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Drop in by Valerie Bence

This is a first for the website, a drop in by a poet published by the fabulous Emma Press! Welcome, Valerie Bence.

Thank you Nigel for this opportunity to reflect on my writing and to look at Press me in peat from my latest Emma Press pamphlet Overlap.

After a career as a librarian and researcher, I finished a very dry PhD in my late 50’s and wanted to see if I had a creative thought in my head – so I undertook a couple of online creative writing courses. After the second the tutor (a poet) told me to forget fiction and move to poetry. This was a revelation and six months later I was on a poetry MA at MMU. A year’s mentoring resulted in my first pamphlet published by Cinnamon Press Falling in love with a dead man (2019) rooted in my MA final collection and my slight (!) obsession with Rembrandt. He is with me everyday, tattoo’d on my writing arm.

Now retired, I am late to the poetry party but determined to revel in it and push myself. I take an ekphrastic approach to writing, working with objects and artworks but this has broadened to encompass truth, memory, place and time.  Time is an especially powerful focus, I find that writing on significant anniversaries or in real time brings another dimension to the writing process and I also like to slip between tenses and time periods in narrative work.

Overlap came out of my lockdown experience when I was alone for 12 weeks 4 days. I’ll never forget this time, seeing my children (and baby grandchildren) on screens became increasingly painful. I felt both my grandmothers’ presence while I was learning to be an absent one.  Most of the time I was unable to concentrate on anything resembling writing but did manage some Zoom courses. These workshops were like water in a desert and probably saved my mental health.  I also listened to many poets reading their own work during this time – Alice Oswald, Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Simon Armitage, Liz Berry.  

My Mum died just a few months before Covid, I was haunted by her last few difficult weeks; at one point I found mirrors unbearable and began turning them to the wall…..then remembered both my grandmothers used to do this in thunderstorms and the poems began to arrive. Always based on a nugget of truth they came from a series of remembered vignettes and a close examination on the nature of memory.

They were successful in a competition call with the Emma Press in 2020 and were a new direction for me, being a meditation on the speed I seem to have travelled from granddaughter to grandmother – and the myriad similarities that astonished me daily. Time seemed to take on a different dimension.

Ironically the poem I have chosen to highlight is the final one in the book and one of a just a couple not about Winifred or Harriet. Press me in peat is – hopefully – a kind of closure of that awful time of aloneness, when none of us knew what was around the corner or what was coming next.  It felt important to put what was happening to so many people into a context of ‘being found’ perhaps in the future while also linking with the rituals of the past.

A book I keep with me is The Bog People by P V Glob, I also love the work of Seamus Heaney and came across his lovely poem Tollund Man about one of these noble bog bodies. This poem arose from all these things coming together – oh and years of watching Time Team…and for me draws a line under that time of fear and uncertainty.

It’s a sadness to me that I didn’t find my ‘thing’ until quite late, but believe things happen for a reason and I want to see where poetry will take me. The main thing I feel limiting me now – is time. But that’s true for all of us. I want to take every opportunity to be challenged and hopefully to grow in both confidence and ability as a writer.

Next, I’m actively working on two ideas for new collections and I want to move towards magical realism, really stretching that much longed for and late discovery of an imagination.  No time to lose, being 70 is soberingly frightening….even without pandemics and war in Europe and whatever else is bound to be round the corner. 

Thanks for reading. Onwards…

Next week read my review of this super collection.

AVAILABLE NOW ‘UNMUTED‘ by Nigel Kent!

Nigel Kent’s collection of ekphrastic poems, Unmuted (Hedgehog Poetry Press), is inspired by a gallery of famous works by artists from the present and the past. Each artwork acts as a frame in a storyboard which he unfreezes and unmutes to reveal the narrative he imagines lies behind it. Even for those who have no interest in art these direct, accessible and moving poems will stand alone and promise to engage with issues that truly matter.

Kent’s poetry is succint, never bloated and always delivered with a poignant and very human point of view.” Priss Bliss, Dreich Broad No. 3

For details of how to purchase a copy, click here

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