As I mentioned in my last ‘throwback’ post, it was during my first university assignment, centred around ‘generations’, that I first began writing creatively about the Black Country. I had a fascination for the history and heritage of it all ‒ the factories, the workshops, the pits ‒ and the culture that has outlived it. Of course, I wasn’t alive during when the industry was at its peak, but I was nonetheless intrigued by the resonances it continues to have through dialect, art, and story.
The first of these Black Country poems (and, therefore, the first poem I ever wrote in earnest), was ‘The Collier’s Wife’. It was little more than a short ditty: four 3-line stanzas with a repeating internal rhyme structure. You can read it at the bottom of this post.
When I began putting these poems out into the world, ‘The Collier’s Wife’ was always the most beloved by readers. It was featured, along with another poem titled ‘The Day they Closed the Mine’, in the Black Country Bugle, the local newspaper that delves a little deeper into the region’s history and heritage. Looking back, I guess this was my first little publication, and the Bugle continued to support me as my Black Country portfolio grew.
Not long after my first publication, I had my first poetry reading. With a portfolio of Black-Country-dialect poems in my pocket, I signed up to read at the National Dialect Weekend of 2015, an annual festival which is hosted by a different region every year. In 2015, it was to be held in the Black Country, hosted by writer and performer Brendan Hawthorne in his home town of Wednesbury. The festival ran as a programme of talks, performances, and dinners, but also held the annual dialect competitions ‒ one in the host dialect, and one in any British dialect. I signed up for the former, and spent the morning riddled with nerves.
I don’t know which was scarier: reading in front of a room full of strangers, all older than myself (I was 18 at the time), or in front of my family! Or it may have been the particularly lofty stage in Wednesbury Town Hall. Or maybe it was the apprehension of pulling off an authentic Black Country accent ‒ one which only tinges my voice from time to time when I’m particularly comfortable with who I’m talking to. But I managed to pull of the reading without a hitch, and there ‒ I has experience in publishing and performing.
The competition, judged in part by another local performer and legend Billy Spakemon, closed, and I was thrilled to be awarded with the Sam Laycock trophy for the ‘Best Poem in the Host Dialect’! A small and perhaps insignificant prize to many, but at this point in my career, I was delighted to add this accolade to my writerly CV. Though the trophy has been returned to the National Dialect Weekend organisers, I was able to have it inscribed with my name, preserving that first achievement for all time. I do wonder if I’ll ever see that trophy again.
My portfolio of Black Country poems were published all together on the Leaveners’ Poets Corner blog, during my residency as their ‘Poet of June’. This in itself sparked a wealth of new opportunities, a few too many to recount here, and so I will write all about that story in my next throwback post.
Getting my early poems out into the world brought a wonderfully positive light into my life. For many people, whether their interest be in the Black Country or in poetry, these two elements converge nowhere more prominently than in the work of Liz Berry. Berry’s first full collection, simply titled Black Country, is a multi-award-winning volume, filled with beautiful hymns: a true love song to the area. I was bought the book very early in my poetry journey, and it served (and still serves) as a touchstone for me. So when Liz Berry contacted me via Twitter with a sweet note of encouragement, I was over the moon (see her message in the slideshow above). Her hope that our paths would cross did come true, as I joined her on an Arvon poetry course early the next year (where she reminded me of her message, as if I’d ever forget). It is always lovely to see her, from time to time.
The readings and the publications did not end there for my Black Country portfolio. I performed the poems at various other locations, including the Black Country Living Museum, and one of them was chosen for publication in The Poetry of the Black Country, an anthology published by Offa’s Press in 2017. I was commissioned to write a poem about the wilder green spaces of Black Country by the National Gamekeepers Organisation, which was then published in their magazine Keeping the Balance (Autumn issue, 2016).
This draws to a close the second chapter of my poetry journey ‒ that of my early portfolio. Not long after, I stopped performing in the Black Country accent, something that had never felt very authentic to me. More disparate poems followed in my next two year at university, before the beginning of my second portfolio, Bella. Maybe I will share these other poems here sometime. For now, as promised, here is ‘The Collier’s Wife’:
The Collier’s Wife Yoom reckless, I tell him, as I tend to his wounds - the cuts, the clouts, limbs battered and bruised. It ay worth it, I tell him, as he claims that he’s fine - that he’s at his happiest when down in the mine. He makes promises to leave, but I know that he’ll stay - he loves it down there, with the soil and the clay. So I kiss him farewell, but when I’m alone - I pray to God that today, he’ll just make it back home.
One thing to note is that, during this time, I was constantly switching between my birth name of Elinor and my preferred/pen name of Nellie. Especially with the poems and projects associated with university (where I was registered as Elinor), this can cause a bit of confusion! I now solely write, publish, and perform under the name Nellie.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this, the second ‘throwback’ post. The next chapter will follow next Thursday.