Liz Berry

United Kingdom

Liz Berry was born in the Black Country and now lives in Birmingham. She received an Eric Gregory Award in 2009, an Arvon-Jerwood Mentorship in 2011 and won the Poetry London competition in 2012. Her pamphlet The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls was published by Tall Lighthouse in 2010. Liz works as the assistant poetry editor at Ambit magazine. Her debut collection, Black Country (Chatto & Windus, 2014), was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2014.


Liz Berry’s extraordinary debut collection, Black Country (Chatto & Windus, 2014), was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and won the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2014. Her Black Country poems are rooted in place, in the West Midlands, a heartland of iron foundries, coal mines and steel mills, where she was born. Though she has lived in London and now lives in Birmingham.

 

According to Ben Wilkinson in The Guardian she writes “chameleonic verse of ventriloquising playfulness, reported dialect, memorable imagery and often ballad-like musicality. Black Country is a singularly impressive book from a talented writer, and like all the best poetry, begs to be read aloud.” Such as in Bird, where storms turn the poet “inside out like a fury … / Until I felt at last the rush of squall thrilling my wing / and I knew my voice / was no longer words but song”.

 

Liz Berry writes: “When I moved away from the Black Country something of my heart was left behind. The place haunted me, haunted my work: its darkness, its gutted landscape, its folklore and music, its story of industrial wonder and decline, and - most significantly - its dialect. My poems became letters to and from the area, love letters, ghostly letters, letters home. I wanted to explore the magic within the Black Country's grit and to celebrate its beautiful, though sadly often much maligned, language as the stuff of poetry. Black Country dialect is a rich word hoard and I found it thrilling to see how it could make poems sing and fizz. So many people who I love, and have loved, have spoken in Black Country dialect and so it seemed important to me that it should be treasured.”

 

This sparing use of dialect she imagines as if from a ‘box,jemmied open/to let years of lost words spill out – /bibble, fettle, tay, wum,’ and it gives her poems their distinctive flavour.

 

Liz Berry continues: “Although the poems are full of true and tender feelings for places and people, I didn't want them to be too sweet or mawkish. There's magic in the storytelling but it's dark magic. The Black Country is rough and ready, there's violence and filth in its history, a great deal of blunt humour. I wanted that toughness, that blackness, to be the grounding for the moments of ecstasy and flight within the poems.”

 

Kate Kellaway writes in The Observer “These poems need to be studied slowly yet there is, as one reads on, a sense of gathering speed, a flightiness, a readiness to soar, and, most of all, an awareness of Berry's inclination to be, in some way, allied with birds. She writes, in the best sense, on a wing and a prayer...Liz Berry knows her own flight-path, that is for sure, coming in to land with a beautiful poem The Night You were Born in which she imagines her partner's birth while pregnant with his son. It is moving because not overworked. It exists as an imagined and a remembered moment.”

 

What it would have been to have seen you, pushed

howling, from that red tent of legs,

 

the first word on the page of our story.

 

Liz Berry has an earthy, no-nonsense appeal and is able to write poems that celebrate the pleasures of the flesh and with genuine eroticism. She is a startlingly good performer and in her appearance at Ledbury Poetry Festival showed an exceptional ability to connect with the audience.

 

Liz Berry is one of several poets commissioned for the Waterlines project, a collaboration between the Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust. One of her poems The Black Delph Bride, a canal murder ballad, was made into a beautifully eerie film by Alastair Cook. Liz Berry’s poem Bird featured in The Best British Poetry 2013. She has acted as assistant poetry editor at Ambit magazine.