Saturday, October 4, 2014

Alison Brackenbury, poet from England's Midlands, and her new book of poetry "THEN"

Christal Cooper 2,000 Words

Alison Brackenbury:
The Poet’s Cupboards Are So Full

Alison Brackenbury, 61, in her most recent collection of poetry, Then, (Carcanet Press Limited 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.

         “We 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 shepherds.  

         Neither could drive, so they used horses until traffic forced them to stop in the late nineteen sixties.”
         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 bluff.”
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 poet.

         “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. 
In 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.
         “It 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 (    

Then is not the first book of poetry Brackenbury published with Carcanet Press.  There have been eight others:  1829, After 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. 
         “So 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.  
         I 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 up).”

         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.
         “I 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 an audience.”

         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.”
Contact Brackenbury on the web, via twitter @ABRACKENBURY, and via facebook


No one is ever good enough,
or kind enough.
No one stays awake
through the lovely rush of rain which fills our dark.
No one can hold the music.
They are counting coins or frowning,
they are toppling, they are drowning
No one is good.

But nothing is as quick as us,
No screen can match us,
tape’s whirr catch us,
nothing tilts like sun
to light from sad.
Nothing in all history
can reach to take your hand from me,
The dark, the rain’s gift, O
we should be glad.

         Poem “No” from Then, page 93,
Copyright granted by Allison Brackenbury

Photograph Description And Copyright Information

Photo 1
Alison Brackenbury
Copyright granted by Alison Brackenbury

Photo 2
Jacket cover of Then

Photo 3
Carcanet web logo

Photo 4
Alison Brackenbury at age 4
Copyright granted by Alison Brackenbury

Photo 5
Basket of apples
Attributed to Sven Teschke
CCASA 2.0 Germany

Photo 6 
Birds – Montifringilla adamsi
Painting by John Gould
Photograph of painting by Henry Constantine Richter
Public Domain

Photo 7
Alison’s grandfather, Fred Brackenbury
Copyright granted by Alison Brackenbury

Photo 8
University of Oxford Circlet
Public Domain

Photo 9
Alison Brackenbury
Copyright granted by Alison Brackenbury

Photo 10
Jacket cover of 1829

Photo 11
William Wordsworth
Oil on canvas in 1842
Attributed to Benjamin Robert Haydon
Public Domain

Photo 12
John Clare
Attributed to William Hilton
Public Domain

Photo 13
Philip Larkin in a library
Attributed to Fay Goodwin
Fair Use Under the United States Copyright Law

Photo 14
Jacket cover of Nothing Like Love by Jenny Joseph

Photo 15
Jacket cover of Elizabeth Jennings The Collected Poems

Photo 16a
Lorraine Mariner
Copyright granted by Lorraine Mariner

Photo 16b
Jacket cover of There Will Be No More Nonsense

Photo 17
Edward Thomas in 1905
Attributed to Hulton/Stringer
Public Domain

Photo 18
Wilfred Owens
Attribution unknown
Public Domain

Photo 19
John Clare
Attributed to William Hilton
Public Domain

Photo 20
Robert Burns
Half length portrait framed within an oval
Commissioned by William Creech
Public Domain

Photo 21
Alison Brackenbury
Copyright granted by Alison Brackenbury

Photo 22
Foxcub near Alison Brackenbury’s home
Copyright granted by Alison Brackenbury

Photo 23
Plum Blossom Branches in the sky
Copyright granted by Alison Brackenbury

Photo 24
Shadow and Snowdrop
Copyright granted by Alison Brackenbury

Photo 25
Copyright granted by Alison Brackenbury

Photo 26
Alison Brackenbury
Copyright granted by Alison Brackenbury

Photo 27
Jacket cover of Then

Photo 28
Carcanet web logo

Photo 29
Jacket cover of 1829

Photo 30
Jacket cover of After Beethoven

Photo 31
Jacket cover of Breaking Ground

Photo 32
Jacket cover or Bricks and Ballads

Photo 33
Jacket cover of Christmas Roses

Photo 34
Jacket cover of Dreams of Power

Photo 35
Jacket cover of Selected Poems

Photo 36
Jacket cover of Singing In the Dark

Photo 37
Jacket cover of Shadow

Photo 38
Alison Brackenbury giving a reading
Copyright granted by Alison Brackenbury

Photo 39
Alison Brackenbury
Copyright granted by Alison Brackenbury

Photo 40
Jacket cover of Then

Photo 41
Grandfather Fred Brackenbury with his prized rams
October 1969
Copyright granted by Alison Brackenbury

Photo 42
Jacket cover of Gramophone by Joseph Taylor

Photo 43
Chris Wood performing with the Imagined Village at Camp Bestival.
July 20, 2009
Attributed to Mike Gary

Photo 44
Edward Thomas in 1905
Attributed to Hulton/Stringer
Public Domain

Photo 45
Alison Brackenbury cupboard of poetry books by other writers.
Copyright granted by Alison Brackenbury

Photo 46
Alison Brackenbury giving a reading
Attributed to Alison Brackenbury

Photo 47
Jacket cover of Dannie Abse A Sourcebook

Photo 48
Jacket cover of Norman MacCaig Selected Poems

Photo 49
Hans Magnus Enzensberger in Warsaw, Poland
May 20, 2006
Attributed to Mariusz Kubik
GNU Free Documentation License
CCASA 3.0 Unported

Photo 50
Alison Brackenbury's grandfather's and father's watches. 

Jacket cover of Then