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Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.
Stories, Weekly Interviews, things to see and footnotes.

Week 06 — June 1, 2018

In Conversation

Greta Bellamacina Poet9 minute read

Greta Bellamacina is a poet, actress, filmmaker and model. Along with her husband, Robert Montgomery, she is also the co-founder of independent poetry press New River Press. They have published a variety of poets (including me) and done readings everywhere from Shakespeare & Co to the Burberry Café. Here Greta talks motherhood, new language, and why more poetry should be collaborative.

Rosalind Jana

Interview Rosalind Jana

RWhat was your route into becoming a poet? 

GI feel like, as a child, I was always quite melancholic, and I found that from a young age I was really obsessed with the idea of grief [laughs]. I don’t know if it was because I was aware of when people passed away — I feel like we had quite a bit of family tragedy — but I’d always found poetry an easy way to express those feelings. I felt that poetry was one of the only art forms that… had an internal language to it connected with life and death. And it was only really when I gave birth and became a mother that I could see myself writing similar stuff again. 

Yeah, it was probably a mix of being a really emotional child and… it held a lot of darkness. It sounds really, really soppy but I’d always just cry about the natural world and how beautiful it was! Poetry was a place where I could get all the darkness down.

That’s a really great way of phrasing it: “get all the darkness down”! I’m interested in the way you talk about poetry and its relationship for you with motherhood. You often emphasise redefining motherhood and the ways we discuss it. Are there any particular things you’d like to see change in those conversations?

I found going through the process of being pregnant, so much of the literature around me was prescriptive and presented so many ideals. For me, when I wrote about my own experiences, it was about the emotive side of it. I think so much of that gets lost, especially in the media. It’s so much more complex and chaotic than people say it is. You don’t know how you’re going to feel! You go through so many stages. When I was pregnant, I ended up writing poetry that wasn’t necessarily what people expected… One of my poems is based on the idea of falling in love with this strange thing that’s captured your body, that you have no control over. A lot of my inspiration came out of that idea. 

It seems to make sense to write poetry about that because, especially when speaking to other women, they all had their own routes through pregnancy, and so many different things to say. 

Definitely – and to have a multiplicity of stories because there’s no one way of being a mother, just as there’s no one way to live. 
I’m struck whenever I read your work by this fascinating use of language, whereby I feel like you recast words or make me see them in new ways depending on the context you place them in. How do you go about constructing that? 

That’s a good question! I think poetry’s a very musical language, and my father’s a musician, and I’m also quite dyslexic. When I hear a word — especially on the radio or when someone says something — I always feel the musicality of it. Sometimes it’s more interesting than the meaning. When you construct words with that in mind [it] can be really powerful. 

I think one of your jobs as a poet is to redefine the language and make new languages, and make new words and new worlds; the poets I’m drawn to often do that. From an early age I loved Anne Sexton — she’s one of the poets who managed to draw the mundane but find all the shocking realities in it by just putting out words that wouldn’t necessarily sit together, and making them alarming. When I write, I quite like to give it a shocking energy. 

On that note, I recently bought Tess Gallagher’s poetry on your recommendation and love it. What other poets do you read? Whose work do you return to again and again? 

I love Alice Oswald. I think she’s probably my favourite poet of all time. Her sense of the natural world as connected to this dreamtime consciousness thing — in a sense that the water has fingers that are connected to the roots of someone’s mind, this endless stream of consciousness — is just incredible. I love Robert’s writing [Montgomery, Bellamacina’s husband]! [laughs] Just because for me he was the one person who was able to marry this very teenage way of thinking, and bring it into the real world, with all of the magic you’d hope poetry has in it. His writing reminds me of my nostalgic teenage self. I love Emily Berry’s first collection, Dear Boy. And I love contemporary poets like Lisa Luxx. And I love your poetry. 

Thanks! 

Who else? I just found a poet called Joelle Taylor. I did a reading with her for International Women’s Day and her poetry — you have to read it — is about her growing up as a lesbian on this council estate up north. It’s written in a way that’s so raging. Every teenager should read that book. I feel like I’ve read her teenage diary – I love it. 

To circle back around to Rob, and to the New River Press — which obviously I’m very grateful to be a part of — could you explain how the idea came about for setting that up?

Both of us have always struggled with making a living from being poets. When I began reading poetry and found this amazing community of young writers — and writers of all ages — it just felt deeply unfair that all these writers were still struggling. They’d done amazing cultural things — such as the writer Heathcote Williams, who we published and who sadly just passed away — but were still finding it hard to get their books [out there]. So, we decided, as kind of an experiment, to set up New River Press like Factory Records, where we published a set number of books every year and gave half of the profits back to the artists — where unlike most publishers, they give you a small percentage. 

I remember when I edited a book of poetry with a really big publisher, I was shocked at how low the fee was. It was like five hundred pounds for two years’ work! It was insane. And with no rights! And it just felt like, if this was happening, what was the hope for the average young girl in Hull who wrote poetry but couldn’t find any centralised place to publish her work? 

Through doing it we’ve met so many people. There is this whole generation of poets who deserve to be seen and heard and read — like yourself — and it’s been really refreshing doing it and taking charge. This year we’re publishing five new collections. One is by Chris McCabe, about Britain now. We’ve got Heathcote Williams’ last collection that he wrote, which is called Poetry Can Fuck Off. It’s a five hundred page epic poem. And we’ve got a few more. But we’re always looking for people. There’s one poet called Afshan Shafi whose work, for me, is like Sylvia Plath. It’s brilliant. 

