Sunday Poem – Liz Berry

Evening all.  Yes, yet again, it’s not Sunday.  I’ve been away all weekend at Aldeburgh Poetry Festival – it was amazing but there was no internet in the cottage where we were staying, and I got back to Barrow at 2am this morning and there was no way I was going to be writing any blog posts at that time in the morning!

People have said to me before that I should prepare the posts in advance and then schedule them to be published on Sunday and I have thought about this, but because I witter on about my week this wouldn’t work because I obviously wouldn’t have had my week by then!

So last week was busy before I even got to Aldeburgh – two nights of rehearsals with the soul band I’m playing with as we start to get ready for our first gig which we don’t have a date for yet but there are vague indications that it will be sometime in December.

Of course there was teaching as well Monday to Wednesday and then I went for a run on Wednesday evening with my pal Jeff – we managed 11k at a pretty good pace and got to see all the fireworks going off as we ran round Barrow.  Coming up the hill toward my house it became apparent that the population of Barrow were stupefied by the sight of the fireworks and I don’t think one person stepped to the side to let us pass – even the cars were randomly stopping in the middle of the road while the driver gawked at a firework, forcing us to run round them.  I thought about running over one but decided knowing my luck it would be a headteacher of a school I work in or a parent of a child I teach so decided against it.

I spent the rest of Wednesday night writing an online assignment for a course I’m doing for the Poetry School – I’m one of the tutors on a course called 5 Easy Pieces – 5 different tutors set an assignment, one after the other.  Participants upload their poems by Wednesday and then we have a web chat the following Wednesday about their poems.  I’m really looking forward to this and for maybe the fifth time this year, thanking the Lord that I taught myself to touch type all those years ago.

And then I got an early train to Preston and discovered to my delight that there are shops right next to the train station so managed to nip in with my suitcase in tow and buy some jumpers while I was waiting for my friend David Borrott to come and pick me up.  This, you might think, would not normally be worthy of noting on a blog, except that I haven’t bought any new clothes for ages – I just haven’t had time.  I’ve turned, in fact, into that teacher who wears the same clothes every day.  In fact a couple of weeks ago  a child asked me if I only had one coat…

It took David and I about 5 hours or so to get from Preston to Aldeburgh and it was a great journey.  I thought we might be fed up of each other by the time we got there but we had great fun!  We stopped quite a few times and my attempts to embarrass David by star jumping my way through Starbucks in my excitement at going to Aldeburgh did not work – in fact he joined in.

It was strange because we all arrived within minutes of each other – there was me and David of course, and then the lovely Holly Hopkins, Maria Taylor and Emily Blewitt.  We did a rather shambolic trip to the Co-op where much conversation ensued as to whether to buy communal bananas and bread and then we spent Thursday night (well some of us did) drinking a bottle of red wine and talking.

On Friday I spent the morning writing – yes, I actually did some writing and then went for a rather windy and cold run along the beach with Emily – we did about 6 kilometres and I’m frankly quite suprised that we weren’t blown away and over the ocean – kept expecting to see poets floating away on the gusts every time I looked up.

I’ve been looking forward to Aldeburgh for ages.  In fact since last year, when I got on the train to come home after reading at the festival, and I wasn’t disappointed.  I loved it as much as last year, although in a different way.  This year, I didn’t have anything to do, apart from turn up and listen.

There were lots of highlights for me at the festival.  I loved Dan O’Brien’s reading.  The poems that he read from War Reporter made my stomach churn.  They were uncomfortable to listen to and shocking and sad.  If you haven’t read Dan O’Brien’s ‘War Reporter’ – his first collection which is published by CB Editions, then you really should.  It is not an easy read, but the poems feel utterly essential to me.  Have a look at

I also really enjoyed Selima Hill’s reading.  She was utterly odd, but in a very moving way.  She reminded me of a little bird, the way she stood behind the lecturn and peered at the audience for minutes before she spoke.  Her new book is called ‘The Sparkling Jewel of Naturism’ and is published by Bloodaxe, and although I haven’t read it all yet, I can tell it’s going to be great.

I knew I’d enjoy Kathleen Jamie’s reading because I’ve seen her read before and I love her poetry, but she was really on form at the festival.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen her cracking jokes in a reading before, but she was, and she was very funny. And the audience seemed to love it.  She read quite a lot of new work as well, which was a real treat to hear.  Finuala Dowling was a new discovery – I’d never heard of her before but she read really well.  I bought her collection ‘Notes from a Dementia Ward’ where she manages to write about the onset of dementia in a parent both movingly and with humour.

