Carole Bromley https://www.carolebromleypoetry.co.uk , an Arvon tutor and a mentor with the Poetry School and for the Poetry Society via surgeries, is a widely published, prize-winning poet, twice a winner in the Poetry Business Book and Pamphlet Competition. Carole has three pamphlets, Unscheduled Halt (2004, Smith/Doorstop), Skylight (2009, Smith/Doorstop), and Sodium 136 (2019, Calder Valley Poetry); and three collections, A Guided Tour of the Ice House (2011, Smith/Doorstop), The Stonegate Devil (2015, Smith/Doorstop) and Blast Off (for 7-10 year olds) (Smith/Doorstop).
Maria Isakova Bennett: Carole, it’s wonderful to have this opportunity to talk to you about your writing, publications, and teaching, and to share what you’re doing with others. I’d love to talk about your latest poetry publication, Sodium 136, and to talk about the exciting writing you’ve been doing for children, but I wonder if we could start first to explore something about how you came to writing and publishing your first pamphlet of poetry, Unscheduled Halt (2004, Smith/Doorstop)
Carole Bromley: Lovely talking to you too, Maria. A little girl asked me on a school visit last week ‘How did you start writing?’ and I answered honestly ‘It just sort of happened.’ I could have given the longer version which is that I started to write seriously when I took my sixth-formers to Lumb Bank and worked alongside poets like Carol Ann Duffy, Don Paterson and Jackie Kay. I went to Peter and Ann Sansom’s wonderful writing days in Huddersfield, so it was a natural progression to submit a group of poems to their pamphlet competition.
MIB: I fear my question there may have sounded like that standard question we all dread, but I read some posts on social media recently which discussed writers who had achieved first publication beyond their twenties, thirties and even forties, and given that I fall into this category, this interested me. I think that sometimes we just need the right soil and all that’s been incubating or germinating can start to flourish. Maybe you found that working alongside the poets you mention?
CB: To be honest I had started writing poems before that but had not shown them to anyone, fearing they were too personal. At Lumb Bank the tutors were very encouraging and wanted to see my work. Carol Ann Duffy, in particular, helped me to see myself as a writer and gave me invaluable advice. I was in my early forties then.
MIB: You’re a prolific writer. Please tell us about how you sustained your writing between pamphlets and into your first collection.
CB: I owe a lot to the Arvon Foundation. I went on their courses and was selected for the Jerwood/Arvon mentoring scheme. I also did an MPhil at Glamorgan where I was tutored by Gillian Clarke. I read a lot and went to festivals and any workshops I could find.
MIB: For readers who aren’t so acquainted with the Arvon Foundation, can you explain something about the Foundation, the Jerwood/Arvon mentoring scheme, and the sort of courses you enjoyed.
CB: The Arvon Foundation run courses on all aspects of writing at three beautiful houses in Yorkshire, Shropshire and Devon. I became hooked and went every year to courses on poetry and also on novel writing and scripts. I was on a course on putting together a first collection when the tutors, Kate Clanchy and George Szirtes, recommended me for the mentoring scheme which is open to anyone who goes on an Arvon course. You see your mentor every six weeks for a year and also get two free courses.
MIB: I always feel that ‘being a poet’ is so much more than writing poems, and I wonder if you could share with us some of the other aspects of your life as a poet: teaching/tutoring and the move to writing for children
CB: I agree. For me writing came out of teaching. I ran an after-school poetry club and my pupils were shortlisted for the Foyle, published in The Rialto, won national prizes and generally buzzed with excitement about poetry. Then, after the MPhil, I approached York University and offered classes in creative writing. I loved teaching for their Centre for Lifelong Learning and stayed for fifteen years. I count ex-students among my closest friends and was very proud when several of them published collections and, in some cases, novels and plays too. A few years ago I was approached by York Explore Library and asked to help organise a regular monthly poetry reading. This is still running very successfully. I also started a Stanza group in York and that is now bursting at the seams. Writing for children was a natural progression for me because of my background in teaching and the fact I now have thirteen grandchildren helps too. I wrote for them and about them and gradually amassed about ninety poems which I showed to Ann Sansom who was very enthusiastic, and Smith/Doorstop published my first children’s collection in 2017.
MIB: Can you tell us more about the poem themes in Blast off? Perhaps cite a poem. Do you have any further projects for children in the pipeline?
CB: The poems in Blast Off! (which was charmingly illustrated by Cathy Benson) are on a variety of subjects including space, school, family and fairy-tales. They go down well in the classroom as many invite interaction. Here’s a short one:
Down the Cobbled Lane
Is where I love to go,
the bumpy way at the terrace backs,
to bang the dustbin lids, chase cats,
scale walls, look over gates
at what I shouldn’t know,
that’s where I love to go.
I would love to publish another children’s collection. Since Blast Off! I have three times been highly commended in the wonderful Caterpillar Prize. I am putting together another collection which is based around school.
MIB: Lovely to read your poem aloud, and to hear that the poems go down well in school as Primary School in particular can be such a great influence on children’s reading. It’s interesting too that you were talking about writing coming out of teaching as I feel that the two aspects of creating and sharing how this comes about, often to assist others, are very closely related. Do you plan further work for children, indeed, do you plan each book, be it pamphlet or collection, or do you let the writing happen and look for what might be your next book once you’ve amassed a number of poems, or perhaps something between the two?
