Alison Brackenbury’s Carcanet collections include Dreams of Power (1981), Breaking Ground (1984), Christmas Roses (1988), Selected Poems (1991), 1829 (1995), After Beethoven (2000) and Bricks and Ballads (2004). Her poems have been included on BBC Radio 3 and 4, and 1829 was produced by Julian May for Radio 3. Her work recently won a Cholmondeley Award.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I grew up in what now seems almost like Victorian England, in the Lincolnshire countryside. I won a scholarship to Oxford, but quickly found that I preferred writing to academic work. So my First and I worked in a technical college library, then, for twenty-three years, in my husband’s metal finishing business. I had a child – and shaggy ponies – and too many cats. The planet heated. I had plenty to write about, and managed to produce nine poetry collections (and do a surprising amount of broadcasting on BBC Radio). Now I am a Retired Person, I at last have time to go round and give readings from all these poems . . .
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A successful writer of historical fiction, with an Irish wolfhound! I don’t regret not having written the fiction. I do wish I’d managed to keep a dog.
What books have had a lasting impact on you?
Black Beauty. Many tattered anthologies, with memorable, often rhyming poems.
Why do you write?
It is inescapable. It is also the only thing I do at all well. (Ask my family!)
Your advice to new writers just starting out?
If you are a poet, do work through traditional metres and stanza forms, even if you don’t intend to use them. Some of the most noted writers of ‘free verse’ – Eliot, Plath – did so. Keep going. It is not the prizes or praise which matter (and there certainly won’t be much money!) It is having a stranger walk up to you, and tell you that your poems have given them ‘so much pleasure over the years’.
As an author, what are you most proud (or embarrassed) of writing?
I am very fond of the very short poems in my new book, Skies. I don’t think I wrote those; I caught them. Readers seem very keen on them, so I am glad that I have finally organized my life so that I can find a pencil stub and an envelope and scribble down couplets as they fly past!
What is your biggest failure?
Deciding not to publish between 1987 and 1995 (in mitigation, I was very busy with my daughter). I thought that I had been publishing too frequently, and that my next book would have more impact if I waited. I was utterly wrong. There was a startled comment a little later on the Internet from someone who thought I was dead!
Your views on success?
For a poet, I think this means getting a poem to a reader – especially outside the valuable, but small, poetry world.
What are you working on at the moment?
Ah! I’m very keen on this. I have just been writing poems about the recipes in a battered black notebook left by Dorothy Eliza Barnes, (Dot), my grandmother. She was a shepherd’s wife when I knew her, but had worked as an Edwardian cook. The poems aren’t nostalgic, but an entry into her life, and ours: ‘ ‘‘Beat four eggs well.” Do not look back.’ They are destined for a pamphlet, which will include recipes. I especially recommend Dot’s ‘Flamberries Pudding’, a luscious steamed pudding which contains ripples of (very hot) jam . . . People seem to like these poems. I think they’d love the puddings!
Your views on book publishing?
Poetry collections are now very hard to sell to bookshops. The poet has to make their own publicity and to do readings etc, with the diligent backing of their publisher. Sales are not large. But books do reach some remarkable places, and they are often a springboard into the wider world of newspapers or radio.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your writing life?
I couldn’t write prose efficiently without word processing! I do a good deal of reviewing, with strict word counts. The computer counts for me, and I can polish up my very rough drafts! So it makes it much easier for me to be active in the poetry world.
I still write, and endlessly re-draft poems just with pencil and paper. When I write out each draft, I spot all the weak points which need revision. But once it is final and typed, I can print out numerous copies. And it is very quick to submit work by email. So submissions no longer wait until I have time to queue in the Post Office.
Your views on social media?
Invaluable for publicity. Very useful for finding out publishing opportunities. (I’ve had a poem in a Penguin anthology, then in The Guardian, after seeing an anthology mentioned on Twitter.) Social media can sell books, in the oddest way. Someone bought my last collection after reading one of my Tweets about a snail in the bathroom . . . But social media should be two-way, I think. I very much enjoy posting about books I admire, and sharing quotes from my favourite breakfast reading. I don’t post anything raw and personal. I don’t think social media is a good place for profound political debate, unless you are prepared to devote an awful lot of time to it – and to deal with attacks and harassment.
Do you enjoy reading ebooks?
I’ve never read one.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
I would go to the Chinese palace where an Emperor commissioned wallpaintings of horses which were so realistic that the horses seemed alive . . . All lost.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
I am equally bad at dealing with parties and people, so I can’t think of five! Only John Clare, farm labourer and poet, who, in a painting, is seen inspecting a clock during a grand London party. Perhaps, when he’d finished looking at the clock, he would talk to me about birds.
Which characters in history do you like the most?
People who brought about practical improvements: sewers, Old Age Pensions. These people were not always saints, by the way. Think of Lloyd George . . .
Which characters in history do you dislike the most?
People who had great resources – money, charisma – and either did not use them for others’ benefit, or did terrible damage. How many people did Chairman Mao kill, through misguided changes to Chinese farming?
Your idea of happiness?
Meeting a new and friendly animal.
Your greatest unhappiness?
Having nothing to do. I am very good at making sure that never happens!
Your bedside reading?
Collected Poems of Stevie Smith, with her fine wayward rhymes, and her delicate drawings.
Your greatest achievement?
Surviving! Or perhaps, something I don’t know about – a small sum of money given to a charity that bought somebody a tent, a blanket, or a kilo of rice.
Your favourite motto?
Although they can be dangerous, I have never forgotten Eliot’s lines from the final section of The Waste Land:
‘The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed . . .’
Interview © BookBlast Ltd, London. Questions format © BookBlast Ltd, London.