FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION IN CONVERSATION WITH LIZ BERRY

FORWARD ARTS FOUNDATION: When did you start writing poetry and what drew you into it?

LIZ BERRY: I grew up in a house of books, poems and music and so I fell in love with poetry when I was very young. I loved it in that beautiful way that children do – without reservation, without any fretting. Together with my parents, we’d read poems, learn poems by heart, make up our own poems and eventually I began to write them. I’ve never really stopped writing – it became something that sustained me, kept the small flame burning in me – but I only began to take it seriously when I was working as an infant school teacher in my twenties and took an evening class in ‘Poetry for Beginners’.

 

FAF: What does being shortlisted for the Forward Prizes mean for you?

LB: I’m over the moon. ‘The Republic of Motherhood’ was a hard poem to write and I felt great trepidation about publishing it, but it was the poem I longed to read when I was a new mother and so I’m very glad that it’s found others in their own wild, strange days.

 

FAF: Please tell us about the genesis of your shortlisted poem. Is it part of a collection or sequence? Where can a reader find more by you?

LB: ‘The Republic of Motherhood’ is the title poem from my new pamphlet of the same name; fifteen poems about the transformative experience of new motherhood. After my first son was born I felt profoundly shocked, as if my life had been pulled from under my feet and flung to the wind. I was kept afloat through that lonely, difficult time by the support of other women. In clinics, playgrounds, church halls and messy living rooms, we shared our lives. Our stories were beautiful, raw, heartbroken, joyous and deep beyond reckoning. But when I looked to poems, the place that had always comforted me, that experience was hard to find. It made me feel very lost. Two years later, and pregnant with my second son, still half in that crazy sleepless world, I wrote ‘The Republic of Motherhood’. I wanted to write the poem I’d needed to read when I was pushing my pram through the sleet that long winter. After it was published I was overwhelmed by how many women wrote to me about the poem, telling me that it spoke to their own experiences, letting me into their most vulnerable days. I was emboldened by their companionship and belief in the power of poems to bear witness to our tenderest experiences.

 

FAF: Which poets do you admire most and what do you value in their work?

LB: Where to begin? A few brilliant poets writing about motherhood who have been on my bedside table this last while are: Fiona Benson, Sharon Olds, Kathleen Jamie, Layli Long Soldier, Hannah Lowe, Maggie Nelson, Toi Derricote, Rebecca Goss, Anne Sexton, Lucille Clifton, Lucy Mercer, Clare Pollard, Brenda Shaughnessy, Selima Hill…

 

FAF: What is next for you as a poet?

LB: For me, each new poem is a way of starting again, a chance to return to the beginning, to play, so I just work from poem to poem.

 

FAF: What advice would you give to anyone starting out in poetry today?

LB: Be fearless. Be kind.