Interview with Lucy London

 

     The World War 2 poetry blog has been updated to include a poem each by Mary E Harrison and Vera Brittain about the 30th May 1942 RAF raid on Cologne. http://Worldwar2poetry.blogspot.co.uk

 

                            Delighted to  publish an interview with Lucy London. Much admired amongst War Poetry enthusiasts for her websites that include, ‘Female Poets of World War 1’ and ‘ Forgotten Poets of World War 1’. Lucy is someone who just keeps researching and publishing on line, re-discovering a whole range of  poetry that has been neglected.  A great inspiration to those of us who want to show that there is so much more to war poetry than the work of a handful of ‘ Soldier Poets’  of World War 1. 

 

1)How did your interest in war poetry begin?

I was encouraged to read poetry by both my parents and at primary school.  When I was seven years old, my mother allowed me to read a little notebook left with her by her sister, who was in the Wrens during the Second World War.  My aunt married an Afrikaans soldier who she met while in the Wrens and she moved to South Africa after the war, where she died two years later.   The notebook was filled with First World War stories, anecdotes and poems, all written out in my aunt’s neat handwriting.  My Grandfather was an Old Contemptible with the Royal Field Artillery, which could explain her interest in WW1.  It was quite usual for people to copy out poems they liked at that time but they often forgot to include the title and the name of the poet.

One of the poems my aunt had copied out made a very deep impression on me and I never forgot it.  When I began my commemorative exhibition project I found someone via Facebook who told me the poem was “Handing Down” by Harold Begbie – father of Female War Poet Janet Begbie.

Ironically the poem is now considered ‘jingoistic’, but in the days of the First World War, when the world was a very different place, it was patriotic.  I still find it a very powerful poem.  Sadly, my aunt’s notebook got lost during one of our many house moves.

 

2) Which blogs and any other websites are you operating ?

www.femalewarpoets.blogspot.co.uk was the first weblog I started after researching for an exhibition about the women poets of WW1 which was held at The Wilfred Owen Story in Argyle Street, Birkenhead. Wirral, UK in November 2012. Then came www.inspirationalwomenofww1.blogspot.co.uk after I discovered the story of Canadian artist Mary Riter Hamilton and wanted to include her.  Finding out that Sir Edmund Goose’s son, Philip Gosse, was a doctor who joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was for a time the Rat Catcher Officer of the British 2nd Army on the Western Front, prompted the creation ofwww.fascinatingfactsofww1.blogspot.co.uk and, lastly, I decided to try to find out more about other male poets – www.forgottenpoetsofww1.blogspot.co.uk

There are also Facebook pages for each of those categories.

 3) Can you tell us about your exhibition work? And also the anthologies that you have had published?

Dean Johnson of the Wilfred Owen Story in Birkenhead asked me to prepare an exhibition about women poets of WW1 to be displayed in November 2012. I began by trying to find a poet with a connection to the Wirral.  I was delighted to discover that May Sinclair, who was very famous on both sides of the Atlantic during the early part of the 20th Century, was born in Rock Ferry on the Wirral.  I then looked for other poets from the North West of England and then decided to include poets from other countries in order to demonstrate the global impact of the conflict which really was the first truly world war. A visitor to that exhibition contacted me and that resulted in an exhibition of female poets and inspirational women of WW1 being held at Salford Museum and Art Gallery in Manchester in March 2014. 

That led to other venues contacting me to arrange exhibitions.  When planning an exhibition, I always try to find something of local interest, so for the exhibitions at Fleetwood Library and Fleetwood Marine Hall, I included panels about Wilfred Owen’s time in Fleetwood and the story of Britain’s trawlers in WW1, many of which were adapted to become mine hunting ships.  The British fishing fleet took refuge in Fleetwood after the bombardment of Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool in December 1914.

Blackpool Library held an exhibition in August 2014, highlighting the visit of Wilfred Owen to the town twice during his stay in Fleetwood, in order to purchase a trench coat.   And Lytham Heritage Centre had a display in November 2014.  Other venues include York Castle Museum, Congleton Museum and Art Gallery and Stow Maries WW1 Aerodrome in Essex.  Panels have been sent to schools, for instance the Mayflower School which was called Upper North Street School in Poplar, London, which was bombed in June 1917.  Delaware University in America and Cork University in Ireland have also hosted exhibitions.

