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  • Jacci Gooding

Meet the Author: Beth Brooke

Beth Brooke has been writing poetry since before she can remember. However it wasn't until after a busy career in education that she found the time to write her collections; A Landscape with Birds in 2022 and Transformations, 2023. Much of her poetry focuses on the interaction between the self and the landscape and how landscape shapes us. She has since been published in a variety of journals both online and print, including The York Literary Review, Poetry Bus and Marble. She's also SWLF's Poetry judge.


stands on spindle legs, raises head, ears slicked back'

from "Dog"



Beth Brooke


Welcome Beth Brooke. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.    


I am a retired English teacher and education consultant. I loved being a teacher, it was a joyful thing and children are just brilliant to be around. These days I am lucky enough to volunteer at the Dorset Museum in my town of Dorchester where I get to help with school groups coming to learn about the history of Dorset. I also tutor a Syrian boy at the weekends. In January 2024 I became a pensioner and a grandmother. I am particularly thrilled about the grandmother part of that sentence!


So tell us Beth, what drew you to the discipline of poetry?


That’s almost an impossible question to answer. I cannot recall a time when I did not read and write poetry. I think what draws me to poetry is that it’s possible to say so much with so few words. I love the economy of poetry.


Do you only write poetry?


Absolutely only poetry. I have co-authored textbooks in English and history for secondary aged children that was in my professional life. When I write for pleasure I write poetry.


At what point did you decide to be a poet?


I was born wanting to be a poet but if you want a more sensible answer, I started writing in a focused way during the last couple of years before I retired from education. I stopped full time work and did three days a week for the final two years of my teaching career and that gave me the time and headspace to start exploring my poetry again.

 

So now you have the time and headspace, what themes or ideas do you explore in your poetry?


Hmm…well this month I have written a poem to mark the birth of my grandson, a poem in which I imagine the prophet Ezekiel as a United Nations aid worker in Gaza, a poem about the smell of fabric conditioner emanating from a care home run by Death, and one about my elder son emigrating to Canada. This suggests an interesting variety of themes.

 

Yes it certainly does!

 

I think many people would say I am a poet of nature and landscape. My first pamphlet, A Landscape With Birds, is a set of poems which has birds as the observers of human activity. My second pamphlet, Transformations is inspired by the work of the artist Elisabeth Frink so they are ekphrastic poems. They explore themes such as freedom, nature and human violence. My most recent collection, Chalk Stories is all about Dorset, its landscape, history and people. It’s a sort of love song for the place where I live. In the past I have written about my mother’s final years living with Alzheimer’s Disease, and recently I have found myself writing about my father’s life as a young soldier during war. I think the short answer is I write about what catches my attention and that can be anything.

 





That’s a really interesting and creative mix. How do you approach the craft of poetry?


I write regularly, by which I mean two or three times a week. I don’t have a set time though and don’t worry if nothing much emerges from my efforts. I do like to do online workshops , especially with Anna Saunders from The Cheltenham Poetry Festival and I have recently joined the Women Poets Network and I enjoy their Sunday discussions and open mic sessions.  I was lucky enough to do a monthly course with Fiona Sampson via The Poetry School. This was an in person course and that was wonderful. I enjoy the company of poets! I try to experiment with form and structure, just to keep my writing fresh and workshops are a good way of challenging myself.

 

Can you discuss the significance of language and word choice in your work?


Hard question! I haven’t really thought about this in any conscious way. I can say that my work is pretty stripped down and I like my poems to be lean. I enjoy reading poems that don’t use a lot of similes and which adjectives sparingly. I try not to use adverbs in my poems as this forces me to think more carefully about the verbs. Verbs do a lot of the heavy lifting in a poem.



The raven thinks about flesh, remembers the bright reds of battlefield gashes

from "Gourmand"



Heavy lifting - that’s a very good way to put it. Do you prefer poetry over prose?


I love prose and always have a book on the go. There are some writers of prose whose sentences are just perfect and who spark in me a desire to write a poem. I have no interest in writing prose however, preferring to leave that to people who are good at it.

 

Do you think poems need to have a ‘message’? 


No. I like imagist poems and I don’t think many of those have an explicit message but rather they invite the reader to explore a mood or a moment of sensibility. I was encouraged by more experienced writers to avoid tying up all the loose ends in a poem but to leave the poem open to the reader. All that said I do want a poem to make me think, a poem that asks me to consider an idea in a less obvious way. I believe there needs to be something underneath a nice landscape poem for example, an underlying emotion.


Whose poetry, if anyone’s, are you currently reading?


I was given a copy of Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf for Christmas so that’s one thing I am reading. I am also enjoying The Secrets Of The Dictator’s Wife by Katrina Dybzynska. I am interested in the use of a first person persona to structure each poem apart from three poems before the final poem. I write in first person persona but have never attempted to unify a whole set of poems in this way.


Describe your writing process for us.


