Wombwell Rainbow Book Interviews: Beth Brooke

A Landscape With Birds by Beth Brooke

-Beth Brooke (Taken from Amazon)

is a retired teacher and education consultant. Before retirement her writing was focused on pedagogy and she wrote collaboratively with a number of colleagues to produce textbooks and teachers’ resources for Key Stage English and History, published by John Murray, Hodder and Collins. Born in the Middle East, she spent the bulk of her childhood in Germany and Libya and her experiences there have had a profound influence on her life. Although she now lives in Dorset and loves the Jurassic Coast, she still longs for the desert. Much of her poetry focuses on the interaction between the self and the landscape and how landscape shapes us. She has been published in a variety of journals both online and print, including The York Literary Review, Poetry Bus and Marble. Her poem, We Take Our Son To University, was awarded a very highly commended in the 2021 Folklore Poetry Prize. This poem features in her Hedgehog Press debut collection, Landscape With Birds. She has also been published in the Gloucester Poetry Festival’s Pandemic Anthology. She is a regular host and performer at her local spoken word venue and has run a number of poetry workshops. Her superpower is the ability to remove ticks from hedgehogs (no, seriously, she can!)

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

I have always written but I didn’t have any serious time to give to writing while I was raising my children and was teaching. I wrote English and history textbooks now and again and wrote poems and short stories to use with my classes but I didn’t start writing regularly until I was close to retirement and had reduced to part-time teaching. Why did I start? Well, partly it’s fun, partly it’s a way of processing an experience or of exploring my own thinking about what’s happening in the world.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

Teachers. I was blessed to have fabulous English teachers at the three secondary schools I attended and some lovely teachers who were enthusiastic about literature in the seven primary schools I went to. As the child of a soldier, we were always on the move and school provided continuity, and poetry and stories school provided were important to me. That said, although I didn’t have much in common with my father, it was he who introduced me to the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. I really enjoy his poems and he’s not the jingoistic writer people think.

3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

I have already said that I was introduced to poetry by my teachers. I studied English at A-level and at university so it pretty much followed that the poetry I was given came from the canon of work deemed worthy of study by exam boards. I studied Yeats and Eliot, Owen and Shakespeare plus all those 19th Century poets who made me feel tired! I would have to be honest and say that even only five years ago, I wasn’t that familiar with the work of contemporary poets unless they were a poet laureate or were also a novelist (Margaret Atwood and Alice Walker for example).

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I write a lot but don’t have a routine- spent all of my working life tied to routines and one of the joys of being retired is NO MORE ROUTINES! I write because I want to and when I want to and that just turns out to be most days. What I can say is that I often think about things as I am out running or walking and then I will come home, type something onto my iPad and then let it stew until the next day. Then I take a look, pull it to pieces and keep going until I have a first draft. Then I return three or four times to fiddle with it until I think it’s done. Then I read it to my husband and he will make suggestions- usually good!

5. What subjects motivate you to write? So many things! One of my sons would say that I am a poet of nature and landscape and that’s true but I also write about ageing, about loss because those are universal experiences. I have a collection of poems about spending the formative years of my childhood in desert countries and how the landscapes of those places, the light, the climate, the sounds and scents have fundamentally shaped me and how I never feel entirely at home in Britain as a result. I have poems about the final years of my mother’s life and caring for her as she suffered from Alzheimers. I also have poems inspired by the work of the artist Elisabeth Frink. She was a Dorset artist and I love her drawing and sculpture. Finally I have been known to write things in response to the political situation and world events. I can get very cross!

6. What is your work ethic?

Not really sure I know what this means. I write because I like writing. I like to read other people’s work and tell them if I have enjoyed it because that’s a nice thing to do. But I don’t have a work ethic if by that you mean a routine or an attitude to writing because I am in the happy position of not having to fit it in around a day job or managing a family.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence your work today?

I am not sure that they do really. I don’t tend to use end rhyme or specific poetry forms in the way of Thomas Wyatt or William Blake or W B Yeats. I discovered Charles Causley when I began teaching and I do return to his work often as I do with Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes but these were poets I met through my practice as a teacher. Do they influence me? I suppose I aspire to try and be as able to craft an idea as well as they did.

8. Whom of today’s writers do you admire the most and why? I don’t think there’s a poet that I admire more than any other. There’s so much great writing out there. 9. Why do you write, as opposed to doing anything else?

I think I have a facility with language that I don’t have, say with music. I can create using words the way others might create using paint or clay. I like it for the same reason I like running- you don’t need lots of equipment to do.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?” You start by writing and you have to have something you want to explore through language. You need to read and you need to be in the habit of noticing things around you.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

Lots of interesting things thankfully. I am still writing poems about the work of Elisabeth Frink but am also starting to explore poems which are grounded in the Dorset landscape and the history of the county. Its working title is Chalk. Finally I am mulling over whether I should try and set up a local open mic meeting for poets. They were two locally but the pandemic has put an end to both, sadly, so there is a need. The venue is an issue though.

12. How did I decide on the order of my poems?

I began with the first and final poems. I wanted a strong voice for the first poem, one that established a relationship or an attitude between people and birds. My final two poems came next. The penultimate poem, If Our Island Had Kookaburras They Would Definitely Be Laughing Now is one of the Greek chorus type poems, the ravens making a comment on the political situation in Britain since 2016. Originally I thought it would be the final poem but then I thought that was a bit bleak so I used, They Just Sing Anyway; it’s a reminder that it’s possible to be resilient despite the politicians! The poems in between are ones that use birds as a metaphor or symbol for an emotion or experience or else they are poems that have a birds’ eye view on things. In all our interactions with the natural world, birds are always present. Like a Greek chorus, birds are observers of our behaviour; their cries act as a commentary on our lives. In my collection, Landscape With Birds, birds notice, they embody human emotions and behaviour, they allow us to use them to explore facets of ourselves, and occasionally, they judge us.

13. Are you influenced by Aristophanes?

Ha! Not especially. Just in the General way we use the term and the way Shakespeare used it in a few of his plays.

14. Shakespeare?

Romeo & Juliet, Henry IV (pt 1&2), Pericles, Troilus & Cressida. I mean that in my poems the birds are observers of human action and the way they comment helps to direct our understanding.

15. How do you choose which bird to comment on which action?

Ah, you assume a conscious plan. In truth the poems arose organically and it was only when I realised that birds were present in so many of the poems that I had written that thought about them as a collection and started to think notice the function they sometimes played.

16. Once they have read the book what do you hope the reader will leave with?

Good question! A sense of different perspectives being possible. Someone has been in touch and told me that they don’t tend to read much poetry but that many poems in the book, particularly those about the twists and turns in relationships were really comforting. So, I hope people feel that I have, sometimes at least, ‘spoken to their condition’ – a Quaker term. I am a Quaker. I hope some of the poems will get people thinking about our relationship with nature. I hope my observations of birds and the natural world can be seen as proxies and metaphors for our own emotions and our relationship to the natural world.

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