JULIE MELLOR, BREATHING THROUGH OUR BONES
Julie Mellor’s debut collection Breathing Through Our Bones was a winner of the prestigious Poetry Business Competition, judged by the poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy. It’s a stunning debut. I first came across Julie’s poetry when I was judging the Elmet Trust Open Poetry Competition a few years ago. The poem of the same title as her collection, immediately stood out from the crowd. In particular, the line, ‘ex-mining towns rest on their fossilized remains’ leaped out at me. Here was an assured voice, with a mastery of language and an admirable confidence in the reader to ‘get’ what she was saying.
I had no qualms about awarding it Best Yorkshire Entry. I awaited the publication of her collection with great anticipation. I wasn’t disappointed. Assured, rooted in place, insightful about people, full of striking and unsettling images that resonate long after reading, this is a very fine piece of work. I also shortlisted another one of Julie’s poems, The Moment, about the Penistone train derailment in 1916. In the poem she focuses on the minutiae that caused the disaster, ‘how this moment is the result/ of one small fissure where rainwater crept/ into stone and, in freezing, filled its own lungs/ and pushed permanence aside.’ The tone here is stripped of false sentiment, with a poet’s care for language but with the pathologist’s disinterested, objective eye. And the insight: that disaster is often the result, not of seismic causality, but minute seemingly insignificant phenomena, of nature just being true to itself.
1. Tell me something about you I don’t know already.
In my early twenties, I worked as an au pair in Marbella, during which time I met the private chef of Adnan Khashoggi (supposedly the richest man in the world at that time). I ended up getting a back door invite to his New Year’s Eve party and have, as a memento, a rather odd photograph of me stroking a leopard (stuffed I must stress) as the villa was strewn with stuffed animals. Not very ethical, but in the photo it looks surprisingly real. I keep it in case I ever apply for a job as a lion tamer.
2. Which writers, living or dead, do you most admire? Why?
This could be a very long list indeed, but Shakespeare (Hamlet and Macbeth) is probably top of the list. Poets are too numerous to mention, but here goes! I like the deceptive simplicity of Robert Frost, the economy and depth of Jane Hirshfield and the linguistic inventiveness and risk-taking of Geraldine Monk. Finally, the combination of Ted Hughes’ poems and Fay Godwin’s photographs in The Remains of Elmet is a fantastic example of the power of place and landscape.
3. What’s wrong with the English poetry scene?
Nothing at all! It’s incredibly diverse and that means interesting things surface all the time. Someone (Don Patterson I think) said it’s got a short chain of command. In other words, the big names in the poetry world aren’t quite as remote as the big names in prose are, so you’re more likely to be able to have access to them. Also, poetry’s not a commercial vehicle in the same way as prose, so it’s able to stay truer to itself.
4. Do you think there is a particular theme or subject that links your poems?
Some of my poems can be quite dark, but really, they’re linked by place. I’m very rooted to my home town, even though I really couldn’t wait to leave when I was eighteen! The surrounding area is very diverse: Penistone is a market town, but we have a wealth of industrial heritage on our doorstep. History, particularly local and family history is also important to me; the poem ‘Autobiography’ describes the murder of my great great grandmother. The feeling of being haunted by that crime is oddly present, even though it happened in 1888.
5. How important is poetry?
For me, personally, it’s critical, in the sense that if I don’t have time to write I get quite cross (with myself, and anyone else in the firing line). In terms of national importance, what I see as a teacher working in a secondary school, is that the writing of it dwindles, with each year group progressively writing less. The reason, I think, it the perceived difficulty in its assessment; the GCSE syllabus only assesses pupils’ ability to read poetry.
6. You’ve written about mining and the railways. How do you feel about their dismantlement?
South Yorkshire has seen some incredibly hard times, not only due to the decimation of the steel and coal industries, but (and this is often overlooked) because of the amount of people who lost their lives in industrial accidents. I’m not a political expert, but morally, how can we justify the bail out of banks like Northern Rock yet allow our heavy industries to go to the wall without anything to replace them? People haven’t just been deprived of jobs in this area; they’ve had their self-respect eroded, and that shouldn’t be underestimated. Did I say I wasn’t political? I’ll stop now!
7. If you could change one thing about Britain, what would it be?
Despite the earlier rant, I’m going to go with the same answer I gave to the poetry question: nothing at all! It’s incredibly diverse and that means interesting things surface all the time.
8. What are you working on at the moment?
I’m trying to get a book length collection of poems together, but my local poetry group are working on a book of poetry and art work reflecting some aspects of the industrial heritage in this area, so I’m involved in that as well.
You can buy Breathing Through Our Bones direct from The Poetry Business: http://www.poetrybusiness.co.uk/shop/details/Prizes/Poetry-Business-Competition-Winner/breathing-through-our-bones-julie-mellor