I believe in letting a poem brew. This means that I will probably think about the subject for a poem for a little while before I write it. When I do begin what I produce could be mistaken for a block of prose. This is my starting point: I shape it by trying to find the structure it wants to be. I look at language choices and word order. I try to do between 2 and 4 drafts. Sometimes a poem just turns up and all I need to do is write it down. I like to read my work aloud when I am writing as this often reveals where a poem isn’t working in terms of rhythm, meter and sense. I refer to this process as looking for the cracks.

 

That is an excellent way of looking at all writing I would think. Do you think poetry is an important art form?


I think it’s extremely important. My young Syrian pupil absolutely loves poetry and it’s a great way to get him to experience language under pressure and to explore the impact of word choice and word order. This gives him a better appreciation of all writing.

 

How long does it take you to write a poem?


Ha ha! My poem, William Barnes: Poet, Polymath, Wearer Of Shoes (published in Sarasvati Journal and in Chalk Stories) took three months. It was one of those that needed a careful structure. Others take ten minutes. An average for what I would describe as publishable poems probably take about two hours, minus the thinking time. I do a lot of the thinking when I am out running.



 

 


What do you think is the most difficult part of writing?


The titles are murderous!


And what do you think is the best part of being a writer?


It has to be making a connection with people through sharing your work.

 

What is the best time of day for you to write?


I often write first thing in the morning, drafting on my phone, usually a poem that I have woken up thinking about.


How do you know what to write?


As I said earlier, it’s what catches my attention that prompts me to write. Sometimes those are painful world events like Gaza and Ukraine, Afghanistan and Iran, sometimes it’s just something wacky; I once saw that a whole set of golf clubs had been tipped into the river near where I live. I mean, the possibilities of how they came to be there were just too tempting!



'We walked where ragged sticks of men regarded us. Some had eaten their own hearts to stay alive; we had no words to comfort them'

From "The Transformation of Turmoil"


 

I bet! I failure is a thing in writing, how often would you say you have you failed in your writing?


Depends how you define failure. I send poems out to journals and more often than not they get turned down. I don’t enter competitions usually because that can gobble up lots of cash. I felt a huge failure in relation to my Elisabeth Frink poems because they were met with a thunderous silence on social media. I asked for people willing to review them and sent out several copies to a whole heap of people who volunteered but so far only one review has been forthcoming. I am sure this pamphlet is my best work and it contains two poems nominated for the Pushcart Prize but I still feel downcast because someone said they weren’t poems for the general poetry reader. What a snowflake I am!

 

Well, as any writer will tell you, no matter how famous or not they are, it’s all subjective and only one person’s opinion. Onwards and upwards is the best mantra. Do you share your drafts?


Yes whenever I can. I would love to do this with a regular group of poets.

 

Despite someone thinking your work wasn’t for the general poetry reader - whatever that is! - you are published. What was your path to publication?


I started sending individual poems out to online journals which I found through Twitter (X). Barren Magazine and Bonnie’s Crew were really nice to me as were The Gloucester Poetry Society, Green Ink, and Dreich - amongst others. Then some kind poets (Colin Bancroft and Karlo Sevilla) agreed to give me feedback on the set of poems that became A Landscape With Birds and eventually I sent it in to a Hedgehog Press competition.

 

Do you have favourite writer?


If we are talking poets then Seamus Heaney is a god. Margaret Atwood is brilliant at poetry and prose. I have read everything ever written by Russell Hoban.


Why them, particularly?


Where to start? Atwood is a writer of perfect sentences and her novels, especially her speculative fiction are compelling. My favourite poem is written by her, it’s Variation On The Word Sleep. Seamus Heaney I had the good fortune to see years ago. He blends nature, landscape and the interplay between those things and human emotions so deftly. Nobody ends a poem quite like Seamus. Russell Hoban was such a talent. His children’s novel, The Mouse And His Child, revealed to my twelve year old self that stories were about more than plot and narrative and his novel Riddley Walker is the book I have read more times than any other. It’s a masterpiece of language, myth, storytelling and a dark glimpse into where we might be heading.


Oh, that sounds ominous! On a lighter subject, how did you get your book deal?


I entered a Hedgehog Poetry Press competition for my first and second books. The most recent is published by Hobnob Press and I sent the editor a review of my first book and the rough manuscript for Chalk Stories. He liked it!


Result! So, what advice would you give a first-time poet?


Read contemporary poetry. Maybe if you can afford it, subscribe to a print journal, although there are plenty of free online journals you can subscribe to. Don’t just write about your own experiences, write about how you experience the world.


How do you view your readership?


I have a readership? This is exciting. Seriously the people who respond to my work make my heart sing. I love it when people say that something has resonated with them or has made them think differently about something.

 

Good! So in that regard, is social media important to you with regard to how you feel about your success?


Yes it is. I would like to say that it wasn’t but social media helps spread information about my poetry.


How important to you are book reviews?


I had several reviews for A Landscape With Birds. I didn’t solicit any of them so it was very nice that people felt that they wanted to talk about it. I am clueless when it comes to marketing and I know some poets who are expert at getting their work out there. I think probably they are important.


Thank you Beth for your interview and we look forward to your next collection of poems.


How to buy Beth’s books

A Landscape With Birds and Transformations can be bought direct from



Interview by Jacci Gooding, Festival Director


Photos: Author's own

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