What started you writing poems?
Well I started in my Jamaican village. In my home we belonged to the Church of England and my mother was in the choir at church and we read the bible a lot and we went to Sunday School and I became very early interested in bible stories and because I was the kind of child that liked to probe and think a lot, just as I would think about the sun, the moon, the stars, the water and so on, how mysterious they are - the ways of people have always fascinated me. Jamaican culture has folk tales which we tell each other at night, so all these tales, I think helped to bring out of me that desire to write poems.
Why do you enjoy writing poems?
Poems come from your more secret mind. A poem will want to ask deeper questions, higher questions, more puzzling questions and often too more satisfying questions than the everyday obvious questions than the story of your life would tell.
How long do you take to write a poem?
Oh, it takes as long as it takes. You could have a poem hanging around you weeks, months and sometimes you even put it aside because you can't get it right the way you would like it and the way you feel it ought to be. Then you pick it up one day and suddenly you just see and it's absolutely wonderful.
Where do you write your poems?
I have a place at home here where I sit down, but already I would have thought about it, I've made notes on it. I look at the subject and look at the way I would like to approach the subject, what I'm asking the subject to tell me. I was brought up on a typewriter and I can think much more easily without having to worry about the use of the machine, so I get into the habit of sticking to that, after I've made notes by longhand in my notebook.
Can you read me one of your poems?
I wrote this poem because I want to look at the individual - what makes that individual one special person. I was looking at myself I think and I call the poem 'One'.
Only one of me
and nobody can get a second one
from a photocopy machine.
Nobody has the fingerprints I have.
Nobody can cry my tears, or laugh my laugh
or have my expectancy when I wait.
But anybody can mimic my dance with my dog.
Anybody can howl how I sing out of tune.
And mirrors can show me multiplied
many times, say, dressed up in red
or dressed up in grey.
Nobody can get into my clothes for me
or feel my fall for me, or do my running.
Nobody hears my music for me, either.
I am just this one.
Nobody else makes the words
I shape with sound, when I talk.
But anybody can act how I stutter in a rage.
Anybody can copy echoes I make.
And mirrors can show me multiplied
many times, say, dressed up in green
or dressed up in blue.
from Only One of Me (Macmillan, 2004), copyright © James Berry 2004, used by permission of the author and the publisher.
Why do you use unusual sounding words in some poems?
I use the Caribbean Creole language, which is the local language because it has a special kind of feeling for me and I want to express the experience of childhood using the language that was most used and spoken around me and in my own home. It is called the Caribbean Creole language because it is so close to English and it uses a mixture of West African language and Standard English so it is what we have moulded together as Caribbean and Jamaican Creole. So here is 'Bush Accident Message' which comes from my book Playing a Dazzler.
Bush Accident Message
Mummah Mummah and Buddy and Sis Dear-Dear break her leg her clean clean
young-girl leg up at Highrock Pass
After she didn get far
her load go fall on her
O she drop down biff; pop her leg like a stick
Like a somtn a load-up donkey mash
and flesh and bone pop-up with the mash
Dear-Dear break her leg Lord her clean clean young-girl leg
And they bringin her droopy O bringin her droopy on Mister Mack donkey
from Playing a Dazzler (Hamish Hamilton, 1996) copyright © James Berry 1996, used by permission of the author and the publisher.