The Poetry of the Black Country: a new Offa’s Press anthology

On Sedgley Beacon

Carol Howarth

To the north –
The Pennines.
Hadrian’s Wall and
John O’Groats.

To the west –
Church spires skewer the green canopy –
Wombourne, Seisdon and Claverley.

Rounding to the south –
The Mappa Mundi –
Hereford.  Paris.  Roome.
And elephants.  And camels.

Turn east
To look down on
Roads, trains, canals and
The blazing furnace of the rising sun.

Carol Howarth is one of a galaxy of poets gathered together in a new anthology capturing the essence of the Black Country.

The Poetry of the Black Country is a celebration of the region and the people who live and work in it, and includes poems by Liz Berry, Brendan Hawthorne, Heather Wastie, Roy McFarlane, and the late Roy Fisher, among many others.

ARTS FOUNDRY caught up with editor Emma Purshouse to ask what marks out Black Country poetry…

The Poetry of the Black Country cover art: ed. Emma Purshouse, Dave Reeves and Simon Fletcher, Offa’s Press  Image: © Rob Perry

How do you get the right balance of poems for an anthology such as this?

It’s tricky to strike a balance in an anthology.  There are some poems we absolutely loved that didn’t get in… it could be that only a couple of poems referring to a particular subject are needed, and three or four are submitted.

We also wanted to achieve a balance between male and female voices, and to include some of the people who  are no longer with us who contributed greatly to the Black Country poetry scene, such as Joel Lane and Geoff Stevens.  All of this caused a great shuffling of poems until we’d got something that we hoped was representative and referenced the things that we thought might be  important to people.

What makes Black Country poetry quintessentially from the region?

Obviously the referencing of place can mark a poem out as Black Country, although that’s never straightforward as there is great argument as to where the Black Country is, or isn’t.

The dialect, the industry, local customs… all of these are key.

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Emma Purshouse, one of the editors of ‘The Poetry of the Black Country’

What are some of the common themes?

Industry and the decline of industry are common themes.  There is also a returning theme of being unable to leave the place behind once you have lived there – that is running through many of the poems.  There is a real sense of love for the place.

How do the featured poets reflect the feel of the region?

The poetry is very varied in its approach, both in terms of subject matter and form.  There is a lot of observance of people and poems that consider characters.

You’ll find everything from poetry in strict ballad metre to looser performance pieces.  There are quite a few prose poems too.  Interestingly, there were a fair amount of concrete poems submitted, which perhaps says something about the region.  Two made it into the book.

It was interesting interviewing Kerry Hadley-Pryce recently as she talked a lot about cadences, how rhythms of speech can characterise an area, and the mood of an area too. Would you say the same about the poetry that’s written here?

Yes, the rhythms and speech patterns very much characterise the area, I feel.  And the dialect and distinct turn of phrase within that creates a strong sense of the people who inhabit the region, and their tone.

I’m a huge fan of Roy Fisher. What, in your opinion makes him such a giant among Midland poets?

Roy Fisher was the first poet I ever saw read when I was in my teens. It was in a back room in a back street pub somewhere in the Black Country… there were two people and a dog there.

Being such a big gun in the poetry world, he gave credence to the places he was writing about.  He approached the city of Birmingham and the Black Country with such a keen eye and observed the metropolis and industrial England brilliantly.

Fisher gave poets permission to focus on their own region, but without being provincial.  Perhaps it’s not unlike the way in which Liz Berry has recently given permission for poets to use dialect in a way that is exciting, and escapes the ‘Aynuck and Ayli’ versions of the language of the Black Country, which has its place, but it isn’t everything.

Lastly, tell us about the featured poem…

We chose this piece by Carol Howarth, who is a Canadian-born writer living in the Black Country, to feature on the back cover of the anthology.  It seemed to encapsulate such a lot in a small space.

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The Poetry of The Black Country [Paperback] edited by Emma Purshouse, Dave Reeves & Simon Fletcher is out now.

You can buy it at the Offa’s Press website, which champions a host of regional poets. Check out their events page for readings and workshops coming soon.

Stourbridge’s spoken word night Permission to Speak will be showcasing poetry from the anthology on Wednesday 6 December, 7.30pm at Claptrap (formerly Scary Canary), High Street, Stourbridge: featuring Natalie Burdett, Nellie Cole, Stephen Clarke, Roy McFarlane and Emma Purshouse.

Larging it up… the bold brushstrokes of Brian Fletcher

Brian Fletcher has made a name for himself with large scale paintings and drawings of the Black Country.

He captures scenes most of us would drive past without a glance, bringing underpasses and derelict houses to life in a frenetic whirl of colour and impasto.

 

He paints with great passion and commitment and explores a wide range of 
subject matter using a variety of media. He regards himself as an expressionist, exploring his subjective responses to the drama of mountain and rural landscape, architecture and the human figure…

 

Impasto (from the Italian ‘to paste upon’) requires courage and vision: layering paint, or more literally ‘raising paste’ to create texture and movement in a swordsman’s flourish of brush and palette knife.

The end result, in the right hands, is vivid and immediate.

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Brian says: ‘‘I work large because it allows a freedom of expression and emotion I cannot find in smaller work. When I was at school we used to tease each other with a saying:  ‘If you can’t fight, wear a big hat.’

‘I still don’t know what this means but I sometimes wonder if it might apply to my painting: ‘If you can’t paint, use a big brush.’’

Brian can paint. He’s an elected member of the RBSA, the Birmingham Art Circle, Dudley Society of Artists and Vice President of the Easel Club. He has many opportunities to exhibit, and his influences reveal a formal training and deep appreciation of art.

‘I am influenced by so many great painters,’ he says. ‘Where to begin? Soutine, Frank Auerbach, Barbara Rae, the Fauves, Dennis Creffield, David Bomberg… many, many others, all of them expressionist, adventurous painters and draughtsmen.’

Walk into an exhibition and you can’t miss Brian’s paintings.

They leap out at you, an immediate presence in the room. Search for his paintings on Flickr and they shout from the crowd, demanding to be seen.

The rugged industrial scenery of the region inspires much of his work, as well as British mountain scenery. He also paints and draws the human figure.

‘I was raised a good Black Country lad close to large steel industries in which my father and the community worked. So it was a great influence in my formative years.

‘In my painting I respond to the rugged and vibrant influences of this culture and to the bright colours and massive forms to be found in industrial structures.

‘Much of it is now in decay and this inspires me in that it seems to release bold colour and new forms.’

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Brian’s work is frequently featured in exhibitions in the area, most recently Black Seen and The Industrial Muse, which drew artists from the area together.

‘We all had strong links to the region, present and past, and so myself and fellow artists decided that it would be a good theme. Our work responds to the visual stimulus of the Black Country.’

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Brian is currently working on portraiture and life drawing.

‘In the immediate future I am intending to return to another theme that I pursue – large impasto and intensely coloured cathedral interiors.

‘Although the direct subject matter is different from the Black Country series, the handling of paint and gestural are the same. Both are inspired by robust and rugged subject matter.’

Biography

Brian Fletcher has exhibited widely both locally and nationally, including the Royal Society of British Artists.  His work is held in the permanent collections of Shropshire County Council, Dudley Art Gallery and the RBSA, where he also regularly exhibits. 

`Remember that a painting before becoming a favourite theme, a nude or a specific anecdote is just a flat surface covered with colours in a certain order.` – Maurice Denis

‘I look at nature and write my own song about it.` – Ivon Hitchens