Yowm Bostin Bab (You’re Brilliant Baby), a Black Country valentines card.
Liz Berry found digging into her Black Country roots for a new voice like finding her own “Staffordshire Hoard.” Here she tells us about the joy of using your own dialect in poems.
Wammel… goosegog… council pop…
(dog/mongrel, gooseberry, tap water!)
About six months ago, when I first began writing poems in Black Country dialect it was like digging up my own Staffordshire Hoard. The area where I’d grown up, often mocked for its dialect, turned out to be a field full of spectacular words, sounds and phrases. Everywhere I looked, the stuff of poetry was glinting out of the muck.
I spent hours listening to dialect being spoken by friends, relatives and old blokes in the pub with their wammels and pints of Banks’ Bitter. I read the gospels in Black Country dialect – “God ud promised we wen Adam an Eve fust sinned thar a saivyer ud cum” -, made my family laugh with the Black Country Joke Book and was inspired by the lads that had revived “The Black Country Alphabet” – K is for Kaylied (Drunk), T is for Tara-A-Bit… (Goodbye) The language was thrilling: sometimes tough and muscular like clem-gutted (thin and miserable looking) or ommered (hammered), other times soft and delicate as jeth (death) and tranklements (ornaments/ bits and bobs).
I started dipping my toe in – tentatively writing poems which included a few dialect words – before beginning to write in my own version of Black Country. Inspired by the rich tradition of dialect writing and poets like Kathleen Jamie, I enjoyed mixing dialect and “standard” words together, experimenting with sound and meaning.
But beginning to write in dialect wasn’t just about accessing wonderful words, I also wanted to reflect and celebrate the voices of my region. For many years, dialects – including Black Country – have been denigrated as “not proper”, inferior to “standard” forms of English, and much of this has been related to class and race. Reclaiming the language of your area or community as the language of contemporary poetry feels like a really powerful thing to do and there’s a fascinating history of it.
I asked my mentor Daljit Nagra, whose debut collection Look We Have Coming To Dover! includes a host of ebullient “Punglish” (Punjabi English) voices, why he was attracted to using dialect in his poems.
Initially I wanted to capture the way my particular community speak. I wanted their ordinary voices to be heard in the grand world of English poetry but when I got bored with the ‘ordinary voices’ I started inventing ways I imagined some of my quirkier characters might speak. I enjoyed messing up the language of the speakers.
Other poets I chatted to shared this feeling: that good dialect poetry isn’t just a way of preserving something precious and capturing the voices of a community, it’s also an act of creating something new. We’re lucky enough to live in a country rich, and getting richer, in dialects and it’s exciting when our poetry reflects this.
So what advice would I give to young poets interested in using dialect in their work? Simple: be inspired by the voices around you. Open yer lugoles, get gasbagging an mek sum bostin poems…
(Listen, chat to people and write some brilliant poems!)
Liz’s Dialect Poem Challenge!
Liz asked you to choose a word that you liked, that is used within your commuity but which you haven’t heard used elsewhere, and to use that word as the title for a new poem.
You can read some of the responses we recieved on Your Poetry page.
Tips for writing your own dialect poems…
1. Listen. Spend time listening to your dialect being spoken. Chat to family, friends, the women in Greggs, taxi drivers, old ladies at the bus stop, little kids. Listen to recordings online of older speakers or musicians who sing in dialect. Listen to recordings on the Poetry Archive and You Tube of poets like Daljit Nagra, Benjamin Zephaniah and Jackie Kay performing their dialect poems. Let your ear pick up the tunes their voices make.
2. Dig up your own word hoard. Track down any poems, books, songs or dictionaries containing your dialect and immerse yourself in the language. Spend time writing down some of your favourite words and exploring their meaning.
3. Dip your toe in. Write something short first to build your confidence or even slip some words of dialect into a poem you’re already writing. Choose your favourite dialect word and write something which explores its sound and meaning.
4. Play. Don’t be afraid to make words up, experiment and create your own version of the dialect. Have fun with it!
5. Speak it. Dialect poetry is fantastic to perform and to listen to. One of the surest ways of hearing whether your dialect poem is working is when you read it aloud to yourself or to others. Do the words sound right? Does it make sense? Is it exciting?
6. Read read read! Here’s some poets and collections to inspire you…
Kathleen Jamie – The Queen of Sheba (Bloodaxe)
Daljit Nagra – Look We Have Coming To Dover! (Faber&Faber)
Jackie Kay – Darling and Fiere (Bloodaxe)
Andrew Philip – The Ambulance Box (Salt)
Katrina Porteous – The Lost Music (Bloodaxe)
Benjamin Zephaniah – City Psalms (Bloodaxe)
David Morley – Enchantment (Carcanet)
John Agard – Alternative Anthem: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe)
Tony Harrison – Selected Poems (Penguin)
Liz Lochhead – Dreaming Frankenstein & Collected Poems, 1967-1984 (Polygon)
Evenin’s the best time fer waiting at the winder
fer someone yer love
as dusk is tossed like a magician’s handkerchief
over the city’s rooftops,
coverin’ secretaries beltin’ their macs as they nip
fer buses, men slippin’
pink-eyed as rabbits from the black hat of the werks.
Then Night, that owd conjuror,
gads in wi’ ‘is starry cape an fancy pigeons,
mekkin’ magic of the wenches
chappin’ it on the cobbles, the lads touchin’ their lips
to the foam of the fust pint.
By Liz Berry
wenches: affectionate term for girls
chappin it: flirting or on the pull
Liz Berry was born and brought up in Dudley in the Black Country. She received an Eric Gregory Award in 2009 and her pamphlet The Patron Saint of Schoolgirls was published by tall-lighthouse in 2010. She is an Emerging Poet in Residence at Kingston University and is being mentored by Daljit Nagra as part of the 2011 Arvon/Jerwood Mentoring Scheme.