Let’s be honest, the car park of a derelict looking warehouse in the depths of Bermondsey, South London is the last place you’d expect to meet a poet. This is Britain after all. Our rich history of poets is lined with sprawling back gardens or country walks so green and lush they induce a rush of words to the head for the famous scribes in question. This is 2016 though, and thanks to 26-year-old Greta Bellamacina, poetry is taking on a new form.
You could say it’s never felt more radical. Especially as Greta, who looks like the lead singer of a band or like she could be in a Gucci ad, makes her way across the dampened car park to greet Semaine. Appearances aside, poetry is a river that runs deep for Bellamacina. She’s no overnight sensation writing poems for the sake of it. The Camden born creative has been writing since she was a teenager with success coming her way throughout her twenties.
In 2013, she was shortlisted as The Young Poet Laureate of London. Just last year she edited British Contemporary Love, a collection of romantic poems published by powerhouse Faber & Faber. Oh, and she’s also had two other collections of poetry published, Kaleidoscope and Nature’s Jewels.
She’s also known for breathing new life into poetry readings across London. This isn’t hard to imagine as she whisks us from the car park up into the warehouse in all of her it-girl glory. Seconds later and we are stood in the heart of her work and all that fashionable girl nonsense falls out of the window. We are in the studio she shares with long-term partner Robert Montgomery. There are various quotes and excerpts from their poems all over the walls and a bookshelf stacked with the work of influencers. There is depth here. Poets sharing a studio space? Like we said, this is 2016.
Bellamacina and Montgomery, who have recently had a son (their first child), are in the midst of launching New River Press, a publishing company dedicated to pushing the boundaries of what poetry means today particularly for a younger audience and as Bellamacina puts it herself: “We want to launch a place for poetry that doesn’t exist yet”.
A few more moments later, on the cosy sofa in the centre of their studio and Bellamacina is in full swing. “We were always really annoyed poets never get paid,” Bellamacina says bluntly with a coffee now firmly in her hand. “Out of every single art form, it just seems that there is a weird stigma between poetry and money. Even if you are with one of the best poetry publishers ,you still don’t always get a reward.”
Then there’s both Bellamacina’s and Montgomery’s need to go against the tradition of poetry by selecting individuals who aren’t afraid to bleed their minds on to the page. “We were looking for a certain amount of frankness,” she says of her portfolio of poets. “We have Zimon Drake. His poetry is a collection that he has written over 30 years. He’s the type of person that doesn’t do social media, doesn’t do all that stuff. He’s too much of a punk to self-promote himself. His stuff has obviously changed throughout the years but what he is saying is still similar. Overall, we want that authenticity”
With social media being mentioned, it would be silly not to touch on it. Will New River Press be a part of redefining how poetry is pushed through those channels? In the same way artists, filmmakers or new age chefs garner followings on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, will Bellamacina push to define what it means to be a poet today?
“I’m always really intrigued by people’s tolerance for words on social media,” she admits. “I went into this PR meeting the other day and was asked for ‘snackable poems’. I was like ‘if it works, i’ll do it’ but if it doesn’t resonate then I won’t. It’s so good to challenge that platform itself though. You just have to think outside the box. I was talking to someone and actually words are the most re-grammed thing on Instagram. I guess because they are so multifaceted and take on so many different meanings for different people.”
If one thing is clear, from both that answer and through spending time with Bellamacina, it’s that its more about the actual work and less about becoming an internet sensation. This young poet has made her name not through a number of online followers but through the progressive themes that run through her work: heartbreak, feminism and more recently motherhood. She’s now mother to four-month old son Lorca.
“I’ve written a lot about the process of being pregnant,” she says proudly. “I found it incredibly refreshing. You spend so much time projecting and this was the one time I felt almost meditative. I felt connected to another soul which belonged to me. I had such a strong reaction to being pregnant that I realised so many other poets I love had done that too, like Sexton and Plath. Loads of their poems are about being pregnant and it was odd that I’d never associated those poems with that until after I’d had a child.”
Poetry aside, Bellamacina is also making waves as a film maker. Last year, Soho Revue Gallery showcased her documentary about Ezra Pound’s 90-year-old daughter, Mary De Rachewiltz. Now though, she is in the midst of completing The Safe House: A Decline of Ideas a feature length documentary that focuses on the current decline of public libraries in Britain.
“I know its been going on for ages but now feels like a particularly tense time,” Bellamacina explains. “There’s loads of cuts across the arts. Libraries and universities are putting a lot of pressure on the next generations. So many people have been able to educate themselves through the libraries and its different now. I was really appalled by this. I was talking about this to Stephen Fry randomly and he was like ‘I love the libraries. I’d love to do a film together’.”
And so Stephen Fry does make an appearance in the documentary. As does Greta and partner in crime Robert’s trip back to Scotland to the first ever public subscription library of Britain. Like we said, there’s a depth when it comes to Bellamacina. A constant desire to explore the bigger picture of poetry. It’s not just reading from a scruffy notebook when it comes to her work. The New River Press company, the documentaries and the readings in a more contemporary settings. For her, it’s clearly about going as big and as large as possible.
And we all know that the best way to make an impact today is to say and do it like you really, really mean it.
By Alistair Mulhall for Semaine
thenewriverpress.com Special thanks to VIVA talent.