Greta's Top 10

Poetry Collections

You’re also very emphatic about how more poetry should be collaborative. Other forms of art like music lend themselves naturally to that, while poetry is often viewed as a solitary endeavour. How did you find it collaborating on your collection Points for Time in the Sky with Rob? Did it change how you thought about your own writing? 

It did. We naturally started together — the first night we met we started writing poetry together, which sounds pretty mad when you say it aloud! And it was a really interesting way to realise how I wrote and the patterns I naturally, instinctively go to. Rob always brings things back to reality, whereas I tend to take them to this dreamlike place. Together it was nice to balance each other out. 

When we looked into it, we realised there was a French tradition of writers who did it a lot — especially the Surrealists — but in Britain I guess there hasn’t been that much. In music there’s a lot. You can’t imagine Keith Richards writing without Mick Jagger. So we were really keen to get more writers working together because, in a way, it seems that writing is such a lonely thing — and when you do collaborate, you have no idea where it’s going to go. 

In that collaborative collection there’s also this real sense of location, with all of these landscapes from the urban through to the very rural or coastal. Does a sense of place inform your work too, or do you think that’s something you gleaned more from Rob? 

I think when we were writing together we didn’t realise that a lot of the poems were going to be about Britain. As a female writer and a male writer, you often come at things completely differently, especially with starting points. And we found that when we thought about Norfolk, for example, we had completely different positions. When the book was finished we’d almost created this third ghost voice, which was quite beautiful. But at the time we started writing the book a lot of change was happening in Britain – and as writers you can’t not write about the times you live in. It was partly that, and partly the fact that when Rob thinks about London it’s as a Scottish man coming here and discovering a place, whereas I was born in Hampstead and grow up in Camden. I always feel like it’s a rediscovery. 

With that point on gender, let’s talk about SMEAR, your anthology incorporating a collective of different female voices. What was the impetus for putting it together? 

I like the idea of making people feel uneasy — I think even just in calling it ‘Smear’. I wanted people to stop and go, “Ooh? Why that word? Why is there this sense of awkward uneasiness?”. And I think the whole collection accomplishes that, in that I wanted to create a place where you could talk about your first kiss, the loneliness of leaving home, being an older woman, losing someone… Just having a place where it didn’t matter what you were writing about but it was all connected to this sense of being female now and sharing something. For me, it was one of my favourite books because it’s so courageous. We did an open call and I didn’t expect to get so many submissions, and so many of the poems I could instantly relate to… That book’s done so well. Having an uncensored place was really refreshing. 

Yes! The jarring perspectives and stories in it are so great. Actually, circling back to what you were saying about surrealism and art and collaboration, I often think about people like Sonia Delaunay, who was such a special artist in the way she collaborated with poets. I love the way that there’s a kind of modern day link to some of that with the work you and Rob do with Each x Other. What happens to poetry when it becomes wearable? 

I think fashion must be political in order to be meaningful. And with Each x Other everything we’ve done has had a message or a political slogan. If you can walk down the street with something like ‘Poetry Kills Celebrity Culture’ on your chest and someone sees that I think, great, you’ve reached a new person. You’ve elevated something else into the world. And fashion has an incredible amount of people who follow it. It should open eyes and encourage us into a new world of hope and aspiration. With Each x Other, that’s what we try to do. 

Could you tell me more about your forays into filmmaking? 

Last year I wrote and directed my first feature-length documentary, The Safe House: A Decline of Ideas, which is about the decline of the British public libraries, starring Stephen Fry, John Cooper Clarke, Irvine Welsh, and so on. The film is pretty dark, it reimagines what it would be like if Britain were to lose them. The film concludes that it would be the end of modernism, the end of a new generation, the end of a civilisation. I really wanted to shock people. These spaces are lifelines. I basically came up with the idea a year before making it. A lot of the time it was very DIY, just me and filmmaker Chloe Pemberton, turning up to marches, library lock-ins, talking to protestors on our iPhones. But I was overwhelmed with how much support we got from the public… 

I am currently in pre-production for my debut fiction film, Hurt By Paradise — which is set to be filmed in the next coming year — which I co-wrote. The film is a semi-autobiographical comedic portrait of an unusual cross-generational friendship between two women and their journey, confronting with humour the stereotypes of being a female artist today. It’s basically Frances Ha set in South London and Margate. I’m playing a young, struggling poet who is desperately trying to be heard… We want the film to show a subculture of people who often get lost in the mainstream, but also a poetic magic to the harshness of the city. 

Finally, you're always pursuing new avenues and directions with your work. I know you started out acting, and it's something you've recently returned to? What new challenges or types of satisfaction has it presented? 

I was always drawn to acting from a young age because I liked the idea of living different lives, being different people. I am a manic perfectionist, too, and think being in character can be quite freeing... I forget myself and I get to dream a different way. I remember when I got into RADA at 18 thinking I get to be in someone else's fantasy all day. 

Most recently I starred in Jacyln Bethany's new movie, The Last Birthday, playing the lead Maria, one of the cult Romanov sisters, alongside Anna Popplewell and Jazzy de Lisser. I loved playing such a strong-minded character whose whole existence involved a sense of false hope. I have always been interested in tragedy and finding the poetry in the mundane. That’s why over the past few years I have found it much more satisfying writing my own roles. I just released a short film, Myths Not For Sale, where I play a struggling single mother who runs a private radio station, set in the ‘90s, alongside rising star Jack Gordon. It’s crazy to think how much has changed in just 20 years...

Greta's Matches Wishlist