I also enjoyed the ‘New Voices’ reading, which was one of the events I took part in last year.  The four readers were Suzannah Evans, Chrissy Williams, Jonathan Edwards and Kayo Chingonyi.  I even had a little tear in my eye at the end of Jonathan Edwards’ reading at his last poem which was a football poem.  A football poem – can you imagine! I hate football, so it must have been good.

I also love the ‘Close Readings’ at Aldeburgh.  They are fifteen minute sessions where a poet appearing at the festival talks for fifteen minutes about a favourite poem.  These sessions are free and I think t are one of the best events at the festival.  I thought Paula Bohince was fabulous in her Close Reading with a really interesting talk on Sandpiper, a poem by Elizabeth Bishop.  It made me want to read more slowly, more carefully.

Of course the real highlight of the weekend was being part of the winning team at Dean Parkin’s and Michael Laskey’s famous Poetry Quiz.  We all got a £10 book voucher which I then managed to lose and then locate again in the pub the next afternoon.

At the end of the last reading it was time for Naomi Jaffa to say her goodbyes as the Director of the festival.  Naomi got two standing ovations from the crowd and huge bouquets of flowers from Dean and Michael.  I am sad to see Naomi go – but I also really admire her bravery for taking a leap off into the unknown.  You can read more about Naomi’s decision to leave here

And WHO will keep Dean and Michael in order? The new Director Ellen McAteer that’s who!  I’m hoping to go back to Aldeburgh next year, and I know a new person at the helm will obviously change things, but I hope they don’t change too much – I think the festival really is something special.

Anyway, it’s now 11pm on Monday night and I’ve spent the whole evening answering emails and then writing this blog, so I am finishing here and leaving you with a wonderful poem by Liz Berry, recent winner of the Forward Prize for Best First Collection.  Liz read in Grasmere this summer and was wonderful.  She is one of the few poets I know who can read with the equally wonderful Kei Miller and hold her own.  A friend predicted that we had just heard the winners of the respective Forward Prizes for Best Collection and Best First Collection and he was right! Liz’s book is called ‘Black Country’ and it is a fantastic collection – full of colourful, crackling poems full of the dialect of the West Midlands.  You can order a copy here from her publisher.

Liz is also a primary school teacher and the poem I’ve chosen is called ‘Miss Berry’.  Although I would normally discourage reading into a poem and talking about it as if it is about the poet, I think the use of ‘Miss Berry’ in the title probably makes it safe to do so.

I love how precise it is with the rows of o’s in the first couplet and then the way the second couplet trails away, unable to finish the sentence.  I recognise the clashy-bashy orchestra from my own teaching.  I love the tenderness in the poem – the teachers’ hand curled over a child’s hand, and then the teacher rolling the bodies across the gym floor – I love the celebration of the physical closeness between teachers and pupils, which doesn’t really get talked about – but this poem is unashamed of touch, which I find really beautiful.

The other thing that I really love about this poem is the way it shows how when you are a teacher, you measure time differently.  Time is measured by ‘paper snowflakes,/blown eggs,/bereft cocoons.’  The end of the year is not, in fact, in December.  The end of the year is always the summer.

Liz Berry was born in the Black Country in 1980.  She received an Eric Gregory Award in 2009, an Arvon-Jerwood Mentorship in 2011 and won the Poetry London competition in 2012.  She lives in Birmingham

I hope you enjoy the poem, and thanks to Liz Berry and her publisher Chatto and Windus for allowing me to publish the poem here.

Miss Berry – Liz Berry

I have learnt to write rows of o’s bobbing
hopeful as hot air balloons from the line’s tethers

and watched eight springs of frogspawn
grow legs but never…

and conducted clashy-bashy orchestras
of chime bars ocarina thundering tambour

and curled my hand over another hand
to hinge the crocodile jaws of the scissors.

I have accompanied a small mourning party
to a blackbird’s burial plot

and rolled countless bodies, like coloured marbles
across gym mats

and conducted science’s great experiments
using darkened cupboards, plastic cups and cress

and unhooked a high window on a stuffy day
and heard the room’s breath.

I have measured time by paper snowflakes,
blown eggs, bereft cocoons

and waved goodbye in summer so many times
that even in September my heart is June.

12 comments on “Sunday Poem – Liz Berry

  1. Your description of Bonfire Night moment with all the people and the cars just stopping to look at the fireworks will stick with well as your wicked thought of running over the cars. Great poem too. have decided I must get to Aldeburgh. Thanks for that ( thought you must’ve won something…oh, that’ll be next year!)

  2. I agree that Aldeburgh was fantastic – it was my first time. Agree about Kathleen Jamie, Selima Hill and Finuala Dowling. I also loved Karen McCarthy Woolf who gave such a polished performance of her heartbreaking poems.
    Thanks for the Liz Berry poem. It really resonated with me – a recovering primary school teacher!

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