that a poet’s own voice, and their
interpretations of the rhythms of their lines, can bring their poems closer to
Brackenbury has numerous goals when it
comes to giving readings on her poetry, one of them being that the reading is
as compelling as can be.
“I think some of the most compelling readings I’ve heard
have been by Dannie Abse, Norman MacCaig, and a German poet who read first in
German, then in English, Hans Magnus Enzensberger.”
Brackenbury is presently working on two
projects – writing poems about her home village (which was entirely owned by
one man) and its extraordinary people; and completing the first draft of her
next book, scheduled for publication by Carcanet in early 2016, Next.
“Many of the poems are
tried and tested, in the sense they’ve been published in magazines, or read to
a succession of audiences. But there are a couple I am still polishing up!And then there are newer poems in a series of
carrier bags, quietly stamping their feet and waiting for attention.”