BookBrunch | Of Grief and Desire: Louis de Bernières on writing love poetry

of_love_and_desireA Valentine’s Day special for all you poetry buddies out there: a conversation about love poetry with the irrepressible Louis de Bernières, written up for BookBrunch. Read the full article for free right here:

Louis de Bernières’ house is exactly as you imagine a writer’s house ought to be. Cozy yet somewhat labyrinthine, half-open doors giving hints at rooms packed with curiosities beyond: a half-built guitar on a long dining table, the flick of a cat’s tail around a doorframe, stacks of musical instruments and books. One would expect the man who lives in this house to write love poetry, and de Bernières’ latest collection, Of Love and Desire, doesn’t disappoint.

First love: poetry
De Bernières has made his career in novels, notably Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (1994), which won the Commonwealth Writers Prize, and the more recent The Dust That Falls From Dreams (2015). In recent years, however, he has begun to publish poetry, which he has been writing since he was very young. The latest collection includes poems from his 20s right up to the present day, the earliest one being “On Giving a Silver Heart to a Cruel Lady”.

(Listen to Louis de Bernières read “On Giving a Silver Heart to a Cruel Lady”)

His love for poetry stems from childhood. “My father has always written poetry. My mother’s pet name for him was “poet” [he pronounces the nickname “pote”] and he occasionally read these out to us, so we had a poet in the family already. And I had a teacher at my second school who used to make us learn a poem every week. They were all from the Dragon Book of Verse. A lot of them were very ti-tum-ti-tum, and quite a few of them were heroic, like how Horatio kept the bridge. I think it gave me a window onto poetry and an eternal love for it.

“Poetry was what I was writing first, and when I was young, I thought I was going to be a poet, rather than anything else. When I first started getting going as a writer, I sent a collection of poetry to an agent and she said, ‘I don’t do poetry, I don’t get it, I don’t like it, there’s no money in it, send me prose!’, and I sort of got diverted to being a novelist.

“But I’m quite glad actually, because back then, I didn’t really have much technical grasp of how to write poetry – I didn’t know how to do metre for example – and also modernism had made writing poetry really difficult, because you no longer knew what was poetry and what was prose.” Nowadays, he rarely writes without metre, as it helps him spot instantly when a line is “lumpy”, though he admits that he is still not fond of rhymes at the ends of lines, and tends to bury them in the middle instead.

“One reason I got published so late as a poet is that I was frightened of asking my publishers in the first place, in case they didn’t like the stuff and were embarrassed by it but felt they had to do it even though they didn’t like it,” de Bernières explains. When he did finally show his publishers his work, they agreed straight away.

“I was really quite surprised. They must have thought the poems were good enough, I suppose, because I don’t think they would have done it otherwise. But I know that poets who’ve done it the hard way are probably going to be a bit resentful – the people who had to print their own pamphlets and go from one poetry festival to another living on 50p a week – and I don’t blame them! I’ve had it very easy compared to them. But I hope that doesn’t imply that the quality of what I do is any less.”

Though some of his readers may have been surprised at the turn towards poetry, for de Bernières it came quite naturally. “I always tell people it was the first thing I ever wanted to be and do, so for me it’s more like coming home than anything…” [READ MORE]

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