Poetry Profile – Kerry Priest
Kerry Priest is a poet, sound artist and playwright. She was named one of Eyewear’s Best New British And Irish Poets 2018, while her poem ‘Medicine Wheel’ was nominated for the Forward Prize 2019. Her pamphlet, The Bone Staircase, is published by Live Canon and was a winner of the Live Canon Pamphlet Competition 2020. I caught up with her digitally to find out a bit more.
How would you describe your work?
It often has a rhythmic, lyric quality. I work mostly with image and metaphor and deal with the big questions of life and death – existential questions – with a good dose of dark humour.
Are there particular themes that you find yourself returning to?
When I grow up, I will be a nature poet, but until then, my work sits somewhere on the boundary between the city and the country. Metaphysics is important to me, not least because my husband is a philosopher and I suppose he’s always my first critic and perhaps, muse. The death of both my parents means that death looms large in my writing, but I suppose this brings me back to nature and the solace we find in accepting that the world is eating itself slowly.
Can you tell me about The Bone Staircase – what does it mean to you?
The ‘bone staircase’ is a metaphor for the double helix of your DNA. I’d been looking for a way to write about prehistory, mostly because I love caves and stone circles and that sort of thing. I was having IVF and suddenly felt an overwhelming connection to the idea of ancestry, my family tree and the deep time of evolution. I almost surprised myself when I decided to write about IVF because I wouldn’t call myself a confessional poet; it seemed like a great vehicle to talk about cave paintings and existence and the meaning of life. I feel a bit sorry for people who buy it expecting lots of Sharon Olds-esque descriptions of vaginas and blood and guts. I’m a bit too prudish for that sort of thing.
How did you come to writing?
I loved poetry as a child and teenager, but went off on a huge 20-year excursion into song-writing and electronic music production and DJ’ing. By chance, I happened upon a spoken word night in Chagford – Jackie Juno’s Outspoken night – and I thought I’d try my hand. After about a year, I started gingerly sending work out. The first two poems I sent out were both longlisted for the Bridport prize, so I suppose I was hooked at that point. I had a local monthly outlet for creativity, combined with something I was quite good at and could work at on a national level.
How has your work developed?
A couple of years ago, someone asked me if I’d ever thought of combining poetry with electronic production. It planted a seed and I began applying effects and loops to the voice, creating abstract and minimalist textures to perform at music events and record for art installations and experimental radio stations. Writing poetry can be a lonely pursuit but these add a social dimension. By experimenting with the voice and working with actors, I’ve gravitated towards theatre; writing pieces with dramatic verse influenced by magic realism, a bit Lorca-esque and also a bit Folk Horror.
What is poetry?
A juggling act. An editing job. An uncovering of the hidden meanings of words. A journey through the unconscious. Poetry finds connections between all the loose ends in the world, through metaphor. Call me a Romantic, but I tend to like poetry that tries to eff the ineffable and strive for the transcendent; Rilke and Blake and that sort of thing.
Have you had to overcome any barriers to write?
The inner critic and the rejection letter. But they both ultimately make you hone your work to a higher standard, I guess.
Has anybody helped you along the way or inspired you?
I’ve been lucky enough to be mentored by Andy Brown. He helped me to find my voice and stick to it. My favourite poets are from the 60’s. Not the Beats, but Ted Hughes, Peter Porter, Peter Redgrove… the mystical, metaphysical aspect of their work appeals and their control of metaphor and language is astounding. But I read poetry of all ages voraciously anyway.
Is there a piece of advice that somebody has given you that has been particularly helpful? Do you have your own that you pass on?
Kill your adjectives. Read more than you write.
How was 2020 for you creatively?
I’ve been running a polyphonic poetry choir over Zoom. For some reason, poets tend to work alone, but I’ve been exploring multiple voices in poetry. You can create soundscapes and canons and all sorts. It’s particularly good for imitating nature and I’ve done a lot of work on the dawn chorus, the sea and the wind. One day, I’d like to put on a big Spoken Word opera where all the music is poetry instead of music.
This year I’ve been an emerging playwright at the Minack and had a few dramas commissioned for radio. Oh, and I almost forgot: I’ve also given birth and been bringing up a baby!