Interview: Lucy Berry, performance poet

by
07 February 2020

‘Disney usually avoids going too deep; Lent is about going deep’

My mother told me that I spoke poems from a very young age indeed — from the age of three or four. It was my work as poet-in-residence on Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine Show where the performance aspect began to take off.
 

I won a competition where they said that whoever wins today will get to try out as our resident poet. I was sitting on the stairs, and wrote an eight-line little ditty about a banana: it was supposed to be a news piece about bananas disappearing off the face of the earth. It began: “Fare­well dear banana, you little know now, the fate that awaits” and ended “death’s rotten banana-skin comes to us all.”
 

They got me in, and, after a few poems, they started paying me, which was nice.
 

But it was also terrifying. They’d ring me at nine, expect a poem about the day’s news by 11, send a car by noon. I’d be live on air before two. No work I’ve ever done since has come close to being so nerve-racking.
 

For the show, I wrote some proper poetry sometimes; sometimes I wrote some verse that did the job. But it’s like a sermon: a poem that I thought was workmanlike some­times reached the people, floated their boat, and got many messages into the show. Others that I’d worked on and thought were very good wouldn’t get the same reaction. You really don’t know what people are hearing, and sometimes they pull things out that you don’t really know are there.
 

I do like live performances, because I get asked to write to a subject, and, if I have enough time, I can deliver a clump of poems, and that’s quite satisfying. Doing the Vine Show I was scrambling for time, to express a meaning in 60 seconds, but, with a performance, I’ve got ten minutes, and then perhaps another ten later, to say something of more value.
 

I’ve performed in Beirut and Palestine; and I’ll be performing for the Joint Public Issues Team: a coalition of people from the Baptists, Methodists, Church of Scotland, and United Reformed Church. They’re meeting in March, looking at eco­logy this year. I’m looking at the Beatitudes for that at the moment.
 

My poems are published in my books: Church of Snails and Trouble with Church, and on my website: www.lucyberry.com; my next poetry book, Living Spits, is in development with DLT now.
 

I’m a non-stipendiary minister in the United Reformed Church and don’t have an official pastorate, although I do look after a regular gathering of devout people who are attempting a big reconciliation. It’s difficult, not belonging in church, but I find conventional church quite complicated: tradition has often got in the way of the Bible.
 

We really need to ask “What would Jesus do?”, and to stop asking “What have we always done?” In many ways, the URC is hugely forward-looking, but, being the smallest of the Low Church denomi­nations, we get bogged down in wondering whether we’re going to survive. It’s not a question that a Church, of any persuasion, needs to be asking. The question is, who — and how — shall we serve, and how soon can we start?
 

The thumping practicality of Jesus’s love is my inspiration, and I want to write about our general reluctance, as humans and as churches, to do practical love.
 

People in prison often think they can’t write. They can. I wanted them to know that; so I worked with prisoners in HM Prison Holloway for a time.
 

I’m not sure I ever know why I want to do something until I start, but the moment I arrived, I realised that these women had been convinced by their schooling (or lack or it) that they couldn’t think straight.
 

Poetry is lateral thinking; so, although they’re worried about grammar and spelling, with poetry you don’t have to worry about grammar; and, when I typed their poems properly on a page, and read them aloud, they could hear that they could think properly.
 

I learned there how much pain a young girl can be in when her baby is adopted away from her without her say-so, for one thing.
 

I was an advertising copywriter for 15 years, which helps you to define precisely what you need to say, because you have so little space. Then I became an art therapist. It seemed natural. I’m not a very good painter, but my grandfather and father both painted. It always makes sense to me that people’s thinking and feeling show in what they put down (and don’t put down) on paper.
 

My gift is poetry, and I’ve started to write plays with a friend. I’ve got one on the go, which is going to be put on in Northern Ireland; so everything is opening out.
 

I was surprised to be asked to write a Lent course based on Mary Poppins Returns. Disney usually avoids going too deep; Lent is about going deep. I wasn’t sure who the film was for, or what it was saying. I’m not even sure Disney knows. There are big themes in the film which echo biblical themes; other bits really don’t. The course explores whether the film has meaning or only sentimentality. Can the reader detect salvation in the film? Can profit-driven stories offer pure ideas?
 

I’ve read all P. L. Travers’s books, many times. There are moments in her books when Mary Poppins confuses the Banks children on purpose. It’s such an extraordinary thing: they would have an amazing adventure, and then she would deny it happened, or turn it into something else. She denies their reality, and Disney’s most recent Mary does the same. I remember that kind of cruel adult joke.
 

I’m not sure I’d want to meet her — Mary Poppins or P. L. Travers; but I thought about Jack the Lamp-Lighter (Lin-Manuel Miranda) and he’s such a lovely person. He’s not the saviour — there’s no saviour — but he’s the nearest thing that film has got, because he loves the children, and it’s not about duty. I think he loves everybody, and he knows the whole of London. He’s far closer to a Christ-figure than anyone else in the risks he takes for love.
 

I was an only child, brought up on a leafy Kensington square. I was fairly isolated. My parents were growing apart in their ideas and in their ability to be close. Now, I belong in north London, to a mixed-heritage family in glorious, hurting, compromised Wood Green.
 

My first experience of God was looking at a daytime moon from a swing in Kensington Gardens.
 

Awareness of religion arrived early. The painters in the family were interested in and thrilled by light. Light on a hillside, urban or rural, has always been evidence of God, for me. I went to Sunday school, then to church with my mother. Dad was a sort of atheist. Mum was a churchgoer. My Christian Scientist grandmother, who lived with us, had a Jewish background. My secondary school was full of rabbis’ daughters.
 

My proudest achievement is my son, without a shadow of a doubt. The bravest thing I’ve done is not to allow myself to be bullied by people I have loved.
 

The people who make me angry are the people who say “Thy will be done”, and don’t act on it. No Kingdom-come that way.
 

I’m always happiest in my son’s company, and when I’m writing plays with my friend Michael.
 

The best sound is people whom I love laughing in the next room.
 

I pray most for strength. And for stamina and strength for my friends in trouble. There’s a mother I know living in a garage. . . A young man waiting to find out whether he’ll be deported . . . and . . . and . . .
 

If I was to be locked in a church for hours, please could I have all the people I need to say sorry to? Thank you.
 

Lucy Berry was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Where the Lost Things Go: A Lent course based on “Mary Poppins Returns” is published by DLT at £6.99 (CT Bookshop £6.30) (Books, 17 January).

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