British poet, filmmaker, and model Greta Bellamacina stays busy. She has just premiered a new film, The Safe House (coming to the US in january 2017), in which she fights back against the rapid closures of British libraries, a cause near and dear to her. She has also just launched the New River Press with her boyfriend, artist Robert Montgomery. Greta's third collection of poetry, Perishing Tame, will be released by the press on June 16, and the couple has collaborated on "the first attempt by an English poet and a Scottish poet to make poems together by writing on the same laptop, into the same word document, over a period of months in a year during which their countries almost separated." Not to mention the couple is raising a baby, Lorca, who is perched on Greta’s lap during our Skype interview.
I caught up with Greta about her film, and Robert joined us for a conversation about the New River Press and challenging the landscape of contemporary poetry.
Tell us about conceptualizing your film on the closures of British libraries.
Greta: I have always used libraries throughout my life as a place to kind of escape… I always felt really calm and like it was a sacred space that belonged to no one and gave everyone something. A temple of learning, almost. But with the government cuts, so many libraries in England have been closed down. I think it’s really depressing, because it just changes communities. So many are closed down to become really unaffordable luxury flats or private gyms. It’s such a tragic thing… It’s becoming one of those things where it’s harder to get to a library, you probably have to take a bus, and it’s becoming out of reach.
It was just a matter of talking to so many different people, so many different artists who didn't think they would be there today if they didn't have that lifeline. And people have fought so hard for it for so many different generations. Like the first public library in Britain was one built in Scotland by miners in 1841, built by the working class, who didn't have any money. But between all of them, they built this one library. I think that's such an important symbol when realizing why we need libraries: they weren't just built by rich benefactors, they were made through the struggle of the working class. We ended up going to Scotland to visit that library, and it was so incredible to see.
How has raising a child affected your poetry practice?
Greta: You just end up waking up every day at like 7 o’clock, and by the time 10 o’clock rolls around, I’ve gotten so much done. People are always like, “it must be so hard, how do you cope?” But actually it’s made me feel so much more inspired and just connected to other women. Before I always felt like I was almost a fraud, trying to write about full emotions… I feel I’ve reached a whole new depth of emotions now, which I was quite shocked about.
Your relationship seems to be united in a shared love of poetry and fighting for its place in the arts. How did you decide to start your own small press together?
Robert: We realized that no one had started a poetry press in London for like a hundred years. And we were researching this press that Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard Woolf started, called Hogarth Press, started in their backyard in Sussex, and I thought, why don’t we do that; why can’t we do that? And we did it… I also wanted to do it because I thought Greta is an amazing poet of her generation. She’s 26, she’s kind of like a Sylvia Plath of her generation, and there’s other young poets her age who are publishing online but who don’t have books out yet, and so that was our starting point.
Greta: And also what we found is that we know so many incredible poets who aren’t being published or who aren’t making any money at poetry. It’s really hard as a young poet to find out where to go, and lots of publishers don’t take that leap of faith to publish a new, fresh voice. We really wanted to publish poetry that is the language of its generation, rather than something more retrospective, instead of looking backward, we want to look forward, and have the language of our time being documented.
You two have collaborated on poems, and your press is encouraging collaboration poetry. How did this come about?
Robert: We want the press to question what poetry is, in a sense. There are almost no examples of collaboration poetry by British poets, which we found really weird, because when you think of how something like music relies so much on collaboration. So why doesn’t that happen in poetry? When we met, we almost immediately started working on a collaborative book...and we’re encouraging other poets to collaborate on books, and researching the history of collaborative poetry.
Greta: For us it was really easy; it was like therapy. It was a really good learning process: when you’re working with someone else, you’re forced to think more objectively, from another point of view. And you become more aware of what you do as a writer, the patterns you fall into… you also become more aware of what you’re invested in, what you’re willing to fight for if he doesn’t agree. Between the two of you, you always end up getting the best bit.
Robert: When we read the poems back, we can sometimes tell whose line is whose, but sometimes, we’re kind of unsure, and the voices merge.. It actually has its own voice that’s not just a blend of our voices.
Greta and Robert’s collaborative collection is available at The New River Press.
See Flaunt's prior coverage of Robert Montgomery here.