Liz Berry and Jonathan Edwards talk about winning prizes
What would it be like to win a big poetry prize? All poets in their idle or wilder moments must wonder that. At Wenlock poetry festival on Saturday two recent prizewinners were on hand to tell us. Liz Berry, winner of last year’s Forward prize for best first collection, said she exclaimed on hearing the news: “What a beautiful surprise!” Jonathan Edwards, winner of the Costa poetry prize, was accompanied at the ceremony by his dad, who drove him back to south Wales, so that he could teach in school the following day. There one of his pupils remarked: “You didn’t win the overall award, though, did you?”
Liz Berry, whose Black Country celebrates the dialect, people, language, landscape, and work of that gritty West Midlands area, said her life had been ”a blur” since the Forward win. She has juggled looking after her 16-month-old toddler with “amazing new opportunities”, such as meeting and working with poets that she has long admired.
She talked about her relationship with the Black Country, an area north and west of Birmingham that was one of the most industrialised parts of Britain in the 19th century, as “a kind of haunting”, in conversation with fellow Midlands poet Roz Goddard at Wenlock. Many of the poems in the collection were written she was living away from the area: “I had to step away from it and look back, and have that sense of a lover’s longing.”
She conceded that it wasn’t a place that “lends itself to sentiment”. But she thought it a great tragedy that the Black Country accent was so maligned and disliked, and read her poem ‘Homing’, which refers to “its thick drawl, g’s that rang” and “consonants you could lick the coal from”.
Berry added: “People hearing it in poems are surprised how rich and beautiful some of the words are … accents all over the country need a champion.” She listens all the time, “in Gregg’s buying a pasty, or in the pub … language is constantly evolving. I’ve tried to pin it down somehow.” She had researched lost dialect words, too. “Some of the words are so precious and bonkers, I just had to rescue them, even if you don’t hear them now.” Words like “tranklements”, ornaments or trinkets; “donkey-bite”, a small patch of waste ground; and ”bone orchard”, a cemetery; and many more.
She had been lucky to have been mentored by Daljit Nagra via the Arvon Foundation, “which was just what I needed”. She added: “A mentor is a critical friend, a reader that you trust – they can cheer you on, but they can also be tough with you.” She also took a MA in creative writing, part-time, while teaching reception pupils three days a week: “It gave me the chance to take myself seriously, to follow that dream.”
She spoke of her writing methods: “It actually takes quite a long time to make a poem you’re happy with. It’s like an engine, you have to keep it greased, run it all the time. I keep a notebook with me, and write down things straight away. I do a lot of spontaneous writing – anything that comes into my head about an image, I just let it flow – my private beginnings.” She added: “You have to dismiss the early stuff, that everyone else has thought of.”
She was asked by Roz Goddard where she was going next with her poetry, and how important was it to keep “playfulness” at the heart of her writing. Berry replied: “Suddenly you’re aware that there are listeners, and readers. Before you were just writing into the dark. I think poetry is about play, and freedom … and not being afraid of making mistakes.” She added: “In the last couple of months I’ve started writing again. It feel like being a beginner again - the poems seem raw and vulnerable.” Perhaps it was always about that, “beginning again, over and over again”.
Jonathan Edwards won the Costa prize with his collection My Family and Other Superheroes, in which his own family are awarded legendary status alongside assorted celebrities. It’s another collection that is rooted in a locality; this time, south Wales.
Edwards was in conversation at Wenlock with Anna Dreda, founder of the poetry festival and also one of the Costa judges that awarded him the prize. Dreda told the audience: “I was about halfway through the book when I thought: ‘My God, I think this is the winning book’.” Her fellow judges felt the same way. “Lots of the poems make me laugh, cry; they’re very tender, very moving.”
Edwards said that linking his family with famous people such as Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren, or imagining them at Wembley stadium while a 1970s stunt motorcycle rider leaps over them, in ‘Evel Knievel Jumps Over my Family’, was “one of the key ideas in the book”.
What difference had winning the Costa prize made to his life? Edwards said he had become “enormously busy. It’s a great treat to be dashing round the country, meeting people, doing readings like this.” He had also taken part in a British Council trip to India. And his writing methods? “Poetry is for me like a happy accident when it happens. It makes you anxious – when will it strike you? I’m constantly writing, but then I might leave a poem for six months. Usually at that point it’s about cutting, paring back the lines. ”
He added: “I get the impression that this is a stupid way to write.” He might compose 100 poems, and put 99 away: “A lot of them are me looking out of the window, for things to write about.” His poem ‘The Hippo’ is a good example, in which Edwards keeps up a long vigil willing a reluctant hippo to make a move, any move, so that he can write a poem: “Closing time. One last go. O please, hippo”. He said that Glyn Maxwell was a big influence, “with his approach to form”. ‘In John F. Kennedy International Airport,’ was originally a prose-poem, “but I didn’t think people would accept that”, so he turned it into a sestina. He didn’t mind taking 10 years to complete his collection … “that way you get a ‘best of’.”
He has been working with young people for 10 years, which was “joyous and inspirational”, and “seeped” into his poems, as well as helping to keep him grounded. He had been worried about his “terrifying” 30-minute appearance at Wenlock – “normally I only read for 15 minutes” – but his Year 11 class had reassured him that “after 10 minutes no one would be listening anyway”.
Edwards is working on some new poems. A new departure? “They’re mostly about famous people, and they often mention members of the family.” And why not? “Taking the mick out of each other is the way our family show love.” As the ‘Evel Knievel’ poems concludes: “Before he lands, / there’s just time to glance along the line: / though no one’s said a thing, / all we Edwardses are holding hands.”