Exhibition panels are printed in black and white and feature biographical details and a photo plus one or two poems where poets are concerned.  Other topics are similarly covered so that the panels are easy to read.  This is not an academic project but is aimed at members of the general public in the hopes they may be inspired to find out more and perhaps even write poetry themselves.

As we already had all the information set out ready for printing, my husband suggesting publishing them in book form and “Female Poets of the First World War Volume One” features poets from the UK and other countries of the world.  Volume Two features mainly British poets but also includes some poetry written by schoolchildren in WW1 and an excellent article about knitting in WW1 guest written by historian Phil Dawes.

“Poets, Writers and Artists on The Somme” is the other volume available at the moment.

We also had Nadja Malacrida’s “Love and War” reprinted in aid of Blind Veterans UK which is the name of the charity for blind soldiers originally known as St. Dunstan’s which was set up during WW1, and in aid of which Nadja’s WW1 collection was published.  We also put together an anthology of poems about and by poets of Gallipoli.

There is also a book about the women who died or were killed while serving who are buried in Cemeteries in Belgium and France. You can see the full list of publications here www.poshupnorth.com

 

4) How do you get to find so much poetry – written both in English and other languages?

I began my research for the exhibitions by reading some of the wonderful books about women poets of WW1 – Nosheen Khan’s “”Women’s Poetry of the First World War”, “Scars upon my Heart” by Catherine Reilly, “The Nation’s Cause” by Elizabeth A. Marsland.  Then I found that Catherine Reilly had produced the most wonderful work – “English Poetry of the First World War: A Bibliography”.  I was enchanted and, exactly as predicted in the Foreword, I found it is a book that really can be  “… picked up and read from page to page as if it were a narrative”. (From Foreword, by Laurence Cotterell, page vi in Catherine W. Reilly’s “English Poetry of the First World War: A Bibliography” (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1978).  As the title suggests, only English language poems and poets are included and at the back you will find a list of American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand poets.

Catherine Reilly produced that fantastic work without the aid of the Internet and I salute her.  In it you will find literally thousands of poets listed alphabetically, together with where their work may be found.

After that, I began to read the Bibliographies to be found in the back of the WW1 poetry Anthologies, as they are an excellent source.   And then I found Tim Cross’s “The Lost Voices of World War 1”, which has a very extensive list of poets from other countries involved in the conflict. 

I trawl the internet regularly and have joined organisations such as The Wilfred Owen Association, the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship and the War Poets Association, all of whom have members who are keen to promote WW1 poetry.   “The Times” newspaper and local newspapers have also been very helpful and have published my letters asking for help in finding poets.

In the case of foreign language poems, I speak French and have a knowledge of Italian and German.

 

5) Your emphasis is on lesser known poetry such as work written by women and/or work by poets that have been forgotten. What is the value of such poetry, both as history and literature?

Following a letter I had published in “The Times” newspaper about the forgotten poets of WW1, I received a letter from Dr. Ian Olson, a university lecturer in Scotland.  What he told me helped me to re-define my own approach to poetry in general.

Dr. Olson sent me this extract from his review of Scottish poet George Bruce’s collection “Pursuit Poems 1996 – 1998”:  “Robert Graves was of the opinion that poetry was gifted to you by your Muse (the White Goddess), and that you had to wait for her graciousness. Then it was your job as a poet or bard to shape and chisel it into final form with all the skill and craft you had learned, no matter how many days or years that took. The early Welsh and Gaels, the Angles and Saxons, for example, would have recognised this approach immediately.

 

George Bruce will have none of it. If a theme is suggested to you, whatever the source, it is your task as a poet to produce a workmanlike response. Most of us would worry that this would at best result in verses more suitable for the burgeoning greeting cards industry, but he sees no reason at all why this should be so. When he travels and talks, lectures and gives seminars on both sides of the Atlantic he exhorts younger writers in a thoroughly modern manner – “Just do it”, he says. He sees no reason why this should not be everyone’s method – no bardic mystique, no gracious lady in Grecian nightie plus lyre, just a proper job of work and no nonsense. As a result, perhaps, his poetry isn’t clever or contrived or mysterious – what you see is what you get. But the converse is that he is obliged to provide passion and commitment, skill and care, to enable his carvings to be worthy of life’s cathedral.”

