Example poetry

Bernice Burrows on Painting Word Pictures with Poetry

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HOW does poetry work? It is often a question of music and rhythm, that is to say sound. TS Eliot even suggested that you could understand a well-written poem in a language you didn’t speak because of the verbal impact.

Bernice Burrows (45), one of the aspiring poets and artists included in the new Words Out anthology published by Open Arts, is deaf. She says when we meet in an upper room at the Crescent Arts Center that her poems often begin with an image.

“I’m more of a photographer person, I have an image in my head,” she says. Adept at producing images of words, his appealing poem Starlings opens with his identification with a whisper seen one evening.

It begins: “At dusk and dawn/Starlings take flight/My heart beats faster/As I draw invisible wings/Imaginative participation in their flight…”

Burrows says this poem began when she spotted starlings and enjoyed seeing them fly under the Albert Bridge in Belfast.

She first grew up in North Belfast, but Bernice moved on. She now says: “I was welcomed to Glengormley in east Belfast and then moved to Killyleagh. I love being in town but I miss Killyleagh Castle.”

Writing has always been an interest. Burrows entered short story contests as a youth: “I won a few and remember writing about this little boy who lost his mother and then went to work on a farm.”

At age five, Burrows received her first hearing aid. She now remarks, “The only thing I can say is (it’s) forever lost, forever broken.”

Still, Burrows found a way out, thanks in part to other people’s books. Like many people who write, she also enjoys reading: “I love Margaret Atwood and when I was at a friend’s house he must have taken the book from my hand and said, ‘Let’s go to dinner’.”

Learning about his life, the correct adjective is probably “hectic”.

She was homeless, she started a postgraduate degree, and she also found love in a hotel bar.

Bernice reveals she met Andrii when she was looking for a table to sit in the hotel opposite her hostel: “I had gone with a friend after looking for a house and was wondering if he was deaf as he appeared to be signing. No, but we just clicked. And exchanged numbers…”

It turned out that Andrii was from Ukraine. Sadly, he fell ill and passed away peacefully last November “after a short and brave battle with cancer,” Burrows says.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Burrows says she didn’t focus on covering the war in her late husband’s homeland. “In a way, it’s good that he’s not here to watch all this. He loved his country and that’s not a good thing,” she says.

Burrows had written a poem about his feelings for Andrii which became something of a memorial in the anthology. “It was written before he died and it was quite cathartic afterwards. To have something printed for his memory and for other people to see. It’s there, it’s special. Something can be approached by writes that you can’t in a conversation.”

Burrows’ beautiful haiku about her husband, which she writes in my notebook, goes like this:

“Ukrainian man writing

Trying to learn our English

Slippage of the mother tongue.”

The feeling of affection and the difficulties of all immigrants in adapting to a new language and a new culture are there.

Launching the anthology earlier in the year was apparently “a lot of fun.” Burrows had taken a year off to spend time with her ailing husband and is now studying for a master’s degree at Queen’s. “I also wanted to establish myself as a writer,” she says.

She has a range of topics, from relationships (“e.g. about the friendship between two girls, one in a nice house with her family, one in social housing, and she likes the first girl’s brother.”) and even pets.

Burrows argues that you can raise awareness through poetry. “Writing about homelessness and disability may not be front and center, but it can get the message across.”

She took part in a weekly writing group at the Crescent Arts Centre: “During the lockdown, we had a few sessions with a few people participating at home on 52-inch TVs. I write my poems on paper first, then I switch to the laptop. And I discovered that I like haikus.”

In the mixture of creativity, there is loss, positivity and life. But writing was essential for Bernice Burrows: “When I was at the hostel, Open Arts and the writing classes kept me going.”

:: The Words Out anthology is available free of charge in Belfast at the Crescent Arts Center on University Road, the University of Atypical on Royal Avenue and the Linen Hall Library. Openartsni.org

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