Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams calls them ‘finely crafted and vivid poems, formally well shaped, emotionally sharp and compassionate’ – and now ‘Heartlands’, a book of poetry from Jeni Braund, is on sale. She explains why she made the decision to donate all proceeds towards Anthony Nolan’s work:
Where did ‘Heartlands’ come from?
I have been writing poetry for as long as I can remember. Short stories, too, and a couple of unfinished novels.
The poetry probably stems from my visits to grandparents after the Second World War. Every summer, six weeks’ holiday in London, away from sleepy old Devon!
On my bedroom wall, there were framed copies of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’, and Minnie Louise Haskins’ ‘I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year’.
It was the poem King George VI read to a troubled nation at the outbreak of the war. Each summer, I learned them by heart. Both are still relevant in our still-troubled world.
The early scribbles vanished with various moves. Since my own battle with cancer in 2007, when chemotherapy stole my muse for a while, I began to search through notebooks that I’d kept for the last 50 years or so.
The result is HEARTLANDS.
The earliest poems in the book are adult memories of my own childhood in Westward Ho!, the only village to have an exclamation mark in its name. In the poem of that name, the ‘watcher’ is perhaps my adult self. I have a memory of being cut off by the incoming tide over the miles of rocks at Westward Ho!, and being quite unconcerned. It was after all my familiar element, and there was an insistent inner voice calling me to safety – what my Nan called my guardian angel.
The theme of a fledgling faith, ‘an awareness of something other’ pervades my poetry. As I was assembling the poems in book form, a pattern emerged. Early life, family fun, love and life, the spiritual search – throughout them all was awareness of life defined by loss and death.
Loss was an early part of life, as a war baby in a failed marriage – my Dad didn’t come home like others. Pets that died, grandparents that moved away, neighbours who died, and curtains drawn as the hearse pulled away. As a young student nurse, death became familiar. But there were also the miracles. The child saved, the sick healed.
The ‘death’ poems have been around all my working life and it seemed appropriate to gather them towards the end of the book. That way, readers can choose to read the lighter poems if they are uncomfortable with the deeper stuff.
For the rest, everything is part and parcel of life’s journey, drawn from those experiences that came my way, be they news items, family events, or friends’ experiences shared.
My children are the greatest gifts life has given me; it came naturally to celebrate their milestones. As thoughts came into consciousness, they often arrived in couplets and rhymes.
Some poems sat for months to await reworking, some for years – for instance, The Oak Tree and the Rose, which was started some 30 years ago. It finally saw the light of day when I found it recently. Some I abandoned as worthless, then shared with friends years later, only to be resurrected by their enthusiasm (Mystery).
I began to send the odd poem to local papers, church/village magazines, even national, and got paid for one or two! Retirement brought time and focus, a writing course and encouragement from tutors and friends.
The book was born after a lifetime’s gestation.
Why are you supporting Anthony Nolan with ‘Heartlands’?
Working with the dying was one of the great privileges of my life. It also gave me insight into the gift of hope.
My children all work in the caring professions in its widest sense; my daughter a social worker in America, my younger son a spinal physiotherapist, my eldest in the charity field since university. My son Mark worked in Mozambique with Save the Children, and with Shelter where he met Henny (now Anthony Nolan’s Chief Executive).
Since she had joined Anthony Nolan, that seemed the obvious choice – that and her obvious frustration about the huge donations the local donkey sanctuary attracts!
I have worked in the hospice setting, with premature babies and paediatrics, as well as many years with the elderly. Hope is what Anthony Nolan holds for those with blood cancers. I believe that people are intrinsically good, but people are growing up in a selfishly ‘me first’ world – this is particularly noticeable in western society.
Anthony Nolan’s Twitter and Facebook pages show a generosity of spirit in ordinary people who have heard about its work. So to utilise social media to spread the word to the vast online community seems a very positive step.
Henny explained one day about the desperate shortage of donors from the BAME community, and so I wrote the poem ‘Wanted’ as a kind of advert for heroes. (My first attempt missed the mark but Henny soon brought me up to speed with the correct terminology!) Then came the idea to publish the book for Anthony Nolan.
What do you hope to achieve with ‘Heartlands’?
The short answer is money and publicity for Anthony Nolan.
As I say in the book, I am an autobiographical poet; I think, I hope, I write simple poems that appeal to everyone, even those who have never read a poem. Mark has likened my fun poems to the marvellous Pam Ayres. Some of my nature and coastal poems are perhaps thoughts that other people have but don’t write down.
I hope that sometimes a reader will feel, ‘I have felt like that’, or ‘I know that place.’
For we share our humanity in spite of – or because of – our uniqueness.
A few years ago when I read one of the love poems, a lady came up to me in tears, saying how much it meant to her. She had a similar experience, kept it hidden, and the pain had coloured her life. Hearing it openly had freed something inside her.
News events that touched me deeply gave birth to ‘The News’ and ‘Death rides the Night Train’. I suppose it was a way of making sense of tragedy.
If ‘Heartlands’ brings a smile, a moment of hope, a moment to share, then it will have served its purpose. Each poem came as a gift, and gifts are for sharing.