(From: ‘Pursuit: Poems 1996-1998. By George Bruce’ [Review] NorthWords magazine No. 20/21(1999), 69-71 by Ian A. Olson

“Pursuit: Poems 1986-1998” by George Bruce, Scottish Cultural Press, 1999 ISBN 1 84017 031 X £5.95.)

I don’t think any two people will ever completely agree when discussing poetry.  Down the years I have read many different views about poetry, as well as a great many poems.  I like to read anthologies the way others read novels.

My feeling is that all of the poems are definitely important as historical documents and, in the case of war poetry and WW1 poetry in particular, as a testament to the experiences of those who lived through the conflict(s).   I know there will be many who will criticise some of the poetry as not having a great literary value but I disagree.

 

6) Do you write war poetry yourself?         If so, what has been published. ?

For me, poetry is about feelings – my taste varies considerably – I like what I like, as with wine, music and paintings.  “One man’s meat”, etc., etc.

I have written both poetry and prose since I was seven years old and I have come in for a lot of criticism and ridicule down the years. I’ve destroyed all my work and started again. I have also had poems published in newspapers and magazines and I have had a collection of war poems published, as well as a volume with some of my poems and short stories.  The war poems were my way of coming to terms with the loss of family members in the two world wars.  Some of my poems have been set to music and performed in public, which is very special.

When it comes to writing poetry, George Bruce urged “just do it!” and that has become my motto.  I like to think our commemorative WW1 exhibitions encourage other people to write.

 

7) Do you think that you will start looking at World War 2 poetry, or from other wars besides World War 1?

When I first started this project I planned to research poets of other conflicts – not just the Second World War – but quite honestly there is such a huge volume of work still to do to find poets of the First World War, that I don’t now have any plans to start a project about the poetry or literature of other conflicts for the foreseeable future.  I am however, still very interested in war poetry written by other people such as “Home Front”, which is a collection of modern poems written by women in response to war. Poets featured include Bryony Doran, Jehanne Durbrow, Elyse Fenton and Isabel Palmer. 

And I am extremely grateful to all the people who send me poems and poets.

 

8) Has the World War 1 centenary assisted your work- if so, in what way?

The Centenary has certainly focused the attention of the general public on the era and it has facilitated a global exchange of information. It has brought together a large group of people with an interest in the history of the conflict.  I am now in touch with a network of people throughout the world who contact me regularly with information about poets, etc.

I have also been particularly fortunate in finding people who are interested in highlighting the involvement of women during the First World War, because they have been overlooked for so long.   There are now several Groups, such as Wenches in Trenches The Roses of No Man’s Land, who are working hard to gain recognition for the women who died or were killed while serving in WW1, both home and abroad, which is wonderful.

 

Herman Hesse – By Nobel Foundation – Public Domain                                                     thanks to Wiki Commons

 

9)             What are your favourite poets – both well-known and ‘forgotten’ ?

That’s a really difficult question Michael, because there are so many!  I take it you mean WW1 poets.  I love the well-known WW1 poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas and Vera Brittain, but, as you know, I have a great admiration for anyone who expresses their emotions through poetry. At secondary school our literature teacher advised us to “read widely” in order to find out what we like and I still do that.

Among others, I particularly like R.E. Vernède, who was killed on the same day as Edward Thomas (and, incidentally, my Great-Uncle) at Arras, Edmund Blunden, Laurence Binyon, Rudyard Kipling, Edmund Gosse, T.P. Cameron Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, Alan Seeger, Alfred Victor Ratcliffe, Nicholas Herbert Todd, Alfred Noyes, W.H. Davies, French poet Apollinaire, German poet Hermann Hesse (with translations by James Wright).  I really could go on and on… 

And, among the women poets, Ella Wheeler Wilcox, who, although not a young woman, travelled across the Atlantic during the time of unrestricted submarine warfare to entertain the American troops on the Western Front.  And I like Agatha Christie’s poems too. I was also surprised to find out that the poet Robert Graves had a sister who wrote lovely poetry – Rosaleen Graves. Rosaleen trained as a nurse during the First World War and she served in France from November 1917 until March 1919. 

Those are just a few of my favourite poets from the First World War era.

Thank you Michael for giving me the chance to talk about my favourite topic.

Lucy London, 1st June 2017

 

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