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Interview: Zoe Brooks with Isabelle Kenyon

About Zoe Brooks:

Zoe Brooks worked with disadvantaged communities in London and East Oxford before returning to her native Gloucestershire to write and grow vegetables. Zoe has been widely published in print and online magazines and appeared in the anthology 'Grandchildren of Albion'. Her long poem 'Fool's Paradise' won the Electronic Publishing Industry Coalition award for best poetry ebook 2013.

About Owl Unbound (Indigo Dreams Publishing)

‘Owl Unbound’ examines nature and humanity in a wide range of settings; from a stag beetle on a suburban fence to fossils on a Somerset beach, from a Cotswold roofer “tiptoeing the thin laths” to a bag lady in Covent Garden “dancing at the amplifier's right hand”. Whilst there is tender joy and love in the collection, there is also anger and loss.

Congratulations on publishing ‘Owl Unbound’ with Indigo Dreams Publishing during a global pandemic! That can’t have been an easy time to celebrate the publication. How many months or years of your craft does this book represent?

Thank you. The collection has been years in the writing. A few of the poems in the collection date back to when I was teenager and had my first poems published. I very nearly didn’t put them in, but then I stood back and saw that they were good poems, despite my youth when I wrote them. Other poems are very recent.

There is a sense of dark humour in poems such as ‘The Gypsies in the Room’ which deals with dementia, and in poem ‘Before Thunder’, you say ‘I want wit less than justice/and wit enough to bear it’. Do you feel humour can help writers cover traumatic experiences for themselves and the reader in some way?

Yes, definitely. Humour can act both as a relief and as a means of addressing something distressing. Shakespeare knew that, as did Chekov, so did Charlie Chaplin. The Punch poem actually looks at this.

There is a sense of coming of age throughout the collection. In poem as ‘The Breaking of the Blood’ you recall the fairy-tale of Snow White and the contrast of colour, white representing purity, and red representing potentially danger and lust. Do you feel we need new oral stories for young children growing up?

I think we need to go back to the old fairytales. Sadly many children only know them from Disney films, where the fairytales have been so adapted, that they’ve lost the archetypal meanings of the originals. I grew up on the old fairytales, I loved them. Those tales are often dark, dealing with difficult issues. They are how our ancestors taught important lessons to their children. The stories can be gruesome – for example Cinderella’s sisters cut off their own toes to make the glass slipper fit and were given away by the blood. But children quite enjoy gruesome things, Roald Dahl knew this, and used the knowledge to good effect. That is not to say we shouldn’t be inventing new tales or indeed adapting old ones, but I do believe that it helps to go back to the roots. The oral tradition is so strong, because the stories have matured over centuries of retelling by anonymous storytellers.

One of my favourite line opens poem ‘The Lost Daughter’: ‘The female body is 55% water. The rest is dust’. Can you tell us about the inspiration for this poem?

On a holiday to Greece, when I was a teenager, I shared a bedroom with a woman who had a bad cough. The doctors had told her it was psychosomatic. The cough had started when her daughter disappeared. I knew her daughter, who was a member of a group of young poets I belonged to. It was totally out of character for her to disappear like that and it was awful listening to her mother coughing through the night. Years later her daughter was discovered buried in the cellar of the Gloucester house of mass murderer Fred West.

There is a sense of stewardship over the earth in your work – in ‘My Grandfather and Uncle’ you close: ‘Until this time/they have been living/on borrowed land’. Do you feel writing about the wonders of the earth and our small place within it, can help raise awareness about climate change?

Yes of course and it is our duty to write about nature and our relationship with it. With the pandemic I think a lot of people have rediscovered how important that relationship is. I come from a long line of farmworkers and gardeners. And I am never happier than when I am in nature or in the garden. I have taken up seedsaving (the subject of another poem in the book) -and it means so much to me. Not only does seedsaving mean that as gardeners we are part of the whole circle of growth, decay and renewal, but we are able to save plant varieties that are being lost at a horrendous rate and with them the genes which may allow us to develop crops that can cope with climate change.

I know you love to perform your poetry. If you could be invited to read anywhere in the world, at any event, where would it be and why?

Gosh, what a wonderful question and what a difficult one to answer. I administer the Poetry Events in UK and Ireland Facebook Group, so I know a lot of poetry events and their organisers. I think it would be Cork International Poetry Festival. Their programme this year was stunning and the Nature event with Sean Hewitt and Eamon Grennan was my favourite event this year so far.

If you had to describe the collection in one line, what would it be?

Owl Unbound is a book of love and loss, not only of lovers and family but also of language, the physical world, and humanity.

Finally, would you share a poem from the collection that you’re particularly proud of with us, and explain a little about why it is close to your heart?

It was very hard to choose just one poem. I have chosen this poem because so many of the themes that feature in my collection also feature in this poem. The poem is about memories of someone, the mother of a friend of mine, who is no longer with us. And yet it is not a sad poem. It sets her in the context of the landscape and nature of the Cotswold hills, which she loved – a love I share. It also sets us in the context of time – I collect fossils for her, one of which I place on a Neolithic burial tump. Her children all came to the launch of the collection and have told me how much this poem means to them.


I found you tiny stars

in the scree of a quarry scrape.

Broken fragments of echinoid stems

sat in my palm

no bigger than breakfast cereal.

Below us an ancient ring ditch

still sheltered the flock,

above us a hawthorn scratched

at clouds with arthritic hands.

The sky roared by

as you said you would make

a necklace of them,

and told me I had fossil eyes.

Years later, after your death,

I found a stone heart

in the shelter of the dip slope

and placed the fossil urchin

above the portal of the tump

where you had lain

on sheep-cropped grass

and said there was no better place.

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