Penning poetry from Pennsylvania (with a Welsh twang).

Zoe Brigley-Thompson speaks to Sophie Baggott of poetry-confessions, the phony(?) “American Dream”, and being built of books.

To put it mildly, Zoe adores words, and wow does she indulge this adoration well. Her passionate, intelligent poetry is so deep it renders the Pacific a mere puddle. In the words of Pascale Petit, “a fascinating study of women’s sexuality”, Zoe’s 2012 collection Conquest has elements of autobiography but (the poet hopes) not of revelation. While Zoe tends to avoid the baggage of writing about the personal, she says “‘My Last Rochester’ is what I would call an “honest” poem written out of an abusive relationship”. Distance via the third person keeps things a little more lightweight. Tinged with the influence of Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat, this poem opens Conquest’s first of three parts

Confessional poets like John Berryman have been likewise influential; for Zoe, his poem The Song of the Tortured Girl “seems to confess even though it is written out of Berryman’s context and gender”. The intertextuality of her writing is distinctive. Acknowledging that this can intimidate (“that feeling of hearing a joke in which one is not included”) she nevertheless sees it as “a joyful thing, a celebration of a wealth of stories”. Books were omnipresent in her upbringing, and she assents with enthusiasm when I ask whether the Rooseveltian “I am a part of everything that I have read” quotation tunes in with her. She adds that tracing the origins of stories and poems is a much-enjoyed pastime, giving another glimpse of that inquisitive mind twinkling in every response.

Zoe’s Creative Writing degree at Warwick was a fast-pace time for her poetic output; the sense of space and community was invaluable. Yet a writing degree alone won’t make you a writer”, Zoe admits, “what keeps me writing is a powerful need to produce – not for an audience, just for me – and a strong sense of what it is I want to say.” This is a woman with fiery vocal chords and serious skill in exercising them. Yet the words don’t always flow all at once; Zoe’s urge to write about her two miscarriages nagged at her until she had found a suitably “unsentimental and unflinching” slant by way of the infertility clinic’s strange atmosphere. She continues: “Finding such indirect routes makes your writing more powerful, because suddenly the poem is not simply your personal outpourings but something more universal, something that another human being can recognize and discover.”

One of Zoe’s favourites from the collection is ‘All of which are American Dreams’ (title pinched from the Rage Against the Machine song “Know Your Enemy”) about the intangibility and perhaps-hypocrisy of the so-called “American Dream”. The metaphor for the ‘American Dreams’ in her “both admiring and suspicious” poem came from the feathery seed pods blowing about on a rural American spring day. The conclusion? “what most Americans aspire to – whatever cultural group they come from, whether they are gay or straight – is love”. 

The adage that poetry-writing is not a profession, but a vocation, undoubtedly seems to ring true for this impassioned writer. Conquest really is a victory of verse, and the sense of recovery that emanates from the sequence by no means fades away overnight. This is a poet whose fiery voice echoes long after the book has resumed its shelf-space.