It took an eternity to reach the poet Liz Berry. She was waiting in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the big slab of Victoriana clearly visible on the other side of Paradise Circus, a city-centre development. Between us sprawled a hellish chaos of road works. Birmingham blindly believes in change leading to progress, but generally prefers a demolition to an erection. Liz, patiently sipping tea in the museum’s cavernous café, had heard that the Circus would be re-named as just “Paradise”. We both hooted at that.
We were in Birmingham, where she lives with her partner and young son, to discuss “Black Country”, her debut book of poems, already in its seventh reprint. It was published only last August, won the Forward prize for best first collection and was many critics’ poetry book of 2014. Next month, at the Royal Festival Hall in London, she will be reading from her collection during National Poetry Day.
The “Black Country” of her title is geographically defined by where the West Midlands’ coal seam comes to the surface, but it is also a description of the dense, working-class towns surrounding Birmingham, which the factories and furnaces of the Industrial Revolution painted sooty black by day and red by night. Her poems are an imaginative response to this hard, physical place of close-linked communities. A long, new poem she’s writing examines what happens when these links are broken. Her mother’s aunt was only ten when she was despatched to Nova Scotia, under a government scheme in the early 20th century to rid Britain’s streets of poor and orphaned children. The mining town that greeted little Eliza Showell was brilliant-white from quarrying marble, in stark contrast to her coal-dusted birthplace. “I’m fascinated by those images of dark and light,” Berry explained, “and of what it means to be away from home.”
The old Black Country was a man’s world of coal mines, steel mills and foundries, of pigeon-fancying once the shift was over, and fishing canals that slid through slaggy landscapes. But Berry is more concerned with the lives of the girls and women there. She portrays their strength and frank desires, and brings spiritual imagery to the harsh realism of “wenches’ werk” spent forging spikes for blacksmiths’ horseshoes. “No mon dare scupper me,” exults the bawdy voice of Sow: “I’m riling on me back in the muck,/Out of me mind wi’ grunting pleasure”; while the scary heroine of “The Last Lady Ratcatcher” wears “a cape o’ brown fur, a belt o’ silver rats/scrawling from buckle to back”, and sleeps “in a bone white nightdress, dreaming/ o’ fur, o’ rough pink tongues”.
Berry often writes in a kind of ecstasy, and with great musicality. In “Bird”, a poem of metamorphosis, a young woman slips her human form and takes flight: “I left girlhood behind me like a blue egg/and stepped off/from the window ledge./How light I was.” Her editor at Chatto, where she was the only new poet published last year, is reminded of Angela Carter—by the shape-shifting, the feminism, the eerie eroticism symbolised by her book cover of a corvid’s dark plumage. “The Black Country is about earth and what’s underground,” Berry told me, “and birds represent freedom from the hardness of your life.”
She was born in Sedgley, an old colliery town that’s now part of Dudley, and from the age of nine was encouraged to write poetry by her father, a social worker who loved the Liverpool Poets. Gradually, she felt it was within her power to take the fading, everyday language of her grandparents and “elevate” it to poetry. “It was quite a political thing, in my head.” What makes Berry more unusual, as a poet who enjoys performing, is how bravely she celebrates the unloved accent of the Black Country, a comical twang and whine that travels badly (imagine saying “kipper tie” for “cup of tea”). She may look as tiny, blonde and angelic as a fluffy new chick, yet out of her mouth comes, unexpectedly loike [sic], the broad sing-song that will never be heard presenting national TV news. When she appeared on Cerys Matthews’ BBC 6 Music show, Twitter went mad with tweeters intoxicated by the novelty of a Brummie voice. She even recorded a recent BBC reading in a local pigeon loft. Truly, she’s as scrappy as a bantam in pushing her regional identity.
She studied socio-linguistics at Edinburgh University, and sees only the beauty in what’s commonly derided—and why not? Scots always boast of Irvine Welsh and Kathleen Jamie and their use of literary vernacular. To her, the Black Country is just as rich in dialect. “Hands” are “onds” or “donnies”, a “bone orchard” is a cemetery, “jack squalor” a swallow, and “right bostin fittle” means “smashing food”. She’s always scoured old dialect dictionaries for astonishing words. “I rescued them,” she said, “to talk about what is happening now. I wanted to make the archaic feel modern, to talk about real things, real people.”
It’s her naturalness which lends her star quality, and has helped win passionate readers from outside poetry’s hardcore. Now, at 35, she’s among a new generation of exciting young, female poets, alongside Helen Mort, Warsan Shire, Emily Berry, Sarah Howe and Kate Tempest. Tempest, who was nominated for the Mercury music prize in 2014, can fill auditoriums, but more usual venues for these poet-performers are the intimate readings organised by collectives such as Days of Roses and Stop Sharpening Your Knives. The Jerwood/Arvon mentoring scheme is also important for them. Berry’s own mentor is the Sheffield poet Daljit Nagra, the son of Sikh Punjabis, whose language borrows from the “Punglish” of Indian immigrants.
If British poetry is not as popular as when giants like Seamus Heaney could sell 60,000 copies of a book, it still seems robust and remarkably diverse. On October 8th, BBC Radio 4 will mark the 21st anniversary of National Poetry Day by telling Britain’s story through verse that ranges from medieval ballads to contemporary demotic. By definition, that ought to include less happy episodes in our history, like the “Home Children” of Berry’s poem, packed off to the colonies, hardly ever to return. “How do you then preserve your identity?” Berry wondered aloud. I asked her if she would willingly leave the Black Country. “I can’t imagine so,” she said.
National Poetry Day Live will be at the Royal Festival Hall, London, October 8th. We British: An Epic in Poetry will feature all day on BBC Radio 4