CB: I’m afraid I’m not sufficiently organised to plan a themed collection, though I think I am moving in that direction with my recent pamphlet and also my plans for another kids’ book. I tend to write poems, send them off to competitions and magazines and collect them together till I have something like a critical mass!
MIB: I understand that perfectly although I think often there are themes running through our writing even if we don’t know it consciously ourselves. I first read, A Guided Tour of the Ice House about 5 years ago and returned to it recently. The narrative aspect of your poetry is powerful. I’d love to know about how the book came about and something about the process of drawing the poems together.
CB: The book came directly out of the Jerwood/Arvon mentoring with Mimi Khalvati. Peter Sansom knew my work well by then and had published two pamphlets. He was and is a wonderful editor and helped me to select and edit the poems after I had gone through the exciting process of laying all my best poems out on the floor and trying to see thematic links and so on. Again, I was also helped by various Arvon tutors who were hugely encouraging and supportive. The Arvon Foundation even hosted my launch at the Free Word Centre where I chose to read with Maitreyabandhu, my fellow mentee, and Mimi herself. It was a highlight.
MIB: It’s a book that deserves reading and I love the well deserved comments you received from Andrew Motion, Selima Hill, and Don Patterson,‘She creates her emotional effects by wringing pathos from ordinary and familiar facts.’ , ‘A sort of Elizabeth Bishop atmosphere I felt very much at home in.’, ‘She gets under the skin of her subject in an impressively direct and imaginative way.’
Looking over the amazing body of work you’ve created, I wonder if you could talk a little about how your writing interests, what one of my own tutors used to call writerly concerns, have changed over the past sixteen to twenty years, and how and why these changes have come about.
CB: Over the past twenty-five years a lot of things have changed. The arrival of grandchildren definitely spurred me on to write poems for children and the loss of parents and friends as well as my own experience of illness all gave me something new to write about. One of my sons moved to Australia and I have visited him frequently so Australia features a lot in my new book and in the past weeks I have been writing about the bushfires, including a few climate change poems for a reading to 5-7 year olds which I am giving at the Imagine Festival at the Royal Festival Hall later this month.
MIB: It’s heartening to hear how alive your writing is and how your writing life is evolving in tune with not only your own life but what is happening globally. This seems a perfect balance. Linking back to the mention of illness, your latest pamphlet, Sodium 136 drew me in immediately to where you found yourself two years ago. It’s a beautifully urgent work: twenty-six poems telling the story of your experience of illness, treatment and recovery. I was with you in that book through your diagnosis, and sensed terror and uncertainty. You create the work without any sense of melodrama and I imagine it’s a sequence that couldn’t have been planned. Can you talk a little about how the poems were written, the importance of writing at such a time and maybe share a poem with us? I’m interested too in the beautiful presentation of the book, published by Calder Valley Publications [https://caldervalleypoetry.com/book-shop/]
CB: Thank you. And yes, Bob Horne at Calder Valley Poetry is a wonderful editor. No, I didn’t plan to write the sequence. I just found myself turning to pen and paper in a crisis. It helped me enormously to process a frightening and painful but ultimately almost spiritual experience. I wrote most of the poems in hospital and continued to write about it while I was recovering at home. Then I didn’t know what to do with them, wasn’t sure anyone would want to read them but there was a kind of urgency about the poems and some of them I felt were good though it was hard for me to tell! I asked Paul McGrane at the Poetry Society if I could pay someone to give me an honest answer and Neil Rollinson gave me lots of tips about editing and also was very encouraging. Rather to my astonishment, the pamphlet is selling like hot cakes and we decided to donate all the proceeds to The Pituitary Foundation. Here’s the first poem I wrote in Hull:
To My Cyst
Flu set you going
like a ticking bomb,
in the cramped space
between skull and brain
which I imagine
as like a crack in a tunnel
where a buddleia
tries to flourish.
You see them from trains,
that urge to grow,
or mushrooms in a shed.
You had food and water;
you would make it.
I was your host,
me, this me that cries
and loves and is typing
these black letters
on infinite space.
MIB: That’s such a wonderful reminder of the value of writing at critical times and how it helps us in processing aspects of life. It’s great to share this poem. Thank you. You have a book forthcoming this year, and this is very different to Sodium 136?
CB: Yes, I have a new collection, The Peregrine Falcons of YorkMinster, coming out from Valley Press in September. I am still working on it and it will include a few poems from the pamphlet as well as the best of my writing since my last collection in 2015.
MIB: Writing seems to be an integral part of your life and I feel safe to ask what else you’re working on at present.
CB: I am very busy at the moment giving readings locally as well as nationally and that takes a lot of energy! However, as always, strong emotion spurs me into writing. At the moment I am anxious about family in Australia so bushfire poems are emerging and only this morning I wrote a first draft of a poem about being a GP’s wife in the days when that was a job in itself! I find I am increasingly interested in the connection between poetry and medicine. I am also working on two different projects with composers which is a new and exciting departure for me.
MIB: Carole, it’s been a delight to have a chance to talk to you about your writing, and to appreciate and share with others how alive your writing life is. It’s lovely to hear the way your writing continues to develop, and to see the links with both personal and vital issues of this period in which we live. I know that your thoughts and experiences will be a great support for other writers. Thank you.
Links and References
The Stonegate Devil
A Guided Tour of